Divorce – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Divorce 01

I will never, ever forget the first eighteen hours of the event that changed my life forever.  Late one Sunday evening in September my mother got my sister and me out of our beds and brought us into the dimly lit living room.  I had just started first grade and wondered what was happening.  My father was sitting on the sofa and some things were packed and stacked near the front door.  My mother, crying, turned to my father and said “Go ahead, tell them.”

He tried to explain the why but it all came down to one thing – he was moving out.  He did his best to assure my sister and me that he was not moving far away and that we would see each other a lot, but despite his assurances I knew that the family I had known from birth had crumbled and broken and this was not going to get fixed.

I knew that I had to say something, anything, that might change this.  At age 7, I was the oldest of we two children and it was up to me.  Through tears all I could muster was “I don’t want to see you go.”  Dad’s reply (which I now know must have been equally painful for him) was “Don’t worry, I won’t leave until after you are back in bed.”  I was both hurt and angry because that wasn’t what I had meant at all, but I knew that I could not summon the strength to try again.

I woke up the next morning and it was a normal, bright day with the strong eastern sunlight forcing its way through the curtains.  Within a few seconds, however, I remembered the events of the evening prior and felt the most tremendous ache, one that seemed to consume my insides.  I tried to beg off from school but my mother would not hear of that.  I did not understand then that she probably needed desperately to have the day to herself.

I walked to school, amazed that nobody else could see the big hole where my insides used to be.  There was nobody at school who could help me because this was a middle class neighborhood school in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1966 and divorce just wasn’t something that happened there.  All I could do was to fake my way through a normal day.  I made it through the walk to school and morning recess on the playground, where I felt like I wore a great big sandwich board proclaiming “My Parents Are Getting Divorced And I Am A Freak!”.  By afternoon I had become numb and bumbled through the rest of the day.  And I have made it through every day since. Over fifty years later the scars remain from that still-healing hole inside of me.

I bring this up because some time back I finished reading a book entitled Primal Loss – the Now-Adult Children Of Divorce Speak.  Leila Miller, who edited the book, assembled a sample of adults who were willing to share how their parents’ divorces affected them.  Reading their stories made me realize that those feelings of loss that I had papered over long ago are still there.

I learned to keep things inside.  I knew that my mother was devastated and in many ways never really recovered from the rejection that she experienced.  I knew that my father, who had been tremendously unhappy,  felt guilty and I had no desire to add to his burden.  I had a younger sister and I needed to be strong.  I now know that this was a horrible burden for a seven year old kid.  But it is one that I have never been able to put down.

I learned to seek my parents’ approval, often at the expense of my own happiness.  I learned to avoid sharing my feelings for fear of how others might react.  I learned to accept what is rather than to hope too much for what can be, even when accepting the “what is” turns out to be avoiding change.  Change can be good, but change can also be bad and bad change has to be avoided at all costs.  So I take what I have and try to be satisfied with it.

As an adult, I have come to understand that while we all have flaws, my parents had a unique combination of them which made it impossible for them to have continued living together over the long term without some sort of drastic adjustment.  My mother had a strong need to control and an unshakable certainty that there was one and only one way in which to view almost any situation.  My father had a need to be the man of the family and to be respected by his wife.  I understand that he found himself in a “fight or flight” situation, and that he had to choose from a bad set of outcomes.  I can still remember the sounds of them arguing and my mother crying after they thought that I was asleep.  I remember wondering why my father was sleeping on the family room hide-a-bed and recall my mother telling us that they might build another room onto the back of the house where Dad might stay.  But I was not prepared for what actually happened.

And none of this made any difference to the kid who had no cause in making the situation and no say in how it played out.

Both of my parents were raised in intact marriages, but each of those marriages had their own difficulties and failures.  Still, they were marriages and it is certain that my parents had no firsthand experience in how a divorce would unfold.  Should they have stayed together?  I don’t know.

The terrible irony is that I see my parents’ choice being re-played in my own generation – kids who were raised in intact families who have themselves divorced.  I realize that each of their situations was unique and that I am unaware of the intricacies of their relationships.  But something deep within me makes me want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, shouting “You have no idea what you are doing!”  To my parents this was new, uncharted terrain.  It isn’t any more.

