WASHINGTON, DC, May 31, 2012 – As a child of divorce, I swam in an ocean of hopeless dreams, gasping for air as the guilt of another’s decision ruthlessly sought to pull me below the silent waves. I was made responsible for the emotional devastation that swept through the lives that surrounded me, trapped by the workings of an innocent child’s mind. A castaway on the island of regret, I have spent almost my entire adult life trying to correct the mistakes of parents who were oblivious to the damage their decisions wrought on a young child. As I searched for an explanation as to why I was saddled with the guilt for the demise of a marriage, I found I was haunted more by the words that were never spoken. My heart bled from the spears and arrows of misplaced anger hurled at me for lack of a better target. I became the unwitting pawn in a war of wounded souls who lost sight of their humanity in a quest to inflict pain collected over a lifetime on their disintegrating union.
As I approached my own struggles with marriage I found the answers I had looked so hard to find and there emerged one sweeping revelation.
The divorce rate in the United States has fluctuated for many years. It entered the 50% range only to decline due to our current economic conditions. In times of greater prosperity the inclination to dissolve a union that is no longer functional increases, while during an economic downturn the drive to stay together becomes stronger. Caught in the middle of this process are the children who were conceived or brought into a marriage destined for demise. As a child of not one but numerous divorces by both parents, I can bear witness to the painful journey the children of divorce must endure. In his 1983 publication, “ The Life Course of Children of Divorce: Marital Disruption and Parental Contact,” Frank F. Furstenberg and others determined that almost 50% of children living in the United States are bystanders to their parents’ divorce. The research also indicated that close to half of those children would also witness a second divorce of a parent in their lifetime.
In the mind of a child, the relationship that their parents have is magical. Children will struggle to maintain the fantasy of that dream even in the most adverse conditions. Even after a divorce some children become convinced that their parents can get back together. The human mind yearns for happy endings, which means that Prince Charming and Cinderella are the role models for a child’s perception of marriage. This is the trap the mind becomes ensnared in as children of divorce search endlessly for perfection living in an imperfect world. I can remember, as a child being mesmerized by television shows flavored with the family ideals of the 1950’s. Despite the rigid gender roles embraced by the story line, the underlying theme of family comes first and sacrifice for the good of the family fed the fantasy inside me. It was a fantasy that kept me insulated from the naked truth and allowed a momentary cease-fire in the war that raged both inside me and around me.
There are shocking revelations about the impact of divorce and data from the publication “Marriage: The Safest Place for Women and Children” by Patrick F. Fagan and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. The author’s research revealed what those of us who have survived divorce already knew. Children who were raised in a home without a father were 4.6 times more likely to commit suicide than children of a stable marriage. The same children were 6.6 times more likely to become teenage mothers, 24.3 times more likely to run away, 15.3 times more likely to have behavioral disorders, 6.3 times more likely to be in a state-operated institutions, 10.8 times more likely to commit rape, 6.6 times more likely to drop out of school, and 15.3 times more likely to end up in prison while a teenager. Even in the most amicable of divorces the breakup of a marriage is difficult on a child’s mind. School age children suffer the most with the ability to understand what divorce is while lacking the proper emotional development to process the emotions involved.
The guilt borne by children of divorce provides a constant detour on the road they travel to finding happiness in their lives. As adults, we evade the concept of fallibility and hide our vulnerability from children. In the process of elimination this creates an image in the mind of a child that they bear blame for the negative and positive aspects of their environment. Children see things in the simplistic terms of how they impact their world by their actions no matter how small. If a child sees an angry reaction from an adult over the mess they have made, they perceive anger in an adult as having a root cause stemming from them. We are not all born communicators and children need a weather report for adult emotions as a basis for their development. In the case of divorce, there must be an open dialogue with children before the first angry words are spoken. It is something we can all improve on, and when couples decide to divorce it is the one thing that can save a child from a lifetime of bearing the burden of a broken home. Having an open dialogue will never make the breakup of the two people that a child most idolizes pain free, but it will minimize the pain a young child has to bear and allow them to have a chance at happiness.
