Years ago, if you told Catholic author and blogger Leila Miller you were getting a divorce, she may have told you how sorry she was, and that would be that. But today she’d do everything in her power to help save your marriage. That’s because Miller had revealing conversations with a friend who is a child of divorce. In those conversations, Miller’s eyes were opened to the effects of divorce on children, and she felt compelled to share their stories in her book Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak (LCB Publishing, 2017).
Miller has been married to her husband, Dean, for 27 years, and they have eight children and seven grandchildren. Having no firsthand experience with divorce, she reached out to children with divorced parents, asking them to anonymously answer questions about how their parents’ divorce affected their lives. She compiled those answers into Primal Loss. Miller spoke with Catholic Digest about what she learned and how Catholics can help couples stay together.
A: What surprised me the most was the amount of long-lasting pain. It’s not that they were reminiscing about how it hurt back when their parents got divorced; it was that the pain is ongoing. It changes, and the challenges are different as they grow into their own adulthood and into marriage and having their own children, but the pain is still very much present, and it becomes more complicated.
One of the universal struggles is the loss of identity. Those of us who have intact families don’t have to wonder who we are, where home is, or where we’re going for Thanksgiving. There’s nothing on our shoulders in the same way that these kids experience because they essentially have their identity split at the time of the divorce. You’re one way with one half of the family. You’re another way with the other half of the family. This doesn’t end as you grow up. It gets exacerbated, and then as stepparents and stepsiblings come in and out, you fragment yourself more.
It’s this earthquake that happens under their feet, and they don’t have a place to ground themselves. The other thing that was universal is the silence. They don’t want to talk about their pain, and nobody asks them about it. They’re very surprised to find that other people have the same pain that they do.
Q: Society tells us that children are resilient. Have the contributors of your book validated or disproved this?
A: They had a very immediate and visceral response to the idea that people say children are resilient or they’re happy when their parents are happy, because they hear it all the time. Generally, the answer is, “Stop saying that.” Some of them said, “Yes, we’re resilient, but so are children in wartime,” or “Children are resilient if you amputate their leg.” There are a million ways children are resilient, but that doesn’t mean you put them through something traumatic just because they’re resilient. Others would say just flat out, “No, we’re not resilient.”
Q: How do children of divorce view marriage?
A: Some of them are disillusioned. Some of them go into a marriage very hopeful that they will not repeat the same mistakes their parents made. There’s a lot of fear of going into marriage — to the point that some forgo it altogether. When they’re in the marriage, they don’t understand how to relate with conflict. The model they saw is that conflict leads to permanent separation. They still expect that if they get into a fight, the result will probably end up being divorce, even though they wouldn’t wish that. There was one lady who spoke about her husband being a saint. He was a wonderful man, but she was still squirreling away money in sock drawers because she kept wondering, When is he going to leave or when am I going to have to leave?
Q: What do adult children of divorce think of the idea that couples shouldn’t stay married for the children?
A: Some of them explicitly said, “Stay married for the children.” The whole point of marriage is to raise up the next generation in stability with their mother and father. The children are just as much a part of that family as the parents. We tend to look at marriage as being about the rights of the parents, but the child has the right to his family. To stay together for the child is a wonderful thing. The parents need to get themselves together so they can be suitable parents for those children. It’s not up to the child to sacrifice for the parents. The parents are to sacrifice for the children.
Q: What are adult children of divorce saying to their parents through Primal Loss?
A: To their parents at the time of the divorce, most of them would say, “Try harder. Don’t do this. Find a way to make this work.” To their parents today, there’s a lot of forgiveness, but there are still hurt and abandonment issues. They love their parents, they forgive their parents, and they want to assure their parents that they’re not looking for revenge. But they do wish for acknowledgment of what’s happened to them. Obviously the abandoned spouse has nothing to apologize for. But a lot of them were the cause of the divorce, and what the kids really want is just an apology without an excuse. It’s as simple as that.
Q: What are they telling society?
A: That divorce hurts children. This isn’t something that you move on from. Part of the mess we are in right now is the result of broken families because broken families mean broken children. If you have this many broken families, you’re going to have a lot of social mayhem.
