Divorce hurts everyone involved. I have spent the last two years talking about the pain I have experienced, about how I have come through the pain to find the joy of Christ. I have shared how God has redeemed my life, brought me back from the death of divorce and given me an abundant life. I have shared the excitement about my future—a future that God is preparing for me that will be far greater than anything I could ever ask or imagine.
But, I’ve spent very little time talking about the pain that divorce inflicts on children.
I think there are a number of reasons for not talking about the pain children experience. One, I don’t understand that pain. My parents have been married for 51 years. My grandparents were married for nearly 72 years. I have never experienced the pain of divorce as a child of divorce. Two, my kids have grown and become so much stronger through this experience. They are so much healthier and happier today than they were five years ago. I think because they are such amazing kids, I don’t always recognize the pain they still experience. Three, this blog is about what God has done in me through the trials and tribulations of this life. I don’t want to disparage my ex-husband. And, I certainly don’t want to share private struggles of my children and betray their trust.
Having said all of that, I have been contemplating the deep devastation that this divorce has had on my children. I know the scars are there. I know there are ongoing battles that they are fighting. I know that despite their happy exterior, they bear deep injuries that are just beginning to surface.
This weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting with a friend who now understands divorce from both angles: his parents divorced when he was 14, and he has recently gone through a divorce of his own. Listening to him talk about some of his struggles following his parents’ divorce really helped me understand what my kids are going through, the internal struggle that they battle each and every day. Some of these battles have been shared with me; some have been buried deep within my kids’ souls. But, even today—more than five years after the divorce—the battle rages on.
Each of my three kids is fighting the same battle, and yet it looks completely different for each child. Each one has chosen to wage this war and cope with the pain in a different way. Some of those coping methods are healthy; some are not.
I wish that I was one of the few that has been able to maintain a great, working relationship with my ex-spouse. Unfortunately, that is not my story. You see, I had to set some extreme boundaries years ago to protect myself mentally and emotionally. I reached a point where I knew that I could no longer subject myself to some of the unhealthy situations that continued even after the divorce. I drew a firm line, and continue to enforce the boundaries—an absolutely essential step for me to become healthy.
However, that firm line means that there is very little collaboration when it comes to the children. We live two very different, very separate lives in different parts of the state. And, it’s our children who are forced to constantly bounce between two vastly different worlds.
When parents divorce, children are torn between those two worlds. They have an intense desire to love and be loved by both parents. Ideally, both parents recognize this need and give the kids what they need. Ideally, both parents look at the situation and modify their expectations based upon what the kids need and want. Ideally, both parents are looking out for the best interests of the children regardless of what the court order decrees.
Realistically, that is not always the situation.
When one or both parents are selfishly looking out for their own interests instead of the interests of their children, resentment builds within the kids. They are placed in unhealthy situations. They lose their childhood.
There are some common themes that I see throughout my interactions with children of divorce. One is the overwhelming protective nature of the oldest boy when it comes to his mother. I have seen this nature in my oldest son. Only days after separating from my husband, my oldest looked me in the eye and said, “Well, I guess I’m the man of the house now.” The child was only ten years old! He had no business taking that burden upon himself, and yet that was exactly how he felt. Even now, he still battles with how to handle the situation because of his intense desire to protect me and his younger siblings. He feels responsible to be the protector of the family.
That desire to protect is innate to his character. It is an honorable trait, one that will take him far in this life. And yet, he is still a child. Balancing his protection of those around him with setting healthy boundaries for himself is an on-going struggle, one for which we have yet to find the delicate balance that is needed.
My middle child calls himself the “neglected middle child.” Although it is often said in a joking manner, I know that he truly feels that way at times. He seems to live in the shadow of his older brother. He is this passionate bundle of compassion with a heart the size of Texas. And yet, he struggles with self-confidence, struggles with figuring out who he is.
Over the years, I think he has tried to find comfort in various ways. He has stuffed his hurt deep down within his soul, tried to bury it. It has only been recently that he has begun to open up to me, to share the struggles that he has. It’s only recently that he has begun to tell me of the deep-seated hurt, the rejection that he often feels. It’s only been recently that he has begun to share with me the anger that is constantly bubbling below the surface.
And then there’s my angel. When I first separated, I noticed that she immediately began to gravitate toward men. Fortunately, I am blessed with some amazing men in my family who have gladly stepped in and provided that male father-figure for her. She is her Grandpa’s girl! And, despite the fact that she argues incessantly with her brothers, they are her heroes who would fight to the death for her.
She, too, struggles. She longs for the love and acceptance of a father in her life each and every day. She wants desperately to be Daddy’s little girl, to have a constant in her life who will be her protector and her prince charming. She wants a man to shower her with unconditional love and acceptance.
And, they are all fighting to accept that their childhood has a huge void, that it’s broken and incomplete.
I don’t have all the answers—not really sure I have any answers. I know I don’t have any concept of the pain their little hearts bear, even though we are all very happy with our lives today. But, I know there are a few things that I will continue to do.
Encourage my children to honor their father. According to scripture, we are to honor our parents. I struggle with helping my children understand what honor truly means. I expect that my children will treat their father with respect, that they will never seek to defame or humiliate him. However, honor does not mean that children need to be a doormat. It does not mean that they must submit to verbal or emotional abuse. Perhaps honor involves standing up in a respectful manner and establishing boundaries for their own well-being. Perhaps by refusing to be treated disrespectfully, they are doing one of the most honoring things they can.
I know that for many years I allowed myself to be treated disrespectfully because I thought that it was my duty to submit. I now realize that if I don’t have honor and respect for myself, I can’t honor and respect others. I can respectfully refuse to allow others to treat me in a way that disrespects me.
Maintain open communication with my kids. My kids know that they are always welcome to talk to me. Many nights, I have a child in my room after everyone else is in bed. When one of the kids comes to my room, I know it’s going to be a late night (I’ve had two such visitors tonight even as I attempt to write). I also know that it’s essential that I am available. No topic is off-limits. I want them to know that regardless of their struggle, they have an unconditional love and acceptance with me.
My kids don’t always agree with me. Sometimes they want to seek another opinion. I always welcome them to talk to trusted advisors. I always encourage them to take their concerns to God in prayer. I always tell them that I will stand with them 100%.
Ask God to parent through you. I was reading the story of Samson this week when I came across Judges 13:8:
Manoah asked the LORD, “Please, my Lord,” he said, “let the man of God whom you sent come back to us once more, so he can teach us how we should treat the boy who is to be born.” CEB
How often do I call out to God, begging him to teach me how to handle the difficult things with my kids! He is my endless supply of wisdom. He is my direction. He is the Father to my fatherless children. He is my co-parent—the one I trust to parent through me.
I know that I have made many mistakes with my kids, and I know that I will make many more. But, I also know that the One who has called me will also enable me. I know that in my weakness, his grace is sufficient. I know that he is working all these things together for good for my precious children and for me.
Lord Jesus, my heart breaks for the broken hearts within my children. I pray that you, the healer, would step in and knit their hearts back together again. I pray that you would give them wisdom to know how to honor their parents even while setting healthy boundaries. I pray that you would set them free from the constant pain and brokenness of their lives. Restore their joy, and use this pain to make them into your image. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.