Marital Strife: Being a Child and Wondering if My Parents Should Get Divorced

At 10 years old, I wanted my parents to get a divorce. Perhaps I was selfish. Perhaps I didn’t fully understand what I was saying, but it doesn’t change the way I felt. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 39.8% of marriages were falling apart and ending in divorce or annulment that year in 2006, and I wanted my parents to be part of that percentage. Twelve years later—now at 22—sometimes I still do.

It wasn’t like I had a terrible childhood. My parents loved me, I loved them, and I had a good education with lots of friends. That should have been enough, yet it wasn’t. Throughout my childhood, there had been nights—always late at night—when I would be lying in bed with tears streaming down my face and my eyes squeezed shut as I tried to ignore the shouts coming from my parents’ room.

“Just shut up,” my father had yelled one night in Vietnamese. “Be quiet!” The door of the master bedroom had slammed shut, the bang echoing across the hall and throughout the house as he stomped down the stairs and into the kitchen. With my Winnie the Pooh blanket wrapped tightly around me, I could hear him cursing as he shoved things around, switching back-and-forth between Vietnamese and English.

My mother soon followed, her footsteps faint compared to his as she made her way down. “Please calm down,” she said when she reached the kitchen. Her voice, like her footsteps, was barely audible, yet nothing could diminish the cry and plea in her voice.

An eerie silence followed. The only thing I could hear was the ticking of the clock just outside my door and the pounding in my chest.

Minutes seemed to pass before I heard the murmurs of their voices inching their way through the crack of my door. Slowly, I let out a shaky breath I didn’t even know I was holding. My hands released the pink throw pillow I had been clutching as I quietly got out of bed and tiptoed to my door. Holding my breath, I widened the gap, slipping out as slyly as I could before making my way to the stairs. Hidden behind a wall, I listened as the murmurs grew once more.

They were speaking in Vietnamese, and every so often I’d hear bits and pieces that I could understand: money, relatives, work. Their arguments always revolved around the same topics, and each time, they’d cut just a bit deeper. They never knew that I understood them. Not until much later. Despite growing up speaking Chinese and English, I had picked up Vietnamese by the time I had turned six, having listened to them speak the language to relatives and one another my whole life. It had been my little secret, a gift that slowly became a curse as they began having arguments more frequently.

Although, even without this language barrier, it is funny how adults always seem to assume that children do not understand as much as they do. I have watched as parents openly discuss things regarding their children right in front of them, assuming that they wouldn’t understand even when they did. And I have been that child, watching her parents as they argued just across the room, albeit quietly. But it didn’t matter.

I understood everything, and that hurt the most. For the longest time, I thought, yeah, ignorance is bliss.

I wanted to be ignorant of the issues that surrounded me. I wanted to just ignore the fact that the life I had always known was falling apart. There have been so many time over the years when I just wanted to turn my back and walk away from all my problems, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t remain naive and ignorant no matter how blissful ignorance is. After all, that was my father’s job, and I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be anything like him.

My father, a Chinese Vietnamese man, was a man of tradition. He believed that men should be the head of the household, the one with the power. And with my mother being the primary breadwinner as an engineer, her career always seemed to come in the way of their marriage—a reminder that he wasn’t good enough, at least according to him. Every issue always seemed to revolve around him and his pride. Nothing was ever good enough for him—not my mother, not his life, and not me—yet with every issue that came his way, he ignored them. Seeing the damage left in his wake, I never want to do the same.

It was the reason why I continued to stay each and every time behind that wall, listening to them as they argued with my eyes squeezed shut as if this action would block their shouts. That night, my mom left as she always did when their fights got bad. She always left to cool off, taking the car for a ride to do so. Each time she did, I always watched from my bedroom window as she backed out of the garage—the vibrations of the garage door opening running through my feet—and drove away until I couldn’t see the car any longer.

Whether it was midnight or two in the morning, I always stayed up waiting for her, unable to sleep otherwise. 