I know many, many people who have divorced as adults.  Good people.  Some of them saw divorce as the only way out of an impossible situation.  Others had it done to them just as it was done to their children.  And there will always be situations where there is physical abuse, substance abuse or other factors which really do make divorce better and safer than a list of worse alternatives.  I do not judge these people.  And I do not judge my own parents.  See, this is what children of divorce experience: I am afraid to tell you how I feel for fear of how it is going to affect you.  This is not about blame.  And if you are one of those divorced adults, this is not about you.  It is, however, about expressing an idea that is highly discouraged in our modern society: that divorce really does affect the children.

Since my days on the bleeding edge of divorce in middle America, the path taken in my family all those years ago has become distressingly common.  Parents, family, counselors, teachers, clergy and almost all of society tell us that “the kids will be fine.  They are resilient.  They will adapt.  It’s for the best.”  It is what I was told (expressly and by implication) and it is what kids are still being told today.  Oh I adapted, all right.  And kids adapt now.   But should they have to?  And does adapting make things better?

The book is nothing more than the sharings by ordinary people whose parents divorced.  Each respondent answered a series of questions and the book’s author did nothing more than to anonymize the participants and group those responses under each of the questions.  There is no attempt to craft a narrative or to make anyone adhere to a theme.

One respondent’s analogy has stuck with me.  A family after a divorce is like each parent taking one of two separate, diverging paths.  Each of those parents rarely needs to navigate the rough, ever widening terrain between those paths.  Each continues along his or her path living life according to whatever choices he or she makes.  The children, however, will spend the rest of their lives hacking their way back and forth across those inhospitable landscapes, forced to do so because not doing so would cause great hurt to at least one of the parents whose love is so desperately needed.  Their childrens’ children will have to navigate that wilderness as well.

Holidays, births, deaths, and milestones in the lives of children and grandchildren all involve big decisions.  Even as I approached the age of sixty years, I suffered tremendous anxiety about situations where my mother and my stepmother would have to interact.  Both of them have been wonderful people whom I love deeply.  But my mother was mostly unable to move beyond deep hurts, hurts that showed themselves in unfortunate ways.  I felt a need to shield both of these dear women from being placed in a situation that must have been terribly uncomfortable for each of them in differing ways.  How horrible is it that I feel a sense of relief that my mother’s decline and death has eliminated the angst that always accompanied family celebrations?

This post has taken multiple months and sittings to write because I could never stay at it long enough to finish.  Years, actually, because I read the book shortly after its publication in mid 2017.  Like a diver starved of air after surfacing from underwater, I could only say submerged in these feelings for so long before needing to break away from them and breathe deeply of the fresh air that accompanies virtually any other person, place or thing.  Even after finishing the piece it has sat among many half-developed drafts because I have been afraid to share these deeply personal feelings.  Perhaps this is because of that one single, frightening message that still rings out in my head as it does in the heads of so many other victims of divorce: “This would never have happened if there wasn’t something wrong with you”.

To be clear, nobody ever told me that any of it was my fault.  Nobody even so much as hinted at it.  I am quite sure that nobody in my family ever harbored such a belief for even a moment.  But it’s still there.  And even though I have always known in my conscious, deliberative mind that none of it was about me, something from somewhere deep inside has never stopped making the accusation. At least I now know that I am not alone in this, and that it is really quite common.

I have two final thoughts.  First, about the book.  The author is clear that there was no attempt at assembling a scientific sample.  These were people who responded to a request to share their stories.  It is possible that those who have shared their stories are simply a self-selecting sample of malcontents, people who would have been messed-up, unhappy people no matter what their family situation.  There is surely some of this but much of what I read rings very true within my own experience.  If divorce has been a part of your life or the lives of those you love I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.

Second is about how I have responded in my own life.  I had a very difficult time being married in the early years.  Being married requires opening up and sharing yourself with someone.  I had to learn on my own how to do this – and it was not at all easy.  I was, however, extremely motivated to avoid a repeat of the failures of my own parents.  I have seen many failures and disappointments in my life but I am extremely proud of the way my wife and I have forged a strong marriage.  Whatever issues my own children may have absorbed from our family life, those issues will not include those that come from divorcing parents.  If I accomplish nothing else of permanence in my life I will have accomplished this.  And this is no small thing.

