Every year over a million children experience the divorce of their parents, and at least one-quarter of all young adults are children of divorce. And those numbers grow when you include people whose parents never married but later split up, or those whose parents divorce later in life (“gray divorce,” which is on the rise).
The ministry that my husband Dan and I founded, Life-Giving Wounds, seeks to give voice to the pain of now-adult children of divorce or separation, and help them find God’s lasting healing. While every child of divorce has his or her own unique story, we’ve seen common threads in the hundreds of men and women we’ve accompanied through Life-Giving Wounds and common desires for what they wish the Church understood about them.
Five Things Children Of Divorce Want The Church To Know
- Our wounds may be invisible, but they’re real
A lot of the research about how family breakdown affects children focuses on outward, quantifiable effects: children of divorce are more likely to grow up poor, more likely to “act out,” less likely to complete college, and so on.
These are important – and serious – effects, but there’s often a lot going on below the surface that’s just as real, like questions about our identity, what “home” means, or fears about our abilities to sustain relationships ourselves. Even adult children of divorce who seem to “have it all together” might still feel deeply sad about their parents’ split. We want our particular wounds, including the invisible ones, to be seen and acknowledged.
- Family breakdown is a lifelong wound
When a divorce happens, or when unmarried parents split up, it’s like a rock has been dropped into a pond. The effects ripple outward further and further. Having divorced parents isn’t a one-time pain point, but something that we’ll deal with the rest of our lives, for example at every holiday, at our life milestones, if our family gets re-configured with step-parents and step-siblings, and when our parents get old and might need extra care from us.
Because of this, we need ongoing care, support, and understanding for all the ways that our parents’ split continues to affect us. It’s not something we can easily “get over,” as if our family’s breakdown is something entirely in the past, rather than something that continues to affect our present.
- We want to have lasting relationships, but we need some extra guidance
For many of us, seeing our parents’ relationship break down has caused a lot of anxiety and fear about our own ability to have lasting, happy relationships and marriages. On the one hand, we’re even more eager to sustain lasting love, because we know the pain caused by divorce. But on the other hand, we need extra guidance, encouragement, and mentors to fill in the gaps of what we missed – or learned incorrectly – in our own families. We want to count on the Church for this guidance, and not to feel the assumption that everyone has a solid, healthy family to use as a model for love.
- We want to hear more about forgiveness – and boundaries
Forgiveness is always hard, and forgiving our parents (or one parent) for the difficulties that their choices have caused us can be tremendously hard. We want to hear authentic Christian guidance about forgiveness: both what it is, and what it isn’t. We need help in knowing how to offer forgiveness even when the person who hurt us isn’t sorry, and in knowing that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning the other person’s actions.
We also want the Church’s guidance on what healthy boundaries look like in difficult family relationships, since forgiving and loving someone doesn’t mean letting them treat you unkindly. It’s hard to know how to navigate these difficult relationships with authentic Christian charity.
- We’re more than our wounds
While we want the Church to recognize and honor our wounds, we also want to be seen as more than broken or “damaged goods.” At times we feel a stigma of not coming from a “good Catholic family” but instead one with a lot of problems and baggage. Some of us have been told point-blank that we’re not good “marriage material” because of our family’s brokenness.
We want to know that we have a lot to offer the Church not despite our wounds, but because of them. If we’re able to find the healing we desire, we can give a tremendous witness to the power of redemptive suffering and the joy Christ gives in the midst of trials. We want to be seen not just as a statistic, but as saints in the making, with something beautiful to offer the world, through our wounds.
Life-Giving Wounds’ project Perfect Love Casts Out Fear was a finalist in the 2021 OSV Challenge, a contest designed to accelerate project ideas that will make a profound impact on the Catholic Church and the world.