It doesn’t matter if you’re 3 years old, 13, or 22; when your parents call you and your siblings down to the family room because they “just want to talk to everyone,” you intrinsically know something terrible is about to happen.
“I’m moving out,” my dad said, with tears brimming in his reddened eyes. He was doing his best to maintain his composure. His face looked hardened, as if he was trying to come across as sure and steady, though under the surface he was clearly far from it. My mom sat next to him, silently weeping.
What does that mean? Are you getting a divorce? When are you moving out? What happened? Why now? I’m out on my own now, but where will Colin and Maddie live? I vaguely remember my parents assuring us they were just separating for now, that everything would be amicable and “normal.” We would always celebrate Christmases and birthdays and graduations together. We would still be a family.
Those things never happened.
My parents had a rocky marriage for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, they were deeply committed to staying together and giving my siblings and me an example of a marriage that doesn’t end in brokenness. My dad’s father died when he was 4 years old, and my mom’s parents divorced when she was 21. They longed to provide us with the stable, whole family that neither of them had growing up.
Though I couldn’t see it as a child, I now realize my parents looked to their roles as mom and dad for fulfillment. They poured all their energy and love into us as children and so had little left for each other. They developed and then never worked through unhealthy habits.
It all became too much for my dad; he wasn’t willing to try anymore. He said his only choice was to leave until he could be “himself” again. My parents’ separation turned into divorce, and then suddenly they were strangers and my family was broken in what felt like a single heartbeat.
What They Don't Tell You
Divorce is common, but that makes it no less tragic. I grew up with many friends whose parents were divorced. It was everywhere—except in my family.
Despite knowing my parents had a challenging marriage, I also knew they had recently become Christ-followers. They were approaching 25 years of marriage. I had begun to assume this was certainly the time for my mom and dad to experience the “for better” since they had already been through the “for worse.” This timing made their divorce even more of a shock. The most stable force in my life for 22 years, the thing I finally believed could never be shaken, was fractured before my eyes. The searing pain I felt as my family fell apart was unimaginable, blinding, debilitating. It’s the kind of pain you expect to feel when a parent dies.
Divorce as a Death
What no one tells you is divorce isn’t that different from death. It’s the death of a family, the death of a covenant, the death of trust and stability. Even months after my dad left, I would suddenly remember what happened—sometimes in the most inconvenient places, like driving down the street or teaching my first-graders a math lesson—and I’d dissolve into uncontrollable tears.
“Sarah,” whose parents divorced when she was in fourth grade, described to me how she often felt as though her pain was downplayed:
I can remember that divorce felt like a very traumatic loss, but I felt like I was being dramatic because everyone seemed to think it wasn’t a big deal. A couple of years ago, I was at a conference where one of the speakers was sharing her story. She said: “I want to share something that I’ve never shared with anyone before. It’s a really big loss in my life that has affected me deeply as an adult.” She went on to talk about her parents’ divorce and the long-lasting effects it had had on her. I was at the conference with a friend, and we didn’t know each other that well, and she leaned over in the middle of this talk and said: “I cannot believe this is her big traumatic thing. I thought she was going to say someone in her life had died or something.” And I remember sitting there thinking: Of course this is why a lot of people don’t know how to navigate the challenges of divorce. It is a death, but nobody really treats it like that.
I’ve had those same thoughts more times than I can count: I’m being dramatic when I ask my small group to pray for my family every week. I shouldn’t be breaking down like this. It was years ago; I should be over it by now. I also felt silly because I was an adult when it happened—surely I should have a better handle on my emotions. Surely this shouldn’t impact me so deeply. What I’ve come to find is that you can never truly fix the brokenness; there will always be irreparable seams and snags in the fabric. But if you take the time to work through the pain, you can grow stronger in spirit and softer in heart.
Dealing with Boundary Breaches
One of the unique challenges of being an adult at the time of my parents’ divorce was the fact that I had more of a friendship relationship with my parents at the time, even though I was their child. As a result, there were moments when I was trusted with information and responsibilities a child should never have to bear, regardless of age. I am thankful that over the years, my mom never trashed my dad or spoke poorly of his character. But there were times when I did feel more like a close friend or therapist and less like a child. As I was trying to deal with my own unique pain, it was too much for me to also play that role for my mom. And on the other side of it, my dad shared awful and untrue things about my mom with me, my siblings, and his family, which caused me to slowly shut him out because I didn’t know what to else do.
Eventually, Sarah and I have both had to learn to set firm boundaries with our parents. As we get older, new circumstances challenge those boundaries: figuring out seating charts at our respective weddings, scheduling separate visits when Sarah had her first child, dividing up holidays even further. But those boundaries are what allow both of us to maintain healthy relationships with our parents.
Let's Talk About It
My parents’ divorce is a deeply traumatizing event in my life, and yet I rarely talk about it. I think part of this is because I fear people won’t understand (much like Sarah’s friend at the conference) or will feel burdened by me. If you are a child of divorce, my charge to you is this: find trusted people to share your story with, and not just one time, in a surface-level way. Identify a few people who will regularly walk with you through your pain and recovery. This could be a therapist, your spouse, or a friend. I recommend identifying someone who has been through a similar experience; few things compare to the moment when someone can truly empathize with the depth of your pain and not just sympathize that your experience must have been difficult.
Another reason I (and I would imagine other children of divorce) often hesitate to share this part of my story is because it is inextricably tied to my parents’ decisions. Regarding this challenge, Sarah reflects, “I feel like I can’t talk about it without airing my parents’ dirty laundry.” It can feel like more work than it’s worth to be so careful with my words to ensure I’m protecting my parents that I end up not talking about it at all. This is why I would absolutely recommend a therapist or counselor on your healing journey. It is so helpful to have an unattached, unbiased third party who can allow you to process the raw and ugly emotions.
Make the Pain Worth It
Statistics show children of divorce are 50 percent more likely to get divorced themselves and are 200 percent more likely to get divorced if they marry another child of divorce. Does that mean our marriages are doomed to fail? I wholeheartedly believe we can break the cycle of divorce and create new legacies for our families in the face of such sobering statistics.
I can look back at my parents’ relationship and see so many ways they damaged their marriage, but I won’t let the pain keep me bound in fear. As I reflect on unhealthy patterns in my parents’ marriage, it allows me to also identify unhealthy patterns in my own marriage and stop them in their tracks. The pain reminds me to stay in constant, open communication with my husband. The tender memories of my family when we were still together push me to cherish special moments with my husband now. The sorrow fuels me to honor my own marriage covenant and make our relationship work at any cost.
The Real Source of Hope
I am blessed to have grown up for the first 22 years of my life in a stable home with a loving mom and dad. Though it sometimes feels like I don’t have real roots anymore, I have hope in the love of Christ. Colossians 2:7 says: “Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.” Even in the pain, my heart is overwhelmed with thankfulness that I can trust in the restoration the Lord is doing in my heart and I can be confident he’ll when he returns for me.