Dan’s parents separated when he was 11 and, after protracted legal proceedings, finally divorced when he was 26. (In a sad irony, this was also the year we got married.) Numerically, Dan is far from alone as a “child of divorce”: more than a million children each year see their parents split up, and one-quarter of all young adults are now-grown children of divorce.
But like so many children of divorce, Dan felt alone. He felt overwhelmed having to navigate the chaos and confusion caused by his parents splitting up, and he wasn’t sure where to turn for help. His parents’ separation and later divorce became a defining experience of his childhood and adulthood, marking a clear “before” and “after” his family was reconfigured.
In 2018, we founded a peer-based outreach to help adult children of divorce — like Dan — find deeper healing for the wounds caused by their family’s breakdown. Both from Dan’s own experience and from walking alongside hundreds of adult children of divorce, we’ve seen some consistent “habits of healing” that can help people move forward from this difficult experience into greater peace and joy.
Grieve the loss of your parents’ love together
Sadly, it’s not uncommon for children of divorce to feel like their pain is ignored, minimized, or even denied. Sociologist Elizabeth Marquardt, herself an adult child of divorce, describes this as “divorce happy talk”: the common narrative that kids are resilient (i.e., they’ll get over the divorce relatively quickly and painlessly), or that as long as the parents are happy, the kids will be too.
These messages, while often well-intentioned, can make children of divorce feel like their feelings of sadness or loss aren’t acceptable. Or children can self-censor, knowing that their parents are struggling and not wanting to add to their difficulties. Or the trauma caused by the family’s crisis can make people “freeze up” and, for the sake of survival, push away the negative feelings just below the surface.
An important habit for healing, then, is to give yourself permission to feel the pain about your parents’ divorce and to grieve the losses involved — whether that was losing your childhood home, missing time with an absent parent, feeling abandoned or forgotten, feeling torn between your parents, etc.
Like all experiences of grief, this is a process: feelings can come and go in waves. And losses can surface much later, too — for example, at milestones like marriage or the birth of a child, we again grieve our parents not being together. We’ve seen the freedom people feel when given the permission to bring up negative feelings toward their parents’ break-up — feelings and thoughts they may have suppressed for years. It’s not an easy process, but it’s a crucial part of healing.
Also, while there is a time and place for grieving alone, the Bible’s wise beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn” suggests that grief needs to be communal at some point — shared with others. We need to share this grief with the Lord and people who can truly receive the wound — whether that be a trusted friend, sibling, counselor, priest, or peer from a similar background. There is something that is fundamental to healing in having our grief received and reflected back to us by another’s love. We need this mediation of grief and love for our healing because we are relational beings.
Acknowledge how your parents’ divorce has affected you
Everyone’s family of origin has a profound impact on them. Like an iceberg, the visible part of what we say or do is often just the “tip” of all the habits and experiences that have become part of our identity. While it can feel intimidating to take a good hard look at ways we’ve been wounded by our parents’ divorce, this kind of reflection is extremely helpful in order to know the areas where we need healing and growth. And while every person is unique, research and personal testimonies show some common ways that children of divorce are affected by their parents splitting up:
- Divorce can wound a child’s identity: “Who am I, now that my parents are no longer together?”
- It can cause a feeling of homelessness — literally, in the sense of having two homes that don’t actually feel like “home;” and also on a deeper level of not knowing where we belong anymore.
- The trauma of divorce can wound a child’s spiritual life, raising age-old questions about God’s goodness: “How could God let this happen?” Feeling abandoned or rejected by a parent can make it harder to trust in God the Father or Mary our Mother.
- And children of divorce can question the stability of relationships altogether, which can have serious effects on future romantic relationships, the desire to marry, or the goodness of parenting.
It’s hard work — truly work — to look within and see whether and how your parents’ divorce has affected your identity, your faith, or your relationships. And it can feel tremendously unfair, being given this “baggage” by no fault of your own. But without making an accurate diagnosis of what places we need to be healed, we can’t move forward.
Reject the idea of ‘fate’ and the label of being ‘not enough’
At the same time, it’s so important to believe deep down — and internalize — that as children of divorce, we are neither fated to make our parents’ mistakes, nor do our wounds make us “less worthy of love” or “less capable of loving” than our peers from intact homes.
We encounter children of divorce all the time whose greatest fears are about their own ability to love, or that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to relationships. The stats are there: children of divorce are more likely to get divorced themselves, especially if they marry another child of divorce.
But statistics are neither destiny nor what God intends for us. The idea of “fate” is a lie that paralyzes, rejects hope, and can become an excuse to stop working on our lives and striving to be better than the examples we’ve seen.
Especially important here is seeking out good mentors to have solid, attainable examples to follow. In our own work with children of divorce, we are constantly amazed by people whose upbringings were filled with all kinds of dysfunction, but who have forged a different, more peaceful and joyful path — including many wonderful marriages and families. What a testament to the human capacity to overcome our circumstances and turn wounds into resources for love!
Work toward forgiving your parents
Another “habit of healing” is to make an effort to forgive your parents or those who caused deep hurt in your upbringing. Forgiving is a process — and it is hard, but also tremendously freeing.
We always stress that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Forgiveness only needs one person; reconciliation requires two. If the person we are trying to forgive doesn’t accept responsibility for his or her actions, or doesn’t have interest in mending the relationship, forgiveness will be unilateral — but it still “counts.” (After all, we’re only in control of our own actions and choices.) This unilateral forgiveness is very difficult, but Christ is the supreme example of it — he died for us and forgave us on the cross while we were still sinners. We need to trust in and receive His grace to help us forgive.
Also, forgiving those who hurt us does not mean that everything that happened to us was fine. When we forgive, we’re not condoning the other person’s actions or becoming a doormat for future offenses. In fact, healthy boundaries and genuine forgiveness go hand in hand, offering love toward others while respecting ourselves and our needs as we try to reconcile or deepen the relationship if it is prudent and safe to do so.
Healing from any difficult experience is a process often proceeding one step at a time, and healing from your parents’ break-up is no exception. These “habits of healing” can provide small steps forward toward a life of greater joy, peace, and confidence — we know practicing these habits has benefited our own lives tremendously.