Q: With 28 percent of Catholic marriages ending in divorce, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, would you say that the Catholic Church has a divorce problem?
A: Without a doubt, I think the Catholic Church has a divorce problem. I see it even in my very faithful Catholic circles. I think we say we are against divorce up until things get miserable, and then it’s time to go. We want to comfort our friends and say, “You need to be happy.” When you’re part of the Catholic community and you stood up for them at their wedding, it’s actually your job to stand up and say, “No, we will help you. We’re going to rally around and make sure you get back on your feet.”
There are very few marriages that won’t go through a time of serious crisis. It’s about pushing past it. Even if separation is necessary because of danger, the Church says that until reconciliation can happen, and the conjugal life can be restored, this should be pushed through because there’s something on the other side. But you must get through the cross. Sometimes people’s entire marriages are a cross.
Q: What do Catholic couples need to consider?
A: St. Ignatius said that when you pick a state in life, you must assume you’re picking something permanent. The “d-word” cannot be on the table. If it is, then in that first crisis, the devil gets his foothold and he’s going to make you think you can leave. The dysfunction doesn’t end with divorce; it just gets exponentially worse. The sacrament is presumed indissoluble. We must stop thinking, Maybe I don’t have a valid marriage. Go back and look at the vows. You’re vowing 50 percent bad: sickness, bad times, poverty. You’re agreeing to stay through some pretty bad things until death. Go back and revisit those vows and think, This is what Christ meant. He knew everything, and he still said no divorce. Start believing that divorce is a sin. We’ll solve a lot of our problems.
Q: What can families touched by divorce do to overcome the pain?
A: Forgive, and I can’t overstate how important the sacraments are. To say I will take this suffering to the cross and Christ can redeem it there — that is a huge step toward healing. For those responsible — sometimes it was both parents, sometimes it was just one — they need to apologize. There are some retreats that have started in the Church for the adult children of divorce. Christ can heal our wounds because he can take evil and turn it into a greater good if we let him.
Q: What can Catholic couples struggling in their marriage do?
A: You have to say that divorce is not an option and that you need actual help to live your vow. Sometimes living out that vow is painful. That’s what a vocation is. It’s the very thing that will make you holy. And we know that only a cross makes someone holy. Tell a priest or counselor, “Don’t take my cross away from me. Tell me how to live in my marriage and make it what God wants it to be.” People may need to tell family and friends that they don’t want advice to split up, that they want help. Make sure you’re talking to friends you trust to not steer you toward divorcing.
Q: How can faith help people affected by divorce heal?
A: Catholics are in the best position to heal from the divorce of their parents because they have access to the sacraments. They have the model of the saints. They have an example of what a holy family should be. We have the model of a wonderful father who never leaves. We have our Blessed Mother who is always gentle and loving. We can know that, while our families on earth may have failed, we have a heavenly family and a community of saints that will never fail us.
Q: What is the most important takeaway you’ve learned from adult children of divorce?
A: To end the silence about how devastating this is for these children. Silence is no longer an option. Everything that’s in the book has been confirmed a thousand times over. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the pain and devastation that has been caused by divorce. No more silence.
Sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, this site has articles about sexuality, overcoming adversity, marriage enrichment, and other topics. Read blog posts from real-life couples who are living the vocation of marriage.
What Every Catholic Needs to Know about Marriage, Divorce, Nullity and Remarriage by Fr. Roger H. Keeler (Novalis, 2015)
Fr. Keeler, a canon law expert, offers a thoughtful presentation about Catholic teaching on marriage. The book is especially recommended for those who counsel couples considering marriage and minister to the divorced and separated.
Blessed Is Marriage: A Guide to the Beatitudes for Catholic Couples by John Bosio (Twenty-Third Publications, 2012)
Bosio, a former marriage and family therapist, offers couples theological and biblical grounding as well as inspiration as they seek to strengthen their marriage commitment.
Lisa Duffy is a Catholic author, “divorce recovery expert,” and speaker. Her site includes information about her books, podcasts, the Journey of Hope parish program, and other materials.
Additional resources from the USCCB