“I come from a long line of leavers.” This lyrical confession from the band Caedmon’s Call grips me with sadness, regret and anxiety over something I never chose. It breaks my heart to admit it, but I come from a long line of leavers, too.
My grandparents started the trend; my parents, aunts, uncles and now cousins have continued to pass divorce from generation to generation, as though it were somehow ingrained in our DNA. No less than 16 divorces have torn apart our family.
A doom cloud darkened my view of marriage throughout college and beyond, and divorce statistics only validated my fear: children of broken homes are more likely to fail in their marriages, females choosing divorce 60 per cent more and males 35 per cent more than adult children of married parents, according to the National Opinion Research Center.*
Divorce leaves children with fear, anxiety, grief, anger, cynicism, doubt, a lost childhood and unanswered questions, says Judith Wallerstein, author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce and head of an extensive long-term study of children of divorce. While the initial impact of a parental breakup is difficult, Wallerstein found that the most damaging effect hits children when they enter young adulthood and begin considering love relationships and marriages of their own.
“If my parents couldn’t do it, how can I?” asks Ryan Denney, a 27-year-old child of divorce studying for his doctorate in counselling psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. “We’re not born knowing how to have positive relationships; we have to learn.”
When parents fail to model a healthy, committed relationship, their children often find it necessary to turn to someone else for answers about marriage.
“I love my parents, but I’ve realized that I may never get what I need from them,” Ryan says. “For the adult survivor, it’s about learning to let God parent you.” He recommends studying God’s model for marriage and forming connections with those who have God-honouring marriages.
The devastating experience of divorce often warps a child’s view of love and commitment, says Ruben Martinez, a 30-year-old child of divorce. “Subconsciously I figured, My parents didn’t love each other, so as long as I find someone I love, it will last.” He was devastated when “love” wasn’t enough to keep his first marriage together.
Unless children of divorce identify the false ideas their parents unknowingly planted and replace those ideas with Biblical truth, they risk following their parents’ patterns.
Ruben is now remarried. His new wife Whitney – whose parents divorced when she was six – is determined not to repeat her parents’ mistakes.
“My parents put too many expectations on each other,” she says. “I’ve learned to focus on the good things that caused me to marry Ruben and not try to change him into what I think he should be. It’s not about proving who’s right; it’s about humbling yourself and completely surrendering to each other. When I approach conflict with humility, I’m met with understanding.”
Finding the Truth
My own parents’ divorce ingrained in me the beliefs that love is conditional, marriage is a gamble and I have no control over the final outcome. These beliefs led to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of conflict. Fear of failure. Fear of pain.
Of course, such those beliefs contradict God’s Truth: love is a decision, not a romantic feeling. Love is long-suffering and kind. Love never fails. God’s Truth sets me free from fear.
When my husband and I were preparing for marriage, I asked everyone I respected what to expect. A godly father figure told me, “It’s the most painful thing you’ll ever experience,” and another married lady at our table agreed sombrely. That’s not exactly what a blushing bride-to-be wants to hear! But they had both been married over 20 years, and it encouraged me to know they had endured the pain and found a way through.
I chose to include in my marriage vows a sentiment adapted from the book of Ruth: “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death should part us.” Yes, the standard vow should be sufficient, but my strong fear of the future needed an even stronger fear-of-God clause to protect me from myself, providing serious incentive to stay when my feelings and fears threatened the covenant.
Whisper of hope
In only three years of marriage, I have felt the pain of conflict that naturally occurs between two imperfect people. I’ve been wounded, and I’ve inflicted wounds. For a divorced child like me, the suffering sometimes borders on the unbearable, bringing up fears, past hurts and a strong desire to run away.
But I’ve also known the relief of forgiveness, the security of persevering love and the reward of God’s design in a family I always wanted but never had. When I am tempted to feel victimized and hindered by my parents’ choice, I hear a whisper of hope: “You are not a child of divorce; you are a child of God.” Although I come from a long line of leavers and fear tries to convince me I’m cursed, I can choose to follow God’s truth and break the cycle.
Ryan Denney reminds me, “Divorce doesn’t define our destiny – the Lord does.” Our heavenly Father offers a legacy of lasting marriage for future generations.
Ruben and Whitney Martinez hold this hope for their new baby girl. “I want our daughter to see that no matter what kind of problems we face together, we’ll always be together,” Ruben says. “I want her to say, ‘Mom and Dad have something that I want one day.’ ”
Biblical marriage 101
Verses that helped me reprogram myself in the Truth:
Divorce: Malachi 2:13-16; 1 Corinthians 7:11-13; Matthew 19:8
Roles: Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1-7
True love: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Vows: Deuteronomy 23:21; Psalm 116:18; Ecclesiastes 5:4-6
Conflict: James 4:1-3; Ephesians 4:29-32; Colossians 3:12-15
Fear: 1 John 4:18; Psalm 34:4
*US stats only
Summer Bethea, whose parents divorced when she was three, considers her marriage to her husband, Jerome, a miracle of God’s grace. They live in Dallas, Texas.