“I saw your father the other day”, said a friend.
“He’s not my father,” I said. The correction was almost automatic, and the force of it startled me. My friend was surprised, but then continued.
Later as I chewed over the incident, I realized that there were two things that bothered me. The first was the inadequacy of our language: the man my friend was talking about was not my father. He wasn’t my stepfather either: he wasn’t married to my mother and he had never adopted me. The closest label I could come up with was ‘my de facto stepfather’, which was clumsy and still inaccurate.
The second was my friend’s misunderstanding of the relational nuances between the different members of my ‘family’: I have a mother, a father, a brother, a stepmother, a de facto stepfather, a de facto stepsister, a stepsister and a stepbrother in America whom I’ve never met. That’s complicated and alien to my friend’s experience (he was raised in an intact, Christian family). However, divorce is so common these days; I thought everyone would be familiar with the different configurations of the post-divorce family.
I’ve come to realize that my friend isn’t alone: I’m sure there are many Christians out there who find it hard to understand life in a broken home. So I’d like to present a snapshot of their experience—mostly from the perspective of a child of divorce—and provide some suggestions on how Christians can love and serve people in these circumstances.
But my intention isn’t to say, “Look at us! Didn’t we have it bad!”, my intention is to affirm the goodness of marriage. God is emphatically against divorce (Mal 2:14-16), and although the Bible acknowledges that sometimes divorce or separation is necessary (Matt 5:31-32, 19:9, 1 Cor 7:12-15), God’s pattern for sexual relationships has always been one man and one woman joined for life to the exclusion of all others. Divorce, then, shows us what happens when that pattern isn’t adhered to—when the family, the ‘first church’, dies and its members are scattered to the wind.
1. Growing up Generation Ex
No two divorces are the same because every divorce is comprised of different individuals.1 For some, divorce improves the situation (e.g. in cases of domestic violence or abuse); for others, it makes things worse. Although, from a Christian perspective, there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ divorce, the quality of the post-divorce experience largely depends on how the parents handle it and the strength of their relationships with their children. Sometimes the children cope well with the split; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they cope at the time and fall apart years later. It doesn’t matter what age the children are when it happens; some of my friends were married with children of their own when their parents got divorced, and it was still devastating.
Often the problems that caused the divorce are not necessarily resolved by the divorce, and play out in the years that follow. Parents who fought during the marriage usually fight after the divorce, and their children may either feel like they have to take sides, or they are enlisted by one parent (or both) to take sides. Some parents coach their child to hate their ex-spouse (often by badmouthing them), and co-opt them into spying for them. Sometimes they use their children as message couriers instead of talking to each other. Children can often feel like a football thrown between mum and dad, with any sort of contact (visitation, birthdays, Christmas, graduation, birth of grandchildren) becoming yet another opportunity for confrontation. It’s much better for the kids if parents can be civil towards one another.
Divorce changes a child’s relationship with their parents. Now, instead of living with both parents, they only live with one (or one at a time), while the other parent visits. Visitation makes the relationship with the visiting parent somewhat artificial as it is not governed by the daily routines of the household. Often the non-custodial parent (usually the father) doesn’t know what to do with his children or how to relate to them—particularly if he has offspring of different ages and genders. His visits may be erratic (especially if he lives in a different city or country). These visits may also decrease as he becomes more absorbed in his new life, or as he becomes more depressed about his situation (e.g. feeling like his family has moved on without him; feeling like he’s been replaced by a stepfather, etc.). Unfortunately, his children may react to this with anger, seeing it as proof of parental rejection. In other cases, the non-custodial parent may insist upon his right to visitation, threatening to withdraw child support if his family doesn’t comply. He may even adhere to an inflexible schedule which the child finds constricting. To maintain good working relationships with children post-divorce, visiting parents have to work very hard at them.
The relationship with the custodial parent also changes post-divorce. In some cases, children and parents become closer, banding together to cope with the crisis. The custodial parent (usually the mother) often ends up relying on her eldest child, sometimes crossing the line into co-dependency. If the custodial parent falls apart following the divorce, it can be the children who pick up the pieces, doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning and laundry, and putting their own developmental needs on hold in order to tend to their ailing mother or father. However, sometimes, the relationship between child and custodial parent becomes more distant, with mothers who had been housewives returning to work or study, or becoming caught up in new social lives. After school, children come home to babysitters or empty houses, and end up running wild.