I feared that one day she wouldn’t come back, that it would just be my dad, my little brother, who was ignorant to all of this, and me left. I knew she would never leave us having forgone a divorce because of my brother and me—she didn’t want us to have a broken family—but the feeling never went away. It was a paranoia that I became used to.

Looking back, I can certainly say that the paranoia, the fear, and their relationship have all affected how I approached life, especially as a teenager. I didn’t let anyone get too close to me, and I didn’t let myself get too close to others, not trusting them or myself. I had built a wall so high that it took years for me to finally break it down.

Would things have been different had my parents gotten a divorce? Maybe and maybe not.

However, as a ten-year-old and throughout my teenage years, I just knew that I wanted them to get a divorce. My mother knew. I was never one to hide my thoughts. But she always had a reason why she didn’t get one despite almost getting one in the past. They ranged from not giving up on things to ensuring that our family wasn’t broken, that we were a “happy” family. Even after all these years, her reason remains the same: it’s for the sake of us kids. And it would seem that this is a very common reason many couples actually stay together.

However, while there are indeed researched negative psychological and social effects of divorce on children, there is also evidence that divorce doesn’t harm children as some would suggest. While I can’t speak for other children, in my circumstance, with the many fights and my mother’s emotional pain, my parents staying together simply wasn’t worth it.

I was sick of all the fighting, and I was sick of being afraid to become like them, especially my father.

Maybe it was selfish of me to feel that way, but it was simply the reality of how I felt. Even now, despite the significant decrease in arguments between them, the feeling sometimes lingers. It’s not like I absolutely want them to get a divorce, especially after all these years, but sometimes I just wonder if maybe it would be better if they did. Maybe we would all be happier in the long-run, less resentful of one another. I guess I’ll never know.

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As a senior at UC Davis pursuing a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior and a Professional Writing minor, I am also a peer advisor and a program coordinator for our Health Professions Advising Center. Through my roles, I meet and work with many students and organizations through advising, putting on workshops and special events, such as the UCD Pre-Health Conference, and creating material for students to use. I love working with people, along with reading, writing, and trying new things.

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Marital Strife: Being a Child and Wondering if My Parents Should Get Divorced

At 10 years old, I wanted my parents to get a divorce. Perhaps I was selfish. Perhaps I didn’t fully understand what I was saying, but it doesn’t change the way I felt. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 39.8% of marriages were falling apart and ending in divorce or annulment that year in 2006, and I wanted my parents to be part of that percentage. Twelve years later—now at 22—sometimes I still do.

It wasn’t like I had a terrible childhood. My parents loved me, I loved them, and I had a good education with lots of friends. That should have been enough, yet it wasn’t. Throughout my childhood, there had been nights—always late at night—when I would be lying in bed with tears streaming down my face and my eyes squeezed shut as I tried to ignore the shouts coming from my parents’ room.

“Just shut up,” my father had yelled one night in Vietnamese. “Be quiet!” The door of the master bedroom had slammed shut, the bang echoing across the hall and throughout the house as he stomped down the stairs and into the kitchen. With my Winnie the Pooh blanket wrapped tightly around me, I could hear him cursing as he shoved things around, switching back-and-forth between Vietnamese and English.

My mother soon followed, her footsteps faint compared to his as she made her way down. “Please calm down,” she said when she reached the kitchen. Her voice, like her footsteps, was barely audible, yet nothing could diminish the cry and plea in her voice.

An eerie silence followed. The only thing I could hear was the ticking of the clock just outside my door and the pounding in my chest.

Minutes seemed to pass before I heard the murmurs of their voices inching their way through the crack of my door. Slowly, I let out a shaky breath I didn’t even know I was holding. My hands released the pink throw pillow I had been clutching as I quietly got out of bed and tiptoed to my door. Holding my breath, I widened the gap, slipping out as slyly as I could before making my way to the stairs. Hidden behind a wall, I listened as the murmurs grew once more.

