The Children of Divorce Speak Out

“As a kid I was always sad and always trying to keep everyone else happy. I felt like I had to be one person when I was with my dad and another when I was with my mom.”

So says an anonymous child of divorce, describing how her parents’ divorce impacted her childhood. She is one of seventy anonymous narrators of Leila Miller’s new book, Primal Loss, which offers first-hand narratives of the experiences of now-grown children of divorce. Together with Jennifer Johnson, author of Marriage and Equality, Miller is working to rejuvenate a national discussion about the devastating impacts that family breakdown can have on the lives of children.

The topic of divorce has been oddly eclipsed in recent years within the public square. Homosexuality, transgenderism, polyamory, and other novelties have become the frontline issues of the culture wars. Divorce is an old topic, which is also less controversial than in days of yore. Once, Americans argued about the impact of divorce on kids, suggesting that childhood “resilience” might make it excusable to prioritize adult relationships. Sociologically, there’s not much disagreement anymore that kids suffer when their families break apart.

Progressive elites have responded to that realization by working to stabilize their own marriages, fashioning a “neo-traditional” arrangement that is overall fairly stable. That pattern isn’t trickling down, however. Less prosperous Americans are far less likely to marry, and considerably more likely to divorce. In general, liberals don’t seem very interested in discussing this reality. They treat it as a sad inevitability, and make little effort to help working-class Americans enjoy the same communal and social benefits that are available to their own children. Regrettably, that trend has extended to the Church itself, where attention has recently been focused on the accommodations that some would like to make for the divorced. Shouldn’t we be devoting more of those energies to saving marriages?

Miller and Johnson think so. Their books potentially offer a fruitful pairing, especially for Catholics with an interest in this general topic. Miller’s book offers an extended look into the experiences of children of divorce, while Johnson explores some of the arguments for why divorce is unjust to children, and a driver of greater inequality in society at large.

The idea behind Primal Loss is quite simple. Miller sent eight questions to seventy different respondents, all the now-grown offspring of married couples who eventually divorced. What effect has your parents’ divorce had on you? Has your parents’ divorce affected your own marriage or your view of marriage? Are children really “resilient”? What do you most want others to know about how divorce affects children? The book compiles their answers.

Both the differences and the similarities are interesting. Some people, despite their loss, have ultimately achieved a healthy perspective on life and (especially) marriage. Others still struggle to establish healthy relationships, with one man saying he has “holes that will never be filled this side of Heaven.” Some respondents are bitter, while others are more circumspect. A few seem to think that one parent was mostly blameless for the divorce, and even that divorce was better for the parents or family in the long run. (Most often that was connected to very severe problems with one parent, who posed a serious physical threat.) A larger number seem to think that the divorce represented a traumatic event in their parents’ lives as well as their own.

Regardless of the specifics, it’s clear that the cost to children is always significant when the two people who created them decide they want nothing more to do with each other.

Some of the saddest episodes in the book come from people whose parents divorced when they were young children, initially unable to understand what was happening. One remembers telling his friends eagerly how, “We’re getting a divorce!” not knowing what that meant. Many were told as children how the divorce would represent an exciting adventure, or a bright new chapter for the family. In reality, these blithe reassurances are just additional demands that divorcing adults too often place on their children. Even as their whole world fractures, we ask kids to pretend that everything is wonderful, to spare their parents from feelings of guilt.

The unfairness of that demand is a major focus of Johnson’s book. Because the natal family is almost a child’s whole world, the rupture that divorce represents is cataclysmic. Nevertheless, adults expect “resilient” children to accommodate themselves to adult needs and interests, moving between homes and avoiding references that would be painful to their parents’. One respondent remembers congratulating his mother warmly at the end of each day when she “didn’t cry.” Another recalls being told that she and her siblings needed to live with her mother instead of her father because her mother “needed them more.” Is it right to make children the support structure for their parents? It often happens after a divorce.

There are a thousand painful details in both of these books, reminding us of what life is actually like for kids experiencing this kind of loss. For children of divorce, holidays and vacations often cease to be occasions of joy, instead becoming fractious reminders of family brokenness. Adults are permitted to fill their houses with pictures of everyone they love, but the children are expected to divide their photographs and memories into two sets, ensuring their parents’ greater comfort. Their own pain becomes a lonely and isolating secret.

Adults often have a variety of options for rebuilding their lives and identities, or at least seeking reassurance and support. For children, family separation gets written into their lives at a much more elemental level, and they have no real choice but to accept this. This is another serious injustice, as Johnson emphasizes again and again.

In both of these books, it’s remarkable and heartbreaking to see how a truth that Christians express in Biblical and even metaphysical terms (“the two shall become one flesh”) is felt in a concrete way in the lives of the descendants of “divided flesh.” For many of them, the natural permanence of marriage is a haunting truth that was etched across their childhood through their parents’ persistent attempts to deny it. On some very deep level, they were asked to build their childhoods around a lie.

Our failure to respond properly to these injustices, Johnson argues, has set the stage for further assaults on the traditional family. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The silver lining is that renewed attention to the issue of permanence might yield a whole range of fruits over the longer run. For instance, I have found anecdotally (and studies seems to confirm) that Millennials are extremely sympathetic to same-sex couples wanting to marry, but that they view divorce quite negatively overall. If same-sex couples have difficulty with permanence, that might influence public views of same-sex “marriage” over the long term.

More immediately, though, we should work harder to ensure that parents across the nation understand the grim effects that divorce can have on children. Many do survive the experience and go on to live successful lives, but that’s not a good excuse for forcing children to shoulder the burdens of fractured adult relationships. These two books provide a compelling argument for choosing a better path, in the Church and in our own lives.

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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