26 thoughts on “Divorce – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

  1. I’m sure it took some courage to press the Publish button on this one. Thank you for putting your story into the world, as a strong counterargument to “the kids will adapt, they’re resilient.” Adapting doesn’t mean trucking on like nothing happened. It means figuring out how to go forward from here in a new reality. Sometimes the only way forward isn’t as good or healthy as what was before.

    I came from an intact family but my first marriage ended in divorce. There was both abuse and addiction in that marriage, a story I might tell you over a stiff drink someday. We were locked in a destructive spiral that we couldn’t break out of. It truly was best that we split. But that didn’t in any way obviate the impact on our children. They are now young adults. I see signs that they are starting to see how the things they learned to get through childhood might not be serving them well anymore. Many of the things they learned to get through childhood related to dealing with … well, let me just call a spade a spade, a mom who remained vengeful against her ex-husband. Also, a dad who lived 45 minutes away (after mom remarried and moved).

    I remain filled with sorrow that my children had to bear extra burden because their mom and I could not work out our relationship. For the record, I begged her to go to counseling with me, for years, and she kept refusing. I will probably always blame her refusal as the thing that ultimately undermined us. Who knows, maybe we still couldn’t have worked it out. But at least then we would have really tried. Anyway, as a result our children now have their own divorce story to tell. I hope they are willing to face it, unpack it, make sense of it, so they can move forward in happiness and health.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jim – yes, I put this one off for quite awhile. I think we all accumulate emotional baggage from our families of origin whether there is divorce/separation or not. I also believe that divorce just adds a layer to what would be there anyway.

      You highlight the great question: how bad is bad enough for divorce to be the best option? I have been blessed to not be in the kind of situation where I have had to ask myself that question. Sometimes I wonder if modern no-fault divorce is too easy, but then my parents got one through the old fault-based model.

      I am a fan of old movies, and it is kind of amazing as an adult to watch comedies and dramas of the 1930s and 1940s where people entered marriage and divorce so casually. I have become convinced that those movies (which were terribly common) softened the ground quite a lot for divorce becoming a realistic option among “normal” (meaning Not-Hollywood) people.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. This is very powerful. It’s easy to see why it took the time needed to flesh this out.

    Even though the situation was quite different, my parents separated right after I turned 20. It was obvious problems were brewing, the separation itself was ugly, and it still affects my relationship with both of them 28 years later. In retrospect, harsh as it sounds, they probably should have divorced. However, the point in saying this is having endured lesser magnitude events as a very young adult was quite challenging, but experiencing what you did at 7 is nearly incomprehensible.

    Two final thoughts / opinions….first, the sense of relief you expressed toward the end is perfectly understandable. Second, in the limited instances I’ve been around both you and Marianne, you appear to have an ideal marriage. You two set a rather good example for others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have known others whose parents have divorced as the kids have gotten older. I would imagine that it is both harder for kids in some ways and easier than others.
      And thank you for the compliment there at the end.

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  3. Very moving story. These things are hard to write but helpful to process and organize ones own feelings.
    I’m very thankful for my parents’ imperfect but stable marriage, and my own.

    I sure can identify with you on the difficulty of the first few years..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Doug. I think there is a lot of value in creating a family environment that kids can count on as having at least some degree of permanence.

      My experience was not bad on this point – my mother never remarried and while my father did, it was a long, stable marriage that resulted in two great brothers. I feel worst for those kids who are shuttled in and out of a series of temporary families with step-siblings who are forced to live together because their parents have chosen to do so. I have known some kids who have dealt with that sort of thing and it has been hard for them.

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  4. Thank you for putting the effort into finally publishing this profound and personal blog, JP. I think that it’s very healthy for both you and your readers that you decided to express these intimate feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A very strong message here Jim. I replayed in my mind the divorce scene from the movie Catch me if you Can with Leonardo diCaprio being led into the room to get the bad news from his parents, and then running away, as I read your article.