Some children grow up in joint custody, with two homes instead of one. They can spend a lot of their time travelling, adjusting and re-adjusting to their changing environment—two different households, sets of clothes, sets of rules and styles of parenting. This can take a lot of mental and emotional energy, and, unsurprisingly, children are often cranky and upset on changeover days.
Living arrangements post-divorce are further complicated by the entry of new partners. As parents bring home girlfriends or boyfriends, children are exposed to more of their parents’ sexual activities, and their anxieties increase. Will my mother remarry? Will my father love his new girlfriend more than me? Will they still want me? It can be hard for a child not to feel like they’ve been replaced—particularly when the attention they previously enjoyed is now directed towards the new love interest. It can be even harder if the father’s girlfriend is not much older than his offspring.
Remarriage is always traumatic for children of divorce, awakening in them fresh feelings of grief. It’s the last nail in the coffin containing the remains of the child’s hopes of reconciliation. Some stepparents are great: they’re sensitive to their stepchildren’s needs, and may, over time, win their love and respect as parental figures. Some step-parents may even influence their spouses positively so that the parents take more of an interest in their children. Unfortunately, this may result in conflict between parents and step-parents, as stepfathers, recognizing deficiencies in their stepchild’s father, get angry on their behalf, or as parents feel like they’re being replaced. A child may feel caught in the middle, wanting to call their stepfather ‘dad’ but feeling like that would be disloyal to their own father.
Some step-parents may have little or no interest in their stepchildren. They may be reluctant to assume a parental role, or they may insist on it, presuming to have authority they don’t have. One woman I read about was forced to call her stepmother ‘mother’, even though her stepmother was the one who had broken up her parents’ marriage. Some step-parents resent their stepchildren, stepmothers objecting when much of their new husband’s salary disappears into child support, or when he pays more attention to his children than to her. Step-parents may not even view the children as part of their family (e.g. my friend’s stepfather who, upon moving in, did not allow my friend to use his furniture for the first couple of months).
Step-parents may bring children of their own into the marriage. Stepsiblings may also be children of divorce, and can become friends or enemies. Given the competing demands of other children, some can feel like they’re being neglected, with there being not enough food, attention or resources to go around. This is also the case when half-siblings are born, the demands of a new child sometimes resulting in less attention and care for the child of the former marriage. The child of divorce can feel like he or she is being replaced, thus giving rise to feelings of abandonment, jealousy and depression.
The complicated nature of a child of divorce’s relationships may not be understood by extended family, friends, educational institutions or employers. In situations of death or illness, society may not recognize the importance of certain relationships to children of divorce, while valuing others that the child may not see as being as important.2 When my stepmother’s mother died, I was told by my then employer that I could not get compassionate leave to attend her funeral. Death and ageing raises further issues for children of divorce: if my father dies before my stepmother, is it my responsibility to look after her when she’s elderly? If my mother dies, will her partner or her partner’s children try to claim her assets? What is my obligation to these people I hardly feel related to?
Given these dilemmas, it is no wonder that children of divorce struggle emotionally. They are statistically more likely to do poorly academically; to suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem; to abuse substances (drugs and alcohol); to become sexually active earlier; to participate in delinquency; and to experience divorce in their own marriages.3 Often they are carrying a lot of anger—anger at the deficiencies of one or both parents (particularly if adultery ended the marriage)—anger at their helplessness to change things (e.g. if they have to take on more responsibilities, like taking care of younger siblings or doing more household chores)—anger at being treated as a piece of property instead of as a person (child support often ceases at 18, the parental attitude being, “Now you’re an adult, you’re on your own”)—anger at enforced visitation (with time spent with the visiting parent taking away time spent with peers)—anger at having to raise themselves because there is no-one else around. They may also tend towards perfectionism (believing that if they do everything right, their parents won’t leave) and distrust (because if someone they loved has betrayed them, there’s no reason that others won’t as well). They may also not recall large chunks of their lives, the lack of continuity and/or the high incidence of stressful circumstances often resulting in patchy memories. Divorce is not just an isolated incident in a child’s life; it tends to affect everything in the years that follow.
