The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

For half of today's young adults, the most important event of their childhood was the divorce of their parents. The divorcing parents probably paid attention to how the divorce affected their kids at the time, but few look to see how that divorce affects their future. In The Unexpected Legacy of DivorceJudith Wallerstein shows us that some of the most significant effects of divorce rear their heads twenty-five years after the fact. Among her findings she lists three lasting impacts of divorce upon children.

First, the pain of divorce causes the children to be very scared and hesitant about seeking marriage. Second, the instability of divorce causes the children to expect failure. Third, the absence of role models leaves the children ill equipped to work out the conflicts and struggles of their own marriages.

Children of divorced parents have been devastated by the break up of the most important relationship of their childhood lives. When they reach college, the search for a lifelong mate takes center stage, but the fear of rejection haunts their search. Many protect themselves by never cleaving too tightly to people they love.

Others become desperately needy and vulnerable to anyone showing them attention. No matter how healthy the relationship seems, beneath the surface lurks the thought: my parents were once in love too, and look how they ended up.

Children of divorce have also learned to wait for disappointment like they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Many have lived with holidays and birthdays regularly disrupted by the fighting of adult parents. Others have experienced a litany of broken promises, as single parents have not had the time to attend their needs.

As adults they live like cowering animals, expecting to have their feelings hurt or to be deserted. Now as they search for a spouse, they irrationally fear rejection after every disagreement, or take on such controlling personalities that nothing can hurt them again. Either way they lack the flexibility and confidence that budding relationships require.

Finally, children of divorce have not watched a couple work their marriage out over years of time. They have not seen how a man and wife come together to get through disappointments, hardships, sickness and funerals. They have not learned how to use teamwork to raise a family. They have never seen two people who love each other argue, compromise and make-up. They now want to start the most significant job of their lives, beginning a family, with no training. So they feel lost and scared, so scared that many avoid looking for one at all.

How then should these children proceed? (Here I add some of my reflections to Dr. Wallerstein’s.) First, they need to seek by faith the power of the resurrection. Jesus has not saved us to leave us the sinners we were. He has given us the grace to change. We are not doomed to repeat the sins of our parents. Yes, we must recognize that we have their tendencies, but by grace we can change.

Second, we must base our relationships upon our faith in the Lord who loves us. No, you will never know anyone well enough to be assured they will love you forever. But if you put your trust in the providence of God, and you are as sure as you can be that you are marrying within his standards (i.e. marrying a fellow believer), and then you can act confidently. Believe that He who did not spare his own son, but freely gave him up for us all, will with him also give us all things, which includes good marriages. If you only put your trust in your attempt to find the right person, then your fears will never rest.

Third, talk to your parents. Find out why they divorced, what went wrong, and how they made their decisions. You are grown up now, and you need to know these things, and see them from a grown up perspective. Even if you think you know everything all too well, chances are you remember them from a child’s perspective exclusively. Fear grows in the dark. Divorce throws such angst over our relationships because we never understood it. From our perspective, one day our parents loved each other, then they argued a few times, then they split up. Your purpose here is not to assign blame, rather seek understanding from both parents’ point of view. Try to understand their divorce so you will not live in fear of the divorce boogey man jumping out at you.

Finally, seek healthy role models. Learn how couples (not movie couples, but the real things), do it. Keep their children, eat meals with them, and observe them. I had the great pleasure of spending two summers living with happily married Christian couples. Watching how they disagreed, served each other, made sacrifices for each other, played together, and loved each other, taught me that good marriages were possible. The myth today is that good marriages all depend upon finding that right person. If the person is right, the marriage will be easy. It is a lie! Marriage requires work, hopefully work you love to do, but work nonetheless. You need to learn the skills to do the work.

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