    So much to unpack here. My own parents’ marriage was troubled, and I vowed to carry on my Mother’s stubborn loyalty, which she demonstrated in the face of my Dad’s alcoholism and all its challenges. I attributed her patience to her Irish upbringing / heritage. I’ve had my own challenges, but can claim 38 years of mostly happy marriage.

    My Mom’s sister did not fare as well, her husband was alcoholic and abusive. She had to pack up all the kids and get out of town, at a time before there were places to go for women in that situation. All my cousins from that family came out differently as a result of that experience, some much better than others.

    A good friend of mine had an experience possibly worse than divorce, in that his Dad walked out when he was less than five, never to be seen or heard from again. It affected him all his life, and led to some poor choices on his part, for which I would claim him blameless. A very tough set of card\s was he dealt. A relative of mine had that happen to her, and unfortunately as an adult. she blames her mother for all the wrongs of the father.

    Jim, I’m sure nobody can imagine how it felt for you as a kid feeling like you did at the time, and all these years later. Having it happen to you at the age it did must have made it that much more unbearable.

    Thank you for sharing these deeply person insights with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lee. I certainly don’t claim any special status, and will freely admit that my experience was probably on the better end of the spectrum, considering how screwed up people can be. Like they say, it can always be worse. I have been blessed to have no firsthand experience of living with an alcoholic parent. Both of my own parents did, though, so they certainly carried their own scars out of those experiences.

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  6. I think this is why the younger generation around the world are not getting married, instead living together and not wanting children. It’s hard to think that decisions we made in our teens or 20s was meant to be perfect and last for 50+ years. I appreciate your sharing your feelings. I divorced and was sad to cause my children that broken home. One day I talked to both of my children and apologized, but told them the divorce was a decision I had to make.

    My children told me while it was sad, they had no regrets, because they realized that the life they have NOW would not have happened if I had stayed married. Meaning the course of their lives.

    Nothing is perfect. I see so many people who stay married, but cheat on each other, claim to have a perfect and harmonious life, but they only come together for the holidays. Other than that, they live their own lives, because they don’t have true loving feelings for each other, but they can brag that they never got divorced.

    So… Let’s see how things work out for this younger generation where they are not burdened to get married, have children, etc. Instead they can try to live life the way they want to.

    I’m curious to see what this new outcome will be.

    Thank you for sharing and I wish you peace in your heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughts. I suspect that if either of my parents had asked me the question you asked yours, I would have said pretty much the same thing. Because they were people I loved and I wanted them to be happy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True… but I had mentioned hardships that I knew they had had, so opened the door for us to discuss issues.

        What’s interesting is that sometimes the issues were not just the divorce, but children growing up and putting up with mean bullies in school, no friends, etc.

        As we know, being a child is supposed to be a happy time, but other children make it sad.

        Here is what one of my children told me. “Mama, if I was with a friend or a partner or even married and unhappy one day, I would hope that you would support my decision to break up and not make me feel guilty and that I would have to stay with the friend, or partner or marriage no matter what.”

        They mentioned this because they had a friend whose parents were so strict. Basically, if you were with someone, you are with them and can never change.

        Also, we can ALL suffer from a multitude of things I’ve told my children.

        Friends say mean things, bullied at school or work, a divorce, job layoff, bad manager, a friend lets us down, siblings holding grudges, marriages might stay together, but hurtfulness still occurs and hurts children, etc. At some point, as I have taught my children, we must make peace with situations. Not let sad feelings fester.

        If we move on, then we must RELEASE the sad tape recordings that keep playing in our mind.

        It’s our responsibility to “find a way,” it’s not easy, to NOT play the same recording, instead FOCUS on what has been HAPPY in our lives.

        Sometimes I think we hang on to sad feelings, because they are a part of us without them we have nothing to feel sad about and we don’t know HOW to feel happy.

        I’m smiling, because sometimes children give us real headaches. My goodness, that can be worse then divorce. I told one of my children there was a point in our lives when that child gave me such grief, I should have been given Sainthood for what I went through. We laugh now!!

        Nothing is perfect. We ALL do our BEST.

        At least from my side, I will never guilt my children into staying with someone or staying in a certain job, etc. to prove to “anyone” that they stayed but were miserable. Of course, we all have to give it a good try.