2. Loving and serving Generation Ex
Unfortunately, because divorce is seen as a private thing, most people feel like they shouldn’t interfere at a time when children of divorce are in their greatest need. As Judith Wallerstein writes,
Divorce is … the only major family crisis in which social supports fall away. When there is a death in the family, people come running to help. After a natural disaster, neighbors rally to assist those who have been hurt. After most such crises, clergymen may call on the family to console adults or speak with children who are badly shaken. But not so with divorce.4
But divorce does not just affect the family going through it, it has ramifications for the whole of society. As more children from broken homes enter adulthood, we should expect to see a higher incidence of divorce (and therefore more children of divorce), more people with mental health problems (and perhaps sexual health problems), more substance abusers and more individuals with relational issues. Divorce also impacts the environment: more households containing fewer people results in the consumption of more resources.5 This is why it is important for us to see divorce as being ‘our’ problem, not just ‘their’ problem, and to seek ways in which we can help. Family, friends, teachers, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, Bible study leaders, ministry trainees, ministers: all of us have a role to play.
With my parents not being around much while I was growing up, my friends became my support network. It helped that some of my friends were also children of divorce as they understood what I was going through. Here are some of the ways that friends can help:
Meet with them to read the Bible and pray. Comfort them with the comfort you have received from God (2 Cor 1:4-5). Speak of the goodness of the ultimate Father. Pray for them. Teach them in turn to care for you in Word and prayer.
Listen to them. Children of divorce have often been neglected, and it means a lot to have your undivided attention. Ask them about their divorce experience. Help them to grieve. Empathize and sympathize. Say, “I’m sorry that happened to you. That’s awful.”
Show yourself to be trustworthy. Some children of divorce find it hard to trust others because their trust has been broken. They may believe it’s better not to trust anyone because trusting leaves them vulnerable to betrayal. Show them that there are trustworthy people in the world. Model for them what it looks like to trust and be trusted.
Help them to understand the reality of their situation. Most children of divorce don’t realize what impact the divorce has had on their lives until they start exploring the issues. They need to work through and try to ‘master’ the experience. Help them to understand themselves and their emotions. For example, if they say they hate their parents, help them to learn to honour their sinful mother and father, while at the same time not condoning their parents’ sin. Encourage them to go to counselling, but don’t assume the counsellor will solve all their problems. If appropriate, ask them about their counselling sessions.
Most importantly, help them to understand their triggers. Triggers are events or situations (e.g. birthdays, weddings, funerals, Christmas and childbirth) which cause large emotions like anger or grief to come tumbling out. I remember feeling really depressed at a friend’s wedding, and I realized later it was because I was envious of her: she had close friends and a loving family, and everyone was genuinely happy for her and her fiancé. I was happy for her too, but I was also sad because her wedding reminded me of everything I had lost.
Remind them to be other-person-centred. Sometimes the rabbit hole of divorce ends up tunnelling so deep, children of divorce can become too preoccupied with their own troubles to have much room for others. Help them to grieve but not to dwell on the past unnecessarily.
Teach them life skills. Some children of divorce grow up to be independent and resourceful because they had to raise themselves. But there are some things you just can’t learn on your own—for example, driving. With my mother refusing to teach me and my father living overseas, I don’t know what I would have done without my friends’ help.
One of the most wonderful blessings of becoming a Christian is being adopted by God the Father. The local church is supposed to reflect this heavenly family. Church, then, can provide a home for the homeless and parents for the parentless but not orphaned. Here are some ways in which churches can love and serve children of divorce:
Preach and teach Scripture. Preach the full character and counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Preach the theology of relationships because of the God of relationships. Preach the goodness of marriage, family and children. Don’t just preach to children of divorce; preach it to everyone.
Share the gospel. Sometimes children of divorce are ripe for the gospel because they can tell something’s not right. Some are attracted to church communities because church contains the sort of loving relationships they never had. Certainly this was one of the reasons I started hanging out with Christians long before I came to know Christ; the people were so nice!
Model good relationships. Model good marriages so that children of divorce can see how marriage works. It was refreshing for me to discover that there are many different ways to be married: one couple I read about fought a lot and threw things (but not at each other), but still had a good marriage because they protected each other.6 Children of divorce need to learn that not every fight ends with someone walking out, that they don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that conflict is resolved through forgiveness and repentance. Model headship, submission and the sacrificial love of Christ (Eph 5:21-33).
Also model good parenting. This is important for when children of divorce become parents themselves. Show how parents are supposed to relate to their kids—not as confidantes, best friends, helpers or substitute spouses, but as parents and kids. Model Christian family practices: how do husbands and wives read the Bible together? How do you pray with your kids? What does it mean for a family to be hospitable or to engage in mission?
Finally, model appropriate social behaviour, treating older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, and so on (1 Tim 5, Titus 2). Some children of divorce have never been taught this, and upon reading passages like these, their thought may be, “How can I treat older men as fathers when I don’t even know how to treat my own father?”.
Start support groups at your church—for couples struggling in their own marriages, for couples going through divorce, and for children of divorce. Use these groups to preach the Word and reach out to your community.
There are many ways to love and serve divorcees and children of divorce in the wider community. In particular, the role of teachers should not be underestimated as, next to parents, they have the most contact with children, and can often sense that something is wrong.7 One of my high school teachers, upon seeing me crying in the halls one morning, took me aside, listened to me and then encouraged me to go to counselling. School is invaluable because it provides structure at a time when the major structure of a child’s life (the family) is falling apart. In addition, teachers can act as role models and mentors in times of turmoil.
Be an advocate for social change—not only in insisting on the value of God’s gift of marriage, family and children, but also in calling for decent support structures for divorcing families—counselling centres, workshops on conflict management, classes on how to minimize the negative impact of divorce on children, mediators for working out joint custody arrangements, resources for children of divorce,8 and so on. In the US, there are Centres for Families in Transition; in the Australia, to my knowledge, there is only one.9 I was unable to locate any in the UK.
Finally, pray: ask God to keep transforming our world with his gospel so that all will acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship.
It’s not secret that God hates divorce, and for good reason: God laid down a pattern for healthy human relationships, and when that pattern is broken, the consequences are far-reaching and devastating. However, in his mercy, he has given us each other. Although most divorces cannot be reversed and their impact cannot be lessened, on this side of heaven we can “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2), all the while looking forward to the day when the sons of God—his eternal family—will be revealed (Rom 8:19).
1 I am indebted to the work of Judith S Wallerstein and her 25-year study of children of divorce and their families for much of this material: see Surviving the Breakup (with Joan B Kelly), Basic Books, New York, 1996 (1979); Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce (with Sandra Blakeslee), Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1989; and The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study (with Julia M Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee), Hyperion, New York, 2000.
2 For more on this, see Elizabeth Marquardt, ‘The New Alone’, The Washington Post, 27 January 2008: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/25/AR2008012502775.html.
3 Judith Wallerstein, Julia M Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study, pp. 294-301. See also Peggy Patten, ‘Divorce and Children Part I: An Interview with Robert Hughes, Jr., PhD’, ParentNews 5(5), 1999, http://www.athealth.com/consumer/disorders/childrendivorce.html.
4 Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce, Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1989, p. 7.
5 Reuters, ‘Divorce “is bad for environment”’, The Age, 4 December 2007: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/12/04/1196530636018.html.
6 Judith S Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage, Warner Books, New York, 1995, pp. 132-42.
7 For more on this topic, please see Judith S Wallerstein and Joan B Kelly, Surviving the Breakup, Basic Books, New York, 1996 (1979), pp. 264-284.
8 There are many resources for children and teens, but not much for adult children of divorce.
9 Children and Families in Transition (CAFIT) project, University of South Australia and Centacare: http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/cpcm/cafit.asp. See also Children and Teens First: http://www.chatfirst.com.au/.