My friend Stephanie’s parents divorced her freshman year of college, after fighting for her entire childhood. When she was a teenager, she discovered that her dad had committed adultery numerous times, and was unwilling to end his affairs. She was relieved when they divorced, because she wanted her mom to stop being hurt by her dad. But that hasn’t stopped Stephanie from hurting for the last two decades, even though she’s happily married with children, well-educated, and thriving in her chosen profession.
She feels a little lost in the world, knowing that while she loves her parents and they love her, there is a fracture in their relationships because they don’t love each other. The divorce may have been necessary, but Stephanie still calls it tragic.
Every week at our children’s soccer games, Riley’s divorced parents were fighting. The final week of the season, the little girl’s dad spewed more of his vitriol at his ex-wife who was trying to ignore him. By the time another man came up to tell the ex-husband to stop, Riley’s mom was unable to handle it any more. She screamed, “I hate you! I hate everything about you!” By then, the daughter had stopped playing and was watching from the field. I don’t think anyone there was under the illusion that divorce had brought happiness for that family.
When I wrote last December about how my parents’ divorce made the holidays difficult, I wanted to be honest about how divorce impacts the lives of children in ways that our culture tries to ignore. Regardless of the circumstances of a divorce, it hurts children. And yet, our society continues to pretend that divorce is a casual affair.
The New York Times reported last week that Laura Wasser — a lawyer for stars including Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Jennifer Garners, and Christina Aguilera, among others — has a new website called “It’s Over Easy” that allows people to divorce online. In our digital age, why not? Writer Amy Sohn rationalizes, “Since couples now meet online, plan weddings online, cheat online and find couples therapists online, it is only logical that they should be able to divorce online.”
The site is currently open to the public to file for divorce in two states, with plans to expand to four more later this year. Wasser, a divorced mother herself and the author of “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself,” rejects that idea that she’s a divorce monger.
“Nobody is going to hear about ‘It’s Over Easy’ and get divorced because there’s a good online platform,” she told The New York Times. “Divorce is happening. I’m making it easier.”
Wasser’s site makes divorce seem so casual and routine. But divorce is never casual, even when the split is amicable. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote of Wasser’s website:
“There can be no question that divorce has been morally apocalyptic for the United States and for other Western nations. But when you’re looking at divorce, the availability of online divorce does appear to be almost technologically and morally inevitable given the widespread acceptance of divorce in the culture. But we are talking about a website that calls itself ‘It’s Over Easy’ and offers divorce. The great lie is in those words. Divorce is never easy, and furthermore as you’re looking at the reality that some divorces might be more complex or more messy than others, the reality is that divorce is always as the late novelist Pat Conroy said, ‘the demise of a small civilization.'”
And the demise of that small civilization is more ruinous when children are a fruit of the broken marriage.
Not all divorces are the same, and the way parents interact with their ex-spouse during and after the divorce will affect their children. My parents didn’t have a contentious divorce, at least not like the parents of my friend or my child’s teammate. I don’t know why my parents were able to act civilly and some divorced parents are not, but it hasn’t changed the way I think about divorce: I hate it. I cannot disregard that the tone of my parents’ interactions spared me from some additional pain others have, but it does not eliminate the suffering that stems from my parents’ divorce.
Even when divorce seems easy on the surface, divorce hurts children because it shatters their understanding of their identity. People try to focus on how to help children through the transition of a divorce, but as Andrew Root explains, “Divorce for children is much more than transition, it is about ontology; it is about having a place to belong and be, now that the union that created us has split.” The changes children of divorce go through are rooted deep in their understanding of not just their family, but also themselves. Root tells how his parents’ divorce affected him in his book, “The Children of Divorce”:
“In a real sense I started to wonder who I was, to question whether my very existence rested on anything solid at all. I couldn’t help but feel that their actions attacked me, the core of my person. After all, I was the product, quite literally, of their love and commitment. I came into being out of their union, their mutual desire that created a community called ‘parents’ to love and care for me. I existed because of their choice, and now they were choosing to destroy the very communion that made me. Their disunion threatened me nothing less than ontologically, which is to say it shook my very being and existence.”
