Almost on a whim, but primarily because a close friend of mine had revealed her still-unfolding struggles with the long-ago divorce of her parents, I started asking adult children of divorce about their experiences. I eventually wrote up a brief questionnaire, appealing on social media for volunteers.
The answers I received in a virtual avalanche of pain were a complete shock to me, as the child of an intact marriage. In compiling the responses of 70 contributors for my book, Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak, I learned that not only does the pain of divorce continue into adulthood, but the suffering is not lessened even if the child experienced a “good divorce.”
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The following excerpts from my book were written by contributors who were not from abusive homes, nor did they get dragged through an “ugly divorce.” They lived under custody arrangements that kept them in contact with both their mother and father throughout childhood.
As children, many contributors were shocked and confused by the disintegration of their families, and they experienced the continuing fallout through the years. A 50-year-old wife and mother whose parents shared custody and got along well after their divorce told me:
I was devastated as a child when my dad drove away, and I will never forget standing in our front yard literally screaming, ‘Come back!’ I didn’t understand what was happening, and my three-year-old sister certainly didn’t understand…I would honestly say I ‘survived’ the divorce, but the fall-out wasn’t pretty: Lots of acting out and ‘unsettled’ behavior. It really skewed the way I looked at guys and what I thought ‘love’ was. If marriage wasn’t forever, why should anything else be?
Unfortunately, the help and understanding that should come to children in the wake of a divorce rarely comes. In response after response, the adult children of divorce who I interviewed told me that their own feelings and experiences were either never solicited or systematically sublimated to the adults’ desires and feelings. Because of this, they overwhelmingly ended up sticking to “the narrative” given them by the parents (i.e., “This will be better for everyone”) and spent the ensuing decades managing and being ever mindful of their parents’ feelings (one woman described the pattern as “pleasing, placating, and pacifying”). From the same 50-year-old woman quoted above:
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I think the people who say ‘kids are resilient’ are trying to assuage guilt, rationalize decisions, or are truly just hoping that’s the case. I can tell you from experience that divorce absolutely devastates kids. Even worse, we don’t want to make our parents feel bad because we see they are already hurting, so we hide our devastation…. Divorce is ugly—even the ‘good’ ones—and I would consider my parents’ divorce in that category.
Additionally, abandonment issues plague adult children of divorce for many years afterward. As children, they cannot make sense of why Daddy or Mommy has permanently left the home; as adults, the fear of abandonment—the lesson that “love stops” or that conflict leads to permanent separation—continues. The words of this 55-year-old wife and mother are representative:
I believe [the divorce] instilled a fear of abandonment in me with regard to all of my relationships. I developed problems trusting people to be there for me, believing that when the going got rough, people would leave me. I never learned any skills for solving conflict in relationships. As much as I desperately craved intimacy and love, the closer someone came to me, the more terrified I was of getting hurt, or worse—abandoned. I unconsciously sabotaged relationships, as I didn’t know how to receive and accept real love…
Loss of First Family
Another common theme among contributors was the grief of losing their “first family,” long past the time that the parents themselves have moved on to new lives and romances. The children are expected to move along as the parents have and expected to feel the same type of “closure” that the parents feel as they commence second or third families (or more). A 50-year-old woman who works at a non-profit organization and is herself reluctantly divorced, described the loss in this way:
It hurts. But worse is your [the parents’] desire to ‘move on’ and pretend that my first family never existed and that half of me no longer exists. You take the photos of the other half of my family tree down, and you imagine I don’t notice or care. I do notice, and I do care. That’s half me; that family really did exist, and it really is important to me. Just because you want to move on doesn’t give you the right to erase half my family.
A Different View of the World
Particularly stunning for me was the revelation that the adult children of divorce do not see the world the same way that the children of intact families do. Those who have grown up with divorced parents struggle with the sense of having “no real home” anymore, even well into adulthood, and they must forever navigate two separate worlds by being “two different people” depending on which parent/family they are with. My own parents have been married for 52 years, and I now realize that I have a freedom and a lightness that children of divorce do not have. A 31-year-old single woman, a nurse, spoke for many contributors when she wrote of burdens unique to the child of divorce:
I’d want people to know and understand that people with divorced parents see the world differently. It’s just how it is. Even with the ‘best’ divorces like mine, a seven-year-old should never be in a position to somehow take the responsibility of her parents’ emotions. She should never have to think about which parent gets to hear or see something from her first, for fear of hurting the other parent’s feelings. She should never have to feel like she doesn’t belong in the home of her parents. None of these things were done on purpose. My parents did the best they could to keep me at the center, to keep me as the focus, so that my life could have minimal turbulence.
She continued, describing the confusion that is often reserved for the children of an amicable, “easy” divorce:
For me, the very fact that my parents worked so hard to be civil and kind to one another was somewhat confusing. I mean, my parents get along so great! They listen to one another! They make plans! They do things! Why did they have to get divorced if they worked so hard afterwards? It’s almost like the divorce didn’t even make sense, you know?
At the end of this project, I was left with one overriding, heartbreaking impression: Parental divorce is never “over” for the child. Even though the pain from the divorce remains largely hidden or purposely disguised, the devastation continues, often in new and unexpected ways as the children get married and form families of their own.
A 35-year-old wife, mother, and professional editor/writer expressed it this way:
A parent might be able to totally start over with a new spouse, experiencing freedom from the first marriage and only minimal contact with the first spouse. For the child, however, their worlds will forever be fundamentally split. Forever. There is no starting over with a clean slate; things are now complicated and fractured. Divorce starts a family onto two different paths that, as the years unfold, grow further and further apart. It’s not a one-time event, but rather an ever-changing and ever-widening gap that only the children are really tasked with straddling and reconciling, season after season, change after change.
Although these excerpts were written by the adult children of so-called “good divorces,” their responses were not significantly different from those who came from abusive childhoods or contentious divorces. So secretive is the pain of the children of divorce that the contributors themselves were surprised to discover that others out there feel as they do. Many of them were shocked, as they read the finished book, to find that others’ entries were not, in fact, their own writings. The unspoken, isolating (but ubiquitous) pain of divorce on a child is the most under-reported story of our time, as I assure you that what you have read above is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a wounded, bleeding elephant in our cultural living room that we must stop pretending doesn’t exist.
Leila Miller is the editor of Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak.