If your parents are divorced or have split up, you’re not alone. While family breakdown can impact a child’s life in several noticeable ways - such as being more likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to drop out of school, and more likely to experience emotional or behavioral problems - it’s harder to see the invisible wounds that can last into adulthood. But these wounds are no less real, and deserve attention in order to heal. Here are five invisible wounds that adult children of divorce may experience.
1. The wound of silence
Many adult children of divorce report feeling pressure (explicit or perceived) to not share their honest feelings about how their parents’ split affected them. Maybe they feel surrounded by what researcher Elizabeth Marquardt calls “divorce happy talk” that makes negative feelings seem unwelcome or even wrong. Or maybe they’re still reeling from the trauma of divorce (the word used in the Catechism), which can make people “freeze,” unable to examine the source of pain out of an understandable need for survival.
2. A sense of homelessness
Divorce means no longer having one unified family in one home. Growing up, some kids split time between mom’s house and dad’s house, traveling like “a sort of small Sherpa, schlepping life’s essentials from port to port.” Other kids lose all or most contact with the non-custodial parent (most often the father). But deeper still, children of divorce are given the monumental task of making sense of the divergent homes – the two worlds – of their parents. For many, neither house really feels like home anymore, a feeling that can be exacerbated if parents “move on” and start new families. “Where do I fit in?” many wonder. “Where is home?”
3. A loss of childhood
Elizabeth Marquardt describes children of divorce as “child-sized old souls.” Faced with a serious family crisis, with one or both parents spiraling from their own pain, children of divorce often find themselves in parental-type roles: comforting siblings, parents, or keeping family routines functioning. Later on, many express sadness of having missed out on a more carefree childhood, one without so many grown-up worries. And it’s not uncommon for adult children of divorce to struggle with perfectionism and find it hard to just relax - many are used to being the doers in their families, the ones who kept it all together.
4. Questions about identity
Divorce can raise some deep identity questions for the children involved, who are a literal embodiment of their parents’ unity - which is now fractured. Consider the main identifying items on a driver’s license: name, face, and address. For a child of divorce, each of these is called into question. You may no longer share the same last name as one of your parents, or may have new step-siblings with a different last name. Your face, a biological blend of your parents’ faces, may now feel like a threat to one of them if the split was contentious. And your address recalls that there is no longer just one, shared family home.
5. Defaulting to self-protection in relationships
Many adult children of divorce worry about their own ability to sustain a long-term relationship. One way this manifests is by defaulting to unhealthy self-protection in relationships instead of mutual self-giving. Self-protection makes sense when you’re in a family crisis and relationships have been proven untrustworthy; but fast forward into adulthood, and it’s hard to maintain loving, lasting relationships if barriers are up at every turn. Long-term relationships require vulnerability and trust, both of which are hard if you’ve been wounded by your primary caregivers. The adult children of divorce we see in our outreach want to have lasting relationships, but either aren’t sure how or fear that their relationship will implode just like their parents’ did.
Rest assured that healing from the wounds caused by your parents’ divorce is possible. And acknowledging those wounds, as hard as it can be, is a great place to start.