The story below is from an anonymous author, written at 21 years old. She gave permission for this story to be told.
I don’t know exactly why my parents chose to separate and pursue divorce. They have never seemed to get along super well, but as a child, I failed to realize the depth of the issues that were going on.
My mom planned to be with another man years before I was born, but somehow changed her mind. After I was born, she packed my brother and me in the car and threatened to leave my dad unless he did what she wanted. This happened on several occasions.
My parents never slept in the same room when I was growing up. I can remember telling them they should go to dinner together when I was younger, but they would almost always decline, saying that they didn’t want to leave me and my brother alone (my brother is two-and-a-half years older than me). When they did spend time together, they would return from their outing irritable. My mother would go to her room and my dad would go into his office and work (he worked from home).
Their fighting used to make me upset and insecure as a kid, but when they converted to Catholicism, I thought they would be together forever since the Church does not support divorce. I failed to realize the difference between divorce and separation, however.
I also failed to fully realize that my parents were human and therefore not perfect. More recently, family issues have escalated. These have resulted in my dad pursuing legal separation or divorce – whichever is cheaper.
My brother recently overheard a phone conversation my mom had in which she expressed plans to be intimate with the man on the phone, but said she couldn’t because she already made plans to be intimate with a different man (and it’s not my dad). I am sure this has not helped her relationship with my dad.
My parents are still separated, but have not actually moved apart yet. They live separated under the same roof. Yes, it is as miserable as it sounds.
HOW THE SEPARATION MADE HER FEEL
When my mom told me she and my dad were separated, I can’t even describe how horrible I felt. It was like my world was falling apart in a thousand ways, like my image of family being forever was a lie, like even my faith was somehow flawed. After all, they were Catholic! Separation led to divorce, and divorce wasn’t a thing.
I wondered how God could have let this happen, and I wondered what was going to happen to me. I was looking at colleges at the time and had planned to go to school close to home so that I could commute. Where would I be living now? Would I have to go back and forth between my mom and dad? Or was I old enough to decide for myself? I had a horrible knot in my stomach that has never really left.
I remember how I felt when I went to bed that evening. My world was shattered and my heart was broken, but maybe it was just a bad dream. When I woke up the next morning, the memories of the previous evening washed over me. I felt hopeless, miserable, abandoned by God, and terribly alone, like someone had removed me from my home and left me in the middle of nowhere with no supplies and only the assurance that I would figure it out. I remember the feeling so acutely because every morning since then I have felt that way to some degree.
HOW HER PARENTS' SEPARATION HAS IMPACTED HER
My parents’ separation has impacted me in a multitude of ways, some of which I am still working to identify.
I blamed and still blame myself for the separation, largely because I was told it was my fault. This has led me to struggle with really disliking myself.
I don’t trust people and I don’t trust God. After all, if my own parents couldn’t be trusted, how can I trust other people? And if parents are spiteful, how do I know that God the Father isn’t more of a Zeus-like god, striking me with a spiritual lightning bolt when I step out of line?
I struggle in all of my relationships because of my lack of trust, and I can’t even imagine being in a romantic relationship. Marriage seems to frequently end in misery, and even though I know this is not true all the time, I still struggle with feeling that it is not worth it.
Parents (or at least my parents) comfort themselves with the thought that their kids are resilient and will be just fine, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that our worlds are destroyed by the dissolution of our parents’ marriage.
I struggle on a nearly daily basis with suicidal thoughts, and though I have never attempted it, I have come very close. Sometimes, the family tensions are so enormous that the only means I have of dealing with them is cutting. It is a terrible coping skill that I would not recommend to anyone. Please, if you are reading this and thinking of using self-harm as a coping skill, do not do it!
Family problems are intense, horrible, destructive, and can make you feel utterly miserable. Talk to someone. Go for a walk or a run. Listen to music. Pray. You are strong and you will get through this. Don’t give in and don’t give up.
Despite the negative changes, my parents’ separation has also changed me in positive ways.
I am far more independent now. I am closer to my extended family than I was before (I have lived with all of my local extended family at some point since the separation). I can empathize with people who are struggling because of their parents’ divorce/separation. Almost all of my friends at college come from broken families, so the benefits of being able to empathize should not be overlooked.
Even though I struggle with my faith more now, I also think I am closer to it. My self-harm habit has put me in the confessional a ridiculous number of times (I have most definitely found myself saying, “forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been a day-and-a-half since my last confession”), but this has also allowed me to encounter the love and mercy of Christ. No matter how many times I fall, He is there to forgive me and pull me back on my feet.
My parents’ separation has led me to view life differently, to realize that even seemingly perfect families have their demons, and to understand just how difficult parenthood and family life are.
ADVICE TO SOMEONE WHOSE PARENTS HAVE DIVORCED OR SEPARATED
It is so hard to give advice for this situation.
I guess I would start first with this: God loves you. I know it sounds cheesy and unhelpful, but it’s true. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Your parents might not seem to care about you while they wage war against each other; God cares. Maybe one of your parents is leaving you; God will never leave you. Draw close to Him. Tell Him how you feel. If you can’t trust anyone else, trust Him.
I love the song “Stars” by Skillet because it talks about everything God created, how He holds the stars in place, how He tells the oceans how to form, and how despite all of these majestic things He created, He also holds and knows your heart and calls you by name. You are just as majestic as the heavens and the seas to Him.
Second: it’s not your fault. Maybe your parents told you it’s your fault, so you blame yourself. Maybe they didn’t, but you think that if you just hadn’t acted out that one time (or all those times). Or if you had done what your mom or dad told you to do the first time. Or if you had done your chores. Or if you had been a perfect son/daughter. Then your parents wouldn’t have split. It doesn’t matter. Your parents made a vow to each other and to God, and they were to stay true to those vows, no matter what happened. Nothing you have done can change that.
Third: reach out to someone. Maybe you are comfortable talking to someone you know well, or maybe you are afraid of what a friend might think and you would rather talk to someone you don’t know well. Maybe you want to talk to a counselor. Whoever it is, just PLEASE reach out.
The thoughts and feelings that stem from your parents’ marriage dissolving are powerful, overwhelming, and too much to keep locked in your own head. I know it hurts. I know you don’t want to talk about it. But you will most likely find that talking will help. It helps even more to talk to someone who experienced divorce and/or separation as a kid themselves.
Fourth: it’s okay to not be okay. I think people try to console children of divorce/separation with comments like “at least there isn’t abuse,” “at least you know your parents love you,” “there won’t be as much fighting now,” or “it will get better.” Even worse, you might have been told that you need to get over it, that it has been long enough that you should be over it, or that your parents weren’t happily married and so the destruction of their marriage was necessary since everyone deserves to be happy.
When I found out my mom was cheating on my dad, two people told me “I know you are upset, but your mom is cheating on your dad, not on you.” Though well-intentioned, that comment did not help at all. When a loved one passes away, it is expected for you to mourn. Why shouldn’t it be the same when you are watching your family die? Your world is being shaken. You are the physical manifestation of your parents’ vocation and love for one another. It is understandable that you feel upset, broken, and just not okay.
Fifth and lastly: try to be gentle with your parents. I know they are the source of your pain. I know they are difficult. I know they try to make you choose sides, and then get upset when/if you do. I know they act more like a child than you. I know that the parent-child role is reversed and you feel like it is your job to be the parent to your squabbling, toddler-like parents.
My grandmother called me one day and asked me to physically check on my mother, or to have my dad do it, as she was worried my mother was a risk to herself. My dad thought it wasn’t serious, so I had to drive over to my parents’ place (as I mentioned previously, they were and are separated, but living in the same house). She was fine and very condescending about my concern for her.
It is hard in these moments to gentle, kind, and merciful to our parents when we really just want to throw things and scream. But we are called to honor our parents (when they are acting reasonable) and to love and forgive always.
HOW TO HELP YOUNG PEOPLE FROM DIVORCED AND SEPARATED FAMILIES
I don't know what specifically needs to be done, but teens and young adults from divorced and separated families need to know that someone cares about them. There are so many support groups out there for spouses who are divorcing/separating, but almost nothing for the kids. These teens and young adults need support too. I am not sure what form that support needs to take, however.
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