It’s 4:30am. I am wrapped up in a comfy blanket on my couch with my dog snuggled close as I type these words. I think she senses my anxiety. My dear friend has asked me to write an article on the topic of children and divorce for her ministry, and I have waited until the last possible minute to complete the assignment. I think the truth is I’ve been avoiding this subject for a reason deeper than simple procrastination. It’s been twenty years and I am still getting over my own parents’ divorce.
There are countless studies on the effects of divorce in children. They all agree that possible side effects of divorce on children include: trouble in school, regressive behavior, depression, separation anxiety in younger kids, excessive rebellion in teens, and lifelong trust issues in close relationships. (Psychology Today: Trauma of Divorce and Its Effect on Children by Stephen Joseph, PhD.) I can’t speak for the studies, but I know what I lived through. Some psychologists claim there is a way to have an “intelligent divorce.” What does that even mean? That somehow in the midst of ripping a family apart there is a way cauterize the wounds with minimal pain and suffering?
Marriage is a covenant a man and woman make before God that they will love each other forever no matter what. God sees this covenant as two people joining together to become one. A divorce is essentially slicing one person in half. Does this sound graphic? Try living through it.
Here’s the place where I clarify my heart and my message: In no way am I advocating for a person to stay in an abusive marriage. I believe a woman should be loved and cared for in her own home. There is no room for physical and emotional abuse in a loving home. If there is true abuse happening in a home, then the guilty person has already violated the marriage covenant to love their partner more than they love themselves. I believe God can work miracles in relationships, and I have seen that in my own life, too. There comes a time, though, when even God will say, “enough.” A home littered with turmoil and a lack of safety and stability is as harmful as a divorce itself. Living outside of the providential lines God has drawn out for us in marriage will result in removal from His blessing.
However, living in a time when the current divorce rate in the Church is roughly the same as outside the Church, we need to address the most vulnerable treasures in the wake. Divorce has become so commonplace I fear we are becoming calloused to it. There is a reason God warns against divorce. It should only be chosen under the most extreme circumstances. I would be interested to know how many marriages were given up on before God was done with them. Maybe we need to listen less to the voices telling us how much greener the grass is on the other side of the fence, and listen more to the ones who so desperately just want a lawn in which to play. After all, the grass is typically greener where you water it.
Growing up, the only happy marriages I knew were in the homes of my friends, and the caricature versions I watched on television. They seemed too easy to me. Home life was relaxed and fun in those places, but I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Families that were happy couldn’t be real. In my house I was always nervous. Would my parents be holding another screaming match, or would they take a break for the night and simply ignore each other? Some nights my dad would head out to the garage to drink in solitude. I mostly looked to TV and books or magazines for moral guidance on relationships and otherwise. I believed if I dressed, spoke, and acted a certain way that I would gain the love and acceptance of others.
My mom did her best to protect me from my dad. She knew the boundaries of his temper and sought to keep me shielded from his anger. Their relationship, though, was in a constant state of rage simmering just below the surface, and sometimes erupting into a full roil. My mom’s efforts to keep me safe from my dad only served to contort my interactions with my dad to cold and robotic. I knew my dad loved me the way I knew Disney World existed. I knew it was real based on rumors and someone else’s account of it, but I had really only seen it for myself maybe once.
My parents finally divorced when I was sixteen. My dad moved out just as another guy was moving in. He didn’t move in to our home physically, but he moved into our lives. I blamed myself at least partly for my parents’ separation. In my mom’s heart, her first marriage had been over for years, and I agreed with her. Moving on to another relationship was easy for her because it was a new beginning. She saw this as her chance at the true love and happiness she had been missing for decades. Eventually, I moved past my bratty teenager stage enough to accept him as my own family and even love him. He really did treat my mom well.
For my dad and me, this was a new beginning as well. I didn’t want anything to do with my dad at first. Why would I? All I had ever known of him was the anger, the alcoholism, and the terrible things my mom would tell me about him. Part of the disillusionment agreement was that my dad got to see me on the weekends. No part of me wanted to go, but my mom and the agreement insisted. Dad started taking me shopping. He took me to movies. We frequented the fancy coffee shops I had recently discovered. My dad chased after me. We were finally building the relationship God planned out for us. What the enemy meant for evil, God used for good.
Unfortunately, the beginning of my relationship with my dad also signaled the end of my close relationship with my mom. The new start for her didn’t seem to include me. I know in my heart she didn’t set out to do so, but nonetheless, she left me to navigate this huge life change on my own. I can’t blame her for neglecting to do what she was oblivious to. In her mind, this bad chapter of her life was over, so I guess she assumed it was over for me, too. It would be nice if things just ended so nicely, like a package wrapped up and tied with a shiny bow. I wouldn’t realize how deeply their divorce affected me until I viewed it in hindsight years later.
As a stereotypical teenager with divorced parents, I started to rebel. I was a pretty great actress, though, and my performances extended well past the high school stage. My perfectionist nature dictated that my grades, my reputation and anything else I attempted were rated with excellence. Since my home life was a wreck, I did all I could to keep things orderly for myself. During this time, I found Jesus and started to attend youth group at a church. I learned that Jesus loved me and had a plan for me, and I quickly jumped on board with my whole life, even answering the call to vocational ministry. There was still a deep, bleeding wound in my heart, though, and I was desperately seeking approval from people.
I learned the powerful influence I could have over guys just by walking in a room. It felt good to be seen as desirable. No, it didn’t feel good. It felt amazing. To be sought out and wooed met a need in my heart to feel valuable. Little did I know this wound was actually a vacuuming dark hole of emptiness? As quickly as I would start a relationship, I would begin to watch for signs that the affection was fading. I was most often the one to overdo it in the relationship, and also usually the one to end it. If I left them, then they couldn’t leave me. Once this pattern of behavior began, my reputation went from “squeaky clean” to “easy.” At one point a group of upperclassmen actually had a contest to see who could get the farthest with me. My reaction to learning this plot was best described as numb. I even took that on myself, rationalizing that I must have deserved that kind of treatment.
Depression and anxiety emerged just as I was leaving adolescence and pursuing adulthood. It hit me hard my freshman year of college. If it wouldn’t have been for a loving campus pastor who saw this deep struggle within me and told me it was okay to go home, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. The summer I transferred home was the same one my mom got married and moved two states away. Of course, I had an open invitation to live with them, but I had just settled in at a new college and moved closer to my soon-to-be fiancé. This set the stage for my abandonment issues.
I am so thankful this isn’t the end of my story. It was only by the grace of God that I met the wonderful man whose name I chose to take. He loves me more than I imagine I deserve, and on my worst days when all my issues come blazing out into the open I question the sanity of his choice to stick by me. If the grace of God brought us together, it is our commitment to God that keeps us together. We are two extremely imperfect people (see above description of my teenage years) who work really hard to love each other. Another lie the world would have us believe is that love is passive rather than active. It is something that happens to us; something we can’t control. The truth is that we have to choose to love each other every day. Some days we do a better job than others. In the end it is the love we receive from Christ that makes our endurance possible. On the days I start to doubt if it is worth all the work, all it takes is the tranquil smile from one of my precious children to remind me it most definitely is.