Hard Blow: Grown-ups of divorce

29 August 2011 - 02:22 By Chivimbiso Gava
Tennis player Rafael Nadal has written a book about his life, including the divorce of his parents Picture: CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GALLO IMAGES
Tennis player Rafael Nadal has written a book about his life, including the divorce of his parents Picture: CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GALLO IMAGES

In our darkest and loneliest moments, our families are what should keep us going. When they are out of reach, memory takes us back to the beautiful moments we have shared. In that instant, life proceeds. Our families are our places of safety.

So divorce can have a crippling effect on family dynamics. We often hear how young children are affected by divorce, but seldom about the experience of the adult child.

In his new book, Rafa: My Story, tennis champion Rafael Nadal discusses how his parents' divorce affected him.

In the book, Nadal recalls his father telling him on their journey back from the 2009 Australian Open that there were problems at home. Nadal says he immediately knew his parents would part ways.

"My parents were the pillar of my life and that pillar had crumbled," he writes.

"The continuity I so valued in my life had been cut in half, and the emotional order I depend on had been dealt a shocking blow. Our family was close and united, there had been no conflict visible, [and] all we had ever seen was harmony and good cheer."

In any divorce children, young or old, experience a flood of emotions.

Counselling psychologist Margaret Ann Becker says: "There isn't a lot of research on the subject because people assume just because they [children of a divorced couple] are adults, they are better equipped to deal with it.

"Sometimes it is the symbolic meaning of the divorce that affects them, not necessarily the fact."

As Nadal recounts: "My family had always been the holy, untouchable core of my life. Suddenly, and utterly without warning, the happy family portrait had cracked."

Becker says adults experience a variety of emotions when they are told their parents are to separate, from feeling relief, if their parents were unhappy, to shock and disbelief.

Mother of one Refiloe Chakela's parents divorced five years after she had left home. The last-born of three children, Chakela recalls her reaction as being void of shock.

But she admits: "I felt a lot of conflicting emotions, it was relief juxtaposed with a sense of loss.

"My parents were good with us while we grew up; their focus was really on us. They didn't do stuff together. It's like they lived parallel lives and would just meet at home.

"I was relieved for my mom and more worried for my dad because I know he doesn't like to be alone. I could see from when I was young that there was something wrong, so it was a relief."

Relationships are complex and adult children are often unaware of the intricacies of their parents' relationships, says Becker.

"I have couples who come to see me who have been married for more than 20 years, and one of them has been unhappy during that time," says Becker.

"Often the other partner is unaware their spouse felt that way. It is often the men who [have] just hung around until the kids were old enough because they didn't want conflict."

Chakela recalls that, although she felt relief when her parents decided to divorce, she was also plagued by other emotions.

"It was craziness. On an emotional level I had to reason with myself. It was a loss. Something definitely died there. Death isn't necessarily a bad thing; sometimes we exaggerate our sense of loss," she says.

"I was also worried; it felt like a heavy blow. There was also anger when they started new relationships, but I had to acknowledge what was going on and that they had their own lives to live."

Becker says although there are patterns to how men and women deal with their parents' divorces, it also varies from individual to individual.

"They experience a variety of emotions, from fear to depression. The reaction also has to do with how dependent the adult child is on their parents.

"Sometimes, especially if they are young adults, this can make them uncertain about their own marriages."

When Chakela's parents got divorced, she was not married but in a stable relationship. Her partner helped her cope with her loss.

"I had my boyfriend, [now her husband], so I immersed myself in my relationship."

Becker says: "The life stage of the adult child also comes into play because if they have their own family, they might be less involved in the divorce of their parents."

Chakela's perception of marriage did not change after her parents' divorce. She says she still has a good relationship with her siblings and both parents.

"It's important to have inner peace before you try to solve other people's problems," she says.

  • 'Rafa: My Story' by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin is published by Penguin Books. It is available in paperback for R230 or hard cover for R300