They were speaking in Vietnamese, and every so often I’d hear bits and pieces that I could understand: money, relatives, work. Their arguments always revolved around the same topics, and each time, they’d cut just a bit deeper. They never knew that I understood them. Not until much later. Despite growing up speaking Chinese and English, I had picked up Vietnamese by the time I had turned six, having listened to them speak the language to relatives and one another my whole life. It had been my little secret, a gift that slowly became a curse as they began having arguments more frequently.

Although, even without this language barrier, it is funny how adults always seem to assume that children do not understand as much as they do. I have watched as parents openly discuss things regarding their children right in front of them, assuming that they wouldn’t understand even when they did. And I have been that child, watching her parents as they argued just across the room, albeit quietly. But it didn’t matter.

I understood everything, and that hurt the most. For the longest time, I thought, yeah, ignorance is bliss.

I wanted to be ignorant of the issues that surrounded me. I wanted to just ignore the fact that the life I had always known was falling apart. There have been so many time over the years when I just wanted to turn my back and walk away from all my problems, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t remain naive and ignorant no matter how blissful ignorance is. After all, that was my father’s job, and I didn’t, and still don’t, want to be anything like him.

My father, a Chinese Vietnamese man, was a man of tradition. He believed that men should be the head of the household, the one with the power. And with my mother being the primary breadwinner as an engineer, her career always seemed to come in the way of their marriage—a reminder that he wasn’t good enough, at least according to him. Every issue always seemed to revolve around him and his pride. Nothing was ever good enough for him—not my mother, not his life, and not me—yet with every issue that came his way, he ignored them. Seeing the damage left in his wake, I never want to do the same.

It was the reason why I continued to stay each and every time behind that wall, listening to them as they argued with my eyes squeezed shut as if this action would block their shouts. That night, my mom left as she always did when their fights got bad. She always left to cool off, taking the car for a ride to do so. Each time she did, I always watched from my bedroom window as she backed out of the garage—the vibrations of the garage door opening running through my feet—and drove away until I couldn’t see the car any longer.

Whether it was midnight or two in the morning, I always stayed up waiting for her, unable to sleep otherwise. 

I feared that one day she wouldn’t come back, that it would just be my dad, my little brother, who was ignorant to all of this, and me left. I knew she would never leave us having forgone a divorce because of my brother and me—she didn’t want us to have a broken family—but the feeling never went away. It was a paranoia that I became used to.

Looking back, I can certainly say that the paranoia, the fear, and their relationship have all affected how I approached life, especially as a teenager. I didn’t let anyone get too close to me, and I didn’t let myself get too close to others, not trusting them or myself. I had built a wall so high that it took years for me to finally break it down.

Would things have been different had my parents gotten a divorce? Maybe and maybe not.

However, as a ten-year-old and throughout my teenage years, I just knew that I wanted them to get a divorce. My mother knew. I was never one to hide my thoughts. But she always had a reason why she didn’t get one despite almost getting one in the past. They ranged from not giving up on things to ensuring that our family wasn’t broken, that we were a “happy” family. Even after all these years, her reason remains the same: it’s for the sake of us kids. And it would seem that this is a very common reason many couples actually stay together.

However, while there are indeed researched negative psychological and social effects of divorce on children, there is also evidence that divorce doesn’t harm children as some would suggest. While I can’t speak for other children, in my circumstance, with the many fights and my mother’s emotional pain, my parents staying together simply wasn’t worth it.

I was sick of all the fighting, and I was sick of being afraid to become like them, especially my father.

Maybe it was selfish of me to feel that way, but it was simply the reality of how I felt. Even now, despite the significant decrease in arguments between them, the feeling sometimes lingers. It’s not like I absolutely want them to get a divorce, especially after all these years, but sometimes I just wonder if maybe it would be better if they did. Maybe we would all be happier in the long-run, less resentful of one another. I guess I’ll never know.

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