Children of divorce are often times given an empty toolbox and sent off to repair their own lives struggling with the emotional scars of a world turned upside down. In the mind of a child, the adult world is cloaked in infallibility and exists in a plane where mistakes belong to others and blame is assigned a rapid-fire burst that evaporates blame. In the conflict that erupts during a divorce, a child rides an unimaginable wave of despair that leaves them feeling helpless over the events in their lives. As a child of divorce, my emotional compass could find no true north. I wandered in circles through my life until with the benefit of therapy I ended the patterns in my life. I was locked in a pattern of seeking out relationships that modeled the chaos of my childhood and chose only those that fed that chaos. It was the place that I felt most comfortable, the environment of my childhood that I despised and sought so desperately to get away from. It had become the place where I felt most comfortable. I derailed any semblance of stability that came into my life, preferring to languish in the quagmire of a rerun of my broken childhood.
In my childhood, the world of chaos turned at such an incredible pace that my survival hinged on day-to-day events. Divorce in my early years became just another engine that drove the dysfunction around me. My biological parents were married for only three short years and my conception was the driving force in the decision to enter onto that union. These were two individuals who I am convinced could not have sat next to each other on a cross country bus trip had romance not blinded them to their collective faults. At the time of my birth my mother had just turned eighteen and graduated from high school. My father was twenty-two at the time and joined the military to help pay for the cost of a child. Since it was the sixties, my father was immediately deployed overseas, which in my view is why the marriage lasted so long. Upon his return, the relationship began a descent into chaos as romance began its kamikaze run towards the core of hatred that would envelop what had once been a marriage.
Salvation for my parents’ marriage may have been a whisper at the very beginning of its end. Nothing, however, could prepare me for the hatred that can evolve when two people who once claimed to be in love reverse that emotion with the ferocity of a category five hurricane headed for landfall in the tiny expanse of a child’s heart. One of the great tragedies in life is the use of a child as an unwilling pawn in a war of wounded emotions with an appetite that cannot be satiated. My parents went beyond hatred during the demise of their marriage. Even after their divorce my parents despised each other, and the fact is neither of them ever really understood the reason this hatred possessed them. The simple reason is that my parents were so weighed down by the issues that had ruled their lives as children they refused to deal with it until all finally exploded in the disintegration of their marriage. I know from personal experience that once you shed this baggage the beauty of marriage becomes clear. The ability to communicate with each other and with your children is a requirement for a healthy marriage and happy childhood.
The divorce of my parents set in motion events that robbed me of my childhood and saddled me with a lifetime of pain. My last happy memory as a child is just before the eventual downfall of the union instigated by my conception. In the years that followed I suffered physically, emotionally and spiritually as my cries for help fell on deaf ears. My parents continued ignoring the issues that prevented them from finding happiness, and both divorced two or more times in their lives. I became a long-term victim of childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, turned to alcohol at an early age, eventually attempting suicide to escape the pain of my life. As an adult I confronted my parents over the hell my life had become as a child, and neither accepted responsibility for their actions or lack thereof. Their reaction was anger at what I told them, a truth they already knew but denied as it festered beneath the skin of their soul. I had spoken my final words to them, and in some way I knew that before even contacting them. In my own way I had finally divorced them and in that final gesture freed myself to heal the wounded heart of a young boy who only wanted to smile and play in the sun forever.
My revelation after all the years of soul searching is that happiness is something so rare and beautiful that you hold onto it with all your strength. Learn to recognize it when it comes into your life and embrace it despite the fear in your heart. Work as hard as you can to keep happiness in your life and that includes communicating with those who have given you that gift. If you try and do this every day you will find it growing inside you. Happiness will only bloom when both people are willing to unlock the fertile ground inside them and cast aside the doubts and fears that hold them back from the greatest treasure in life.