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How My Parents’ Divorce Ruined Our Holidays And Family Life Forever


December always reminds me how much I hate divorce. As the lights on the Christmas tree twinkle while we wrap presents, I am anxious about family gatherings and travel plans. Three decades ago, when my parents divorced, family Christmas gatherings became very complicated.

My parents’ divorce is the one that their generation was told to have. Like many others married in the 1970s, their marriage ended with a no-fault divorce. One of them wasn’t happy and felt the only way to solve that was not to be married anymore. In the name of fulfillment and contentment, our family broke apart.

Fast-forward 30 years, and you’ll find the children all thriving in adulthood and two parents who rebounded and eventually remarried. On the surface, it seems like we all lived happily ever after.

The media loves to feed these sort of lies to their audiences. For example, The New York Times runs terrible pro-divorce articles regularly; here’s a particularly disturbing one.

Pro-Divorce Arguments Are Built On Lies

The writers at The Times of London currently have a campaign trying to reform England’s divorce laws. They believe divorce should be easier to get than current legislation that requires “a married couple wishing to split up [to] show evidence of irretrievable breakdown in the form of adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years’ separation with consent or five years’ separation without consent.”

They propose instead: “Divorce, wherever possible, should simply be an acknowledgment that people have moved on. A marriage that lasts only ten years can still be deemed a success. It should be assumed that divorces are no one’s fault and that people need a simple, dignified, relatively fast way to split up, while also acknowledging that a partner who has sacrificed their career to look after children will need help to set up again.”

Pardon me while I roll my eyes. As our culture tries to negate the beautiful union of covenantal marriage, we look the other way from the hurts and hardships divorce creates.

In the decades since my parents’ divorce and through the years of my marriage, I have learned that no-fault divorce is one of the biggest lies our culture tries to get people to believe. In truth, “no-fault divorce is destroying women, children, and men. More precisely, divorce destroys marriage, and the destruction of marriage harms every party involved. The legality of no-fault divorce just makes it infinitely easier to hurt people. There are no two ways about it. No one comes out of a divorce a happier and more whole person.”

Divorce Is Never Just About the Couple

When a marriage ends, it doesn’t just affect the immediate family — the two people who are no longer spouses and their children. Parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and friends all are part of a larger network of relationships divorce hurts and breaks. As the divorced couple begins new relationships separate from each other, the relationships become yet more complicated, especially for the children.

Navigating a divorced family was and is like walking through a field of landmines. I was supposed to call my stepdad Dad but by his first name when I was with my real dad. I also certainly was not to ever refer to my biological dad as my real dad in front of my stepdad — I mean Dad.

My dad (real, not step) also remarried a woman I was not supposed to talk about in front of my mom. My stepdad wanted me to call his parents Grandma and Grandpa, but they told me not to “because they were never really going to be my grandparents.” I have step- and half-siblings who are allowed to call my dad’s (step, not real) parents Grandma and Grandpa because they are biological family. My step-siblings call my mom by her first name and call me their stepsister, but I was always expected to introduce them as my just my brothers and sisters. My half-siblings don’t want to hear anything about my real dad and my parents’ divorce.

Confused? So was I. I have a hard time keeping it all straight even now. As a child, I felt like I couldn’t explain to my friends who my family was because all of the titles and names were offensive to someone. Before I had even finished half of elementary school, the man called Dad living in my home had become a different person, and a different woman was living with my dad.

The way our extended familial relationships suffered due to the divorce might be some of the hardest consequences for me to understand. At my biological grandma’s funeral, my siblings and I were left out of the family pictures. We watched our cousins treated differently just because their parents had remained married. We stopped getting invited to family reunions. Today I’m a stranger to most of my relatives on my dad’s side because growing up I saw him so little and them even less.

When I was a child, anxiety loomed over visits with my dad. Both of my parents always loved me, but to have excitement to visit my dad was a judgment against my life with my mom, and to be happy to return home after a visit with dad was an indictment against him. Either way, I caused a parent grief. I was torn in two and couldn’t tell anyone how I felt. I coped by pretending whichever parent wasn’t present at the time didn’t exist.

