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When Your Parents Divorce, It Sticks with You

Divorce has deep and long-lasting effects on children that deserve attention and healing—and these effects persevere even after those children grow up.

The Catechism says that “divorce brings grave harm . . . to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them” (2385). Traumatized is not a word to employ lightly, and its usage indicates the Church’s acknowledgment that divorce has deep and long-lasting effects on children that deserve attention and healing.

As with any trauma, the negative effects of divorce aren’t easily or quickly “gotten over.” Contrary to popular belief, divorce can and does continue to affect children far into the future, even those who outwardly seem to have “made it” relatively unscathed.

Being a child of divorce affects a person’s identity, triggering ontological questions about who he is and his place in the world and generating a deep sense of emotional homelessness.

Being a child of divorce affects a person’s future relationships, making it statistically more likely that she will go on to get divorced herself, if she marries at all. Children of divorce are also more likely than those from intact homes to cohabit with a romantic partner, and over half say they lack self-confidence in love relationships.

Being a child of divorce affects a person’s faith and relationship to the Church, making it more likely that he will be inactive in his church community or totally unaffiliated from any faith practice.

None of these effects magically ends when a person turns eighteen. In fact, adult children of divorce (ACODs)—including the growing number of those whose parents divorced later in life—face additional challenges, such as helping aging parents who are alone and without spousal support; explaining to their own children why Grandma and Grandpa don’t live in the same house; and navigating holidays and family milestone events with multiple, perhaps acrimonious branches of the family.

The challenges that ACODs face don’t mean they’re doomed to misery—far from it! Statistics are not destiny, and thanks be to God, healing is always possible. I co-founded Life-Giving Wounds to help ACODs encounter in new and deeper ways the lasting healing our Lord wants for them, so that men and women from broken homes can overcome generational dysfunction and live with greater peace and joy despite the ongoing challenges caused by their parents’ split.

Here are three things we can do to help our world and our Church be a place where children of divorce can find the healing they desire and deserve.

Break silence. So often, ACODs feel as if their sadness or pain about their parents’ split doesn’t “count.” Divorce “happy talk” (as coined by researcher and ACOD Elizabeth Marquardt) can make ACODs feel as if there’s something wrong with them for still feeling sad about their family’s breakdown. Affirming that it’s always a tragedy to lose the love of your parents together, no matter the circumstances, gives ACODs a chance to grieve that loss out loud—a first crucial step in healing.

Acknowledge the depth of the wounds . . . but honor ACODs as more than their wounds. For wounds to heal, a thorough assessment is first needed of the extent of the injury. More awareness (particularly by Church leaders) of how children of divorce are negatively impacted far into the future can help them feel more seen and directly attended to. At the same time, no one wants to be seen wholly as a victim. ACODs who forge lives of generous love and joy, despite their backgrounds, give us all a tremendous witness. We should admire their fortitude and appreciate their example.

Open the doors of domestic churches. This doesn’t mean going out and looking for ACODs to take on as a “project.” You likely won’t need to go looking, since so many young adults these days suffer from the injustice of their parents’ divorce. Probably you have some, or many, in your social circles already.

ACODs lack reliable role models in their own parents about how to make love last, contributing to the anxiety many feel about their own ability to marry successfully. If you, on the other hand, have a solid marriage and a harmonious household, you have a candle that should be put on a candlestick for all to see (Matt. 5:16). Holy, happy married couples can play a tremendous role as mentors and examples for young adult children of divorce wondering whether love is worth the risk.

Pope Francis said that the Church is a “family of families.” Whether we come from divorce ourselves or know others who do, our work together to thwart generational cycles of family brokenness and instill strong marriages in the next generation benefits everyone. Lasting, joyful family life is possible, notwithstanding where we come from. It starts small, on the local level, in our personal relationships and interactions. It ends with a revitalized, empowered Catholic family of families, that much closer to the kingdom of heaven on earth.

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