Whenever I hear the words “broken family,” I get a little pain in my chest. My parents split up when my sister and I were pretty young, and for a long time after, I felt fractured. But the truth is, for all the tough stuff that divorce knitted into the fabric of our family, I’m grateful for the life lessons it left me with, among them the fact that it’s not the worst thing that can happen to you while you’re growing up. Sometimes, there’s even a silver lining—or in my case, 10 of them. Here’s how my parents’ divorce helped me grow, and why I wouldn’t go back and change a thing.
1. Divorce made me a better communicator. Listening to my parents struggle to express themselves was tough. But it also made me realize—yep, even at 13—how important it is to feel heard, whether you’re talking about friends, romantic partners, or family members. Luckily, my folks knew that they didn’t want me to be limited or constricted in emotional conversations in the same way they were with one another, so I spent many an afternoon camped out with a therapist, learning how to talk about and constructively express my feelings (i.e. explaining how I felt without blowing up, getting defensive, or breaking down). It’s a skill that has helped me out with friends, boyfriends, and colleagues, time and time again, and I’m grateful to have developed that communication tool kit sooner than later in life.
2. Divorce made me fearless about starting fresh. After the split, my dad moved out and my mom, sister, and I remained in our family house for about a year before admitting that it was just too sad to stick around: Every corner held a memory. When my mom told us we were moving, my sister and I were both resistant up until the moment the last box was packed. But once we settled into the new place, a sweet little white two-story across town—where we painted rooms with sunny, feminine colors, and added warm cozy touches and fresh flower bos—a huge emotional weight lifted (not just for us, but for my dad too, who was pained by picking us up and dropping us off at the old house). I learned that new and different can be a wonderful thing. And a few years later I had the courage to pack up and leave for Chicago, Los Angeles, and then New York, all on my own—and without any fear.
3. Divorce gave me the power to walk away from relationships that aren’t working.Sometimes, love just isn’t enough. You can desperately want to make things work with someone who isn’t right for you, but struggling against it isn’t just energy-depleting: It’s futile. Watching my parents admit that, despite the fact that they loved one another, they were always going to be off-kilter in their relationship—and seeing them own up to their unhappiness as a couple—was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. But it also gave me the strength to understand that, in my own relationships, when something fundamentally isn’t working, it’s actually OK to walk away. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means that even after trying everything, you know your limitations, and that you need to take your own happiness into account.
4. Divorce allowed me to see my mom and dad as people, not just parents. None of this is to say that my parents handled everything the right way—they definitely didn’t (and would be the first to admit it). But looking back, one thing I appreciate about the split is that I got a firsthand look at who my parents are beyond just mom and dad. They talked to me honestly about tough things, and I came to understand that they didn’t have all the answers—which ultimately let me in on the little secret that nobody does. We’re all just figuring it out. There is no handbook for adulthood, but the closest thing to it is good intentions, past experiences, and awareness of what’s going on around you. Everyone—everyone—is flawed, and that includes your folks. Knowing that taught me to forgive those flaws (and see my own!) while recognizing that we can’t expect anyone to be perfect, but we can love them anyway.
5. Divorce brought me closer to my sister. Siblings are the people who hold the history of your childhood, and often understand you better than anyone else. After my folks split up, the only thing that felt normal was my relationship with my sister: She was the constant in an equation where all other factors were in flux. She’s my gut check when I’m overreacting to something on the relationship front that stems from our parents’ breakup, and the only person who “gets it” sometimes. I’m sure we would have found other reasons to feel this way about one another if they had stayed together, but that experience seriously sealed our bond because sometimes while my mom and dad were working through their own grief, we only had each other. In the end, that turned out to be a good thing: She’s my best friend, and I wouldn’t trade our connection for anything.
6. Divorce helped me get comfortable with gray area. Divorce comes with a lot of heightened emotions and opposing points of view: the old “he said/she said” string of narratives that leave you wondering who is telling the truth and who is bending it to make themselves look better (or someone else look worse). I remember feeling, for years, like I needed to know who was right, who was more culpable, which one of my parents deserved more blame for disrupting what (at the time had seemed like) an idyllic family vignette. But at some point, I realized that there is no black and white answer when feelings are involved, and that nailing down “the truth” is less important than acknowledging that something is painful and complicated, and the best thing to do next is move forward.
7. Divorce gave me insight into what healthy relationships really look like. I only vaguely remember a time when my parents had a “good” relationship. There are snippets that play like a slideshow in my mind, if I think about it enough, but for the most part what I remember from being a kid was listening to them argue in the kitchen, long after I went to bed and my sister tiptoed into my room. It was fundamentally weird after they both started dating again, but it also gave me insight into something a lot of young people don’t get to see: how to find the right partner. Eventually, my mom and dad ended up with people who provide them with the balance they never could give one another (and who they, and I, love very, very much). Seeing my parents in the context of the people they have chosen has shown me how your partner really can bring out the best or the worst in you. It’s so tremendously important to find someone who lights up your good qualities instead of your dark and stormy ones, and now I’ve seen both sides of the coin.
8. Divorce taught me to (try to!) accept things I can’t change. Are there still times that I wish my parents were together? Totally, completely, absolutely (though mostly for convenience’s sake—I hate splitting my time between two places during the holidays!). But that is never going to happen. And I haven’t just gotten used to it; I’ve come to accept it. Knowing that it’s just the way things are frees up so much emotional space in my life, and allows me to appreciate having two whole families instead of a single precarious one.
9. Divorce showed me how to comfort someone—and that sometimes, it means just staying quiet. There was a Sunday afternoon one fall when my dad was dropping us off at the end of the driveway after a weekend together. He started to cry in the middle of hugging me goodbye. I was surprised, but something kicked in and I just did what my dad had done for me a million times since I stubbed my first toe: snuggled in close, let him be sad, and patted him on the back until the wave passed. It’s hard to watch someone you love break down, and harder still not to know how to help them through it. But I learned that day that when in doubt, be quiet and just be there. It really does help. Sometimes more than anything else ever could.
10. Divorce expanded my definition of family. I was lucky to have lots of close friends when I was a kid—but because we were young, they didn’t always know how to talk to me about what I was going through (especially the ones with totally intact families). Somehow, though, their parents turned into awesomely amazing resources. My childhood best friend’s mom would get up with me in the morning while her daughter slept in and chat with me over cocoa and coffee; my aunts never missed a swim meet or a play I was performing in (even when I was somewhere in the back of the chorus); and my parent’s close friends, who were around a lot helping them get through things, practically became surrogates.
Today, when I go home, my family is much larger than the two people who brought me into this world: It includes their new spouses, their friends, their siblings, and the people who may not be blood-related but lent a hand to raise me like I was one of their own. And while that definitely arose out of necessity, I’m forever grateful to have such a wide, albeit unconventional, family circle. In the end, it made my heart that much bigger.