My Story Is the Story of Children of Divorce

My story is just one experience, but Leila Miller interviewed 70 other adults whose parents divorced, and their stories are all similar to mine. She compiled their stories into a book called “Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak” to give what is “rarely offered: The actual words of those most affected by divorce, but who almost never get to speak for themselves.” Miller is an impartial person to offer this book, as her family’s marriages are still together.

Listening to Miller speak about what she gleaned from her interviews, I felt as if I was hearing my story told by other people. In the book’s forward, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse explains how, in families that experience divorce, “even inside the family, the children are not permitted to voice their real feelings. Love inside the family feels fragile: The kids have absorbed the message that people sometimes leave each other or get kicked out. They may view love as unreliable. Even if children could verbalize their feelings (which they can’t), they are afraid to risk losing their parents’ love. They don’t want to upset Mom or Dad.” Today I still have to fight the insecurities that creep into my heart.

I’ve never wished that my parents were back together, and I certainly wouldn’t want my parents’ second marriages to end. The divorce was always final for me; I just always wished I didn’t have divorced parents. I love my stepdad, stepmom, step-siblings, and half-siblings, all relationships I wouldn’t have if not for my parents’ divorce. I have a beautiful life. But there is this sadness that aches because I know we all have broken and scarred relationships because of divorce, and I can’t do anything about it.

My Parents’ Divorce Terrified Me for My Kids and Marriage

Since I married, I’ve prayed that my husband and I will grow old together; that we will be quick to forgive, slow to anger, and not keep a record of wrongs against each other. We are sinners who need to give and accept grace if we are going to pass on a legacy to our children of love and faithfulness in our marriage. I have no disillusionment that I am somehow above divorce. But may God save me — and my husband and children — from ever having to suffer on that road.

Everything good about it was ruined because it ended with that dreaded separation, just like all of the Christmases of my childhood I can remember.

I am terrified by the statistic that adults who come from divorced families are more likely to divorce than those whose parents remained married. Not surprisingly, both of my parents come from divorced homes. My mom once told me the two greatest hurts in her life are her divorce and her parents’ divorce.

The only time my dad ever spoke to me about the divorce was when he said it was the only regret of his life. It makes sense. He didn’t get to teach us how to drive, walk me down the aisle, and spend most holidays with his kids.

One December 26, my dad picked us up and told us how excited he was to celebrate Christmas with us. I remember feeling sad for my mom, who was standing at the door waving to us as we left. Looking back, I see how much effort my dad put into that day—the only day he came to see us that month—but it fell so flat.

We went to the movies, opened presents, and got to eat at least twice the number of desserts my mom would have allowed. When it was all done, we said goodbye to dad for four weeks. Everything good about it was ruined because it ended with that dreaded separation, just like all of the Christmases of my childhood I can remember.

The Divorce Never Really Ends the Suffering

I once thought the holidays would be easier when I had my own family. I didn’t know that grandparents would have expectations about when they got to see their grandkids. I didn’t know that Christmas would still be shuffling back and forth between my parents’ homes hoping not to upset anyone. I didn’t know that I’d have to explain to my children for many years why I have two sets of parents.

When my children were small, I thought all of the grandparents would like a photo calendar of the children for Christmas. I put together the best pictures from the first three years of their lives. When I flipped through the pages, I realized couldn’t give it to my parents. One of the pictures had my mom and stepdad in it. Another one had my real dad. Everyone would be offended. I kept the calendars, and a day later I bought everyone generic gift cards and a box of chocolates.

That Christmas I gave out lame presents that should have been something so much more personal and delightful, and I had to do it twice because that’s how a divorced family does Christmas. You pretend everything is jolly even though at every gathering some of your family are missing. You establish new traditions and memories that exclude some of the most important people in your life. And no one wants to know that even though you’re fine, you really think it stinks.

The author is a regular Federalist writer who requested anonymity for this article to avoid inflaming the family situation it depicts.
This article has been corrected to attribute a quote from Miller’s book to the book’s forward writer, Jennifer Morse.