Root was a young adult when his parents divorced, so his processing was much different from mine. My understanding of divorce happened slowly, one sad realization after another. When I was six or seven, I woke up from a bad dream in the middle of the night. I went looking for my mom, but couldn’t find her. I wandered from room to room crying, disoriented and scared. But Mom wasn’t there because I was at Dad’s place, an apartment I went to once a month. My dad couldn’t understand why I wanted my mom so much. Nothing in the apartment was familiar, not even dad. He was hurt because of my longing for my mom, my house, and my own bed, so I did what a lot of children of divorce do: I bottled up my emotions to try to make one of my parents feel better.
When I was a young teenager, I began to wonder if my dad had a hard time loving me because I look so much like my mom. Likewise, I wondered how hard it was for my mom to talk to my brother when his voice sounds exactly like my dad’s. I was beginning to understand how much I was connected to both of my parents, even though their marriage had ended almost a decade prior.
A few years later, I realized that if my dad had moved out much earlier, he wouldn’t have been around to see my brother’s birth. A year earlier and my brother wouldn’t have been conceived. Did he wish he had left before I had been conceived? The questions that ran through my mind shook me to my core. Their divorce made love and relationships seem temporary and disposable. I spent many years afraid that my dad would stop loving me the same way he stopped loving my mom.
People don’t want to hear about these deep pains of the children of divorce because they are too busy coaching them how to think about it. Allan Bloom writes in his book, “The Closing of the American Mind,” that children of divorce have been “told how to feel and what to think about themselves by psychologists who are paid by their parents to make everything work out as painlessly as possible for the parents, as part of no-fault divorce.”
“Meanwhile, psychologists provide much of the ideology justifying divorce — e.g., that it is worse for kids to stay in stressful homes (thus motivating the potential escapees — that is, the parents — to make it as unpleasant as possible there),” he adds. “Psychologists are the sworn enemies of guilt. And they have an artificial language for the artificial feeling with which they equip children.”
And this is why a casual approach to divorce is so harmful. We are trying to condition people, including the children of divorced parents, to believe that if we eliminate the bitter court hearings or fights at a child’s ballgame from divorce, then it is good. But we must allow the children of divorce to hurt.
Writer Paul Maxwell says his parents’ divorce broke him when he was nine, but the brokenness lingered because he wasn’t equipped to work through it. “The choice given to the child of divorce is not whether or not they should experience the brokenness of their parents’ divorce, but whether they will consciously process or unconsciously suppress the breaking,” he writes. “Henri Nouwen explains, ‘What is forgotten is unavailable, and what is unavailable cannot be healed.’ Likewise, to intentionally face the reality of being broken is not to face defeat, but healing.”
I wouldn’t say I’m still broken from my parents’ divorce, but healing didn’t come for me until I decided to stop pretending that the divorce didn’t hurt me. My parents’ divorce still affects our family, and I believe it always will. But acknowledging the way it affected my thinking, my relationships, and my faith has allowed me to see where lies existed and what I needed to work through, including the forgiveness I needed to offer my parents.
Divorced parents should work out their problems so they can treat each other with respect, even if just for the sake of their children, but this will not eliminate the pain of divorce. That pain is a reality that we all need to accept and seek to understand to help children suffering from their broken family.
When we tell children that divorce is not that big of a deal, we invalidate their pain. When we don’t give children a voice to grieve their parents’ divorce, we don’t give them the opportunity they need to heal. And because a lot of us are so young when our parents divorce, the pain won’t necessarily come right away. For children, there is no such thing as an easy divorce. The marriage they came from matters, and so does the divorce that ended it.
The author is a regular Federalist writer who requested anonymity to write about family experiences without hurting family directly. The same author wrote this article.