        My father always says, “You live one life, better make this one count.”

        Wishing you a very happy and healthy 2021! COVID is allowing all of us to make peace with the past and move on from anything that held us down. Last year, being quarantined was a real time for self-reflection.

        On to 2021!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Jim, I am so sorry you had to go though this. I just want you to
    know that you are a wonderful man with a wonderful wife and family!! You did an outstanding job with your life and with your family’s lives!! We love you all so much!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Kathy, your kind words are appreciated. You and John have long counted among those I looked to in trying to figure out how life was supposed to work.

      Like

  8. A very profound post JP. I commend you for writing it. It must have been difficult handling that in an era when divorce was not a common thing, and there were no resources to help a young child understand. With large families, parenting at that time was more about the physical aspects of raising a child, (feeding/clothing/school etc) and not so much about emotional matters. But I wonder if children today fare any better now if their parents divorce, with so many more modern issues to face? I think many people divorce too quickly, but on the other hand sometimes it’s justified. Our New Years eve was marred by a murder in my (very quiet) suburb – a domestic assault case gone too far, after years of an abusive on/off relationship. He had been drinking, she had called for help, but the police got there too late. No one knew them as they had just moved in a few weeks before, a new house, a fresh start – only she came out in a body bag and he’s in jail…grown children, thank god, but who would want to deal with that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree that kids have more company now, which would be a help today, but not something that eliminates the need for the help. Support groups are great, but it’s better to not need them to begin with. I would argue that no matter how many other kids there are at school or in the neighborhood, the basic problem is there – the home and people in it which made up a foundation have crumbled.

      I would use this analogy – You come home from the store tomorrow and the city has taken over your home. Your possessions are piled up on the curb. “Don’t worry” they say, “We will cover the cost of moving you to a new place – we have a nice one picked out for you.” You would not like this one bit, and shouldn’t. Yes, you would adjust. However, you count on your home as someplace you can go, someplace that’s yours. And when someone takes it away from you you would be affected. After a divorce, a child may physically have the same place but it is not the same “home” as before. That’s gone.

      I agree that there are bad situations of all kinds where it would be dangerous to stay, and where it is necessary for one parent to take the kids and get out. But I think we both know that the numbers of those situations are a teeny minority of the divorces granted over the last fifty years or so.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This was a touching post JP. I can certainly understand why it took you such a long time to commit it to a post. It is so deeply personal. I hope that parents know the profound effect that divorce has on their children, whether they are young or old. My parents did not divorce; my father ran off, taking all the money out of the bank and an annuity fund, by forging my mom’s signature to all the paperwork back in January 1984 and he announced he wanted to leave her on Christmas Day. She had to obtain a divorce by default to get any of his social security down the road as she was only 58 at the time. Divorce leaves permanent scars left on our psyches forever. You had a normal married life despite worries at the outset. These days people divorce without a lot of forethought to the kids – they are just eager to leave and start again, usually, not always, due to an extramarital relationship. It makes me sad that people do not take the sanctity of marriage more seriously. You make commitments, you take oaths … surely they mean something? My grandfather and father both tainted my future as to any marriage plans … my mom was disappointed that I felt that way, but understood and wanted very much for me to go to my grave with a different last name. I seriously doubt that will happen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There has been no shortage of people who make crummy life partners. I know someone with a story similar to yours and it was difficult for all who were affected, even though they were all adults. And those kinds of parents can cause scars even without a divorce or separation. We humans sometimes have an unfortunate ability to be selfish and cruel to others.

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      • You are correct on each count JP. It does not matter your age, the actions of a parent can tarnish you for life. My mother said she could not understand why my father did not want to keep in touch with me, his only offspring, though admittedly she was happy he left the country and returned to Germany, far away from us.

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  10. JP, this is an extraordinary essay that moved me profoundly. What courage it must have taken to allow yourself to confront all those feelings you’ve struggled with for so long, do the heavy lifting of committing them to paper, and then decide to share them here. I, for one, feel honored that you have entrusted your difficult truths with us.

    Perhaps you will reach some people who are unhappy with their marriages and encourage them to seek solutions other than divorce.

    At sny rate, I’m very glad that your story has a happy ending.

    Liked by 2 people

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