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home : Graduation : The Big Day :

Divorced Parents and Graduation

Diplomacy and diplomas -- maybe it's not what you thought graduation would be all about but it's a good idea to make sure that you nurture the former while you receive the latter.


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Ahhh, graduation . . . a time to celebrate success and hope for the future with family and friends. The chance to be the center of attention, to be lavished with gifts and words of praise and encouragement. At least in theory.

Unfortunately, the reality is that, like other momentous life events, graduation brings with it a potential for disaster. Like weddings, anniversaries, and family reunions, this time of joy can easily turn sour when human relationships are tested. Relatives and acquaintances with conflicting personalities are expected to put aside their differences out of respect for the celebration, but they don't always do so.

The greatest source of potential discord with regard to my own college graduation lay in the relationship between my divorced parents. Although they had been apart for almost ten years, the separation had not cooled their anger even minimally and their encounters to date had typically resulted in anger and accusations. To say my parents disliked each other would be an understatement, but they both loved me and wanted to be present for my graduation. Since I went to school over 1,000 miles away from home, both had to fly out with their spouses and wanted to spend as much of their two-day stay with me as possible. It would not be feasible, therefore, to keep them apart the entire time. Naturally, I was concerned. I didn't want my graduation weekend to become a battleground for my parents' ongoing conflicts. I wanted to have fun without needing to worry about choosing sides in arguments or hurting feelings.

Unfortunately, this situation confronts many students of our generation. Divorce is so commonplace that we find ourselves surprised upon hearing that a friend's parents are still married. While some couples split amicably, many do not, and we find ourselves unsure of how to deal with situations in which we fear our parents may behave more like children. With some planning, however, it is possible increase the likelihood of a peaceful celebration for all parties involved. Following are some recommendations that can make graduation weekend with divorced parents more pleasant than painful.

  • First of all, speak with each of your parents well before the big day arrives. Express your concerns and explain that you want to ensure that both you and they have a good time. Although it may seem obvious to you, mom and dad may not even realize the extent to which their rivalry can create stress. Letting them know beforehand that you hope they can be on their best behavior may inspire them to think before they speak or act in a negative manner.
  • Second, include other family members and friends in the celebration if possible. It is less likely that your parents will start verbal fistfights if they are in the presence of others, especially if they do not know them well. Including two of my friends and a little sister in the mix actually made my formal dinner with both sets of parents quite relaxing and enjoyable.
  • Try to set aside some time to spend alone with each parent (or parent and spouse). This way you can give each other some personal attention without feeling uncomfortable or guilty for ignoring others. If you are expecting gifts from your family, this might be a comfortable atmosphere for them to be bestowed, possibly eliminating a sense of competition between parents. This is also a good time for you to express your thanks to each parent for the help and support they have provided you.
  • Finally, realize before events begin that you will not be able to control your parents' behavior while they are together. The best you can do is let them know how important it is to you that they declare a truce for a few hours or days. If they do end up fighting, refuse to take sides and leave the situation for a few minutes if possible. With any luck, they will realize the unfairness of their actions toward you and stop. Remind yourself (as we children of divorced parents have to do again and again) that your parents' problems are not your problems and that their conflicts are not your fault. If there is no chance your parents will be able to get along or if there is a potential for physical fights, it might be best to celebrate with each one separately.

Do not forget that your parents' desire to be present at your graduation indicates their pride in you and your success. You should share and appreciate this moment with them. With patience and sensitivity on your end and theirs, the celebration will likely be enjoyed by one and all.

Even though Nicole Williams majored in Spanish and not in international relations, she successfully mediated her parents' encounters during graduation weekend.

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