Sons and the lifelong pain of divorce:
Last night I spoke with a dear friend who shared her pain about her adult son’s distancing. He rarely calls and hasn’t visited in five years. He has even less contact with his sister who loves him and has reached out to him. His nieces have never met him. A man I know must endure a different pain: his son allows him to see his grandchildren—he’s grateful for that–but the son stays in another room and refuses to talk to his father when he comes.
Emotionally distant sons are not uncommon. I personally know half a dozen women whose friends and families (including their daughters) consider them warm, kind, caring and even exceptional people. Each of these mothers has had experience with a son who keeps his distance and may even refuse all contact for years at a time.
Sometimes–but not always–this seems to be related to the son’s partner who feels threatened or offended by her mother-in-law. And sometimes, ironically, it’s that very partner who matures and realizes that having a fractured family is much worse than having a family where people are accepted in spite of their limitations and mistakes.
The adult son often moves more slowly. It may take looking into the innocent eyes of his own children before he realizes that bringing them up without as many loving grandparents as possible is unfair to his little ones. Sadly, sometimes the moment never comes, especially if he never has children.
Why this common estrangement between mothers who adore their sons and sons who can’t forgive the past? Why this common alienation between brothers and sisters whose parents wanted to give them the gift of siblings you can grow up and old with? Why does it happen?
My theoretical answer always has divorce at its center. Almost every case I know of has happened in a family broken by divorce. As I’ve watched the maturation of children of divorce in my own family and the families of my friends and counseling clients, I’ve come to believe that the wounds of divorce rarely heal fully, especially in the children.
Whether the divorce was their choice or not, most adults who divorce eventually heal. They enjoy their independence, or they find new partners, and come to see that those new partners are often a better fit. If wise and mature, they usually reach some level of forgiveness for the ex-spouse.
Emotionally honest people know that marriages are virtually always broken up by two people, not one; the victim-villain story they needed at first is often put aside once they’re in a better marriage. And more and more divorced people come to realize that bringing up a child on a diet of assertions that the other parent was bad/wrong/irresponsible/selfish/adulterous/mean does that child harm at the time and also when they’re grown. Whether the conflicts were flagrant or less dramatic, a mature ex-spouse forgives eventually. Wise adults come to realize that mistakes are committed by people in pain.
The children of divorce have a different journey. There’s no replacing a biological parent. With all due respect to the many loving stepparents who are doing their best, the vast majority of children of divorce rightly feel deprived of something precious–being raised by a parent who was responsible for your birth and who loved you from that day forward. That bond is unlike any other. Losing it almost never gets fully healed.
This brings me to my hypothesis about what’s going on with adult children of divorce when they hold on to resentments for so long? Perhaps they feel that their pain and loss has never been acknowledged or addressed. Maybe in their hearts they ask “What right did they have to become parents and then decide that I would only get to have one of them most of the time? What were they thinking when they broke up my family? Why do they keep making excuses for what they did instead of just saying how much they messed up?”
Divorced parents tend to be forever eager to point out their virtuousness. Here are some examples:
My point so far is that divorced parents should lead the way in forgiving the past. What an emotional burden to have a parent who insists on the lifelong distortion that says “I was the innocent party, and your father (mother) is responsible for all the pain I’ve felt over the decades!”
Responsibility shifts when you marry and become a parent.
But what if parents don’t lead the way? Sometimes they just don’t have the emotional maturity or self-awareness to do so. Whether they lead or don’t, it is so in the interest of the adult child of divorce to forgive. Every great spiritual guide has given us the same advice: forgive because it’s right. Forgive because you will someday need forgiveness yourself. Forgive to avoid burdening your own children with the residue your parents created and you are carrying on.
What is that allows a 40-year-old married parent to hold on to a distortion such as “my father was right, and my mother was wrong and selfish?” Or the reverse? Long married people should know it doesn’t work that way. Further, people who have been parents longer that a week should realize that they themselves make mistakes every day; that journey is meant, I believe, to teach us to forgive our own parents.
Holding to resentments toward parents comes at a very high price. Unresolved anger comes home to roost in your own bedroom and living room. You teach your children to hold on to the resentment they will inevitably have toward you. You become part of the problem of our world of unresolved conflicts with people and religions and nations who “know” they–and they alone–are “right.” Better to be part of the solution.
How parents can cope with adult children who keep their distance:
Pray, forgive, and do the following spiritual practice every time you think of them:
Hold them in your heart with love whenever they come to mind. Don’t judge yourself when your ego strays off into condemnation, (“How could s/he do this?” How could she not call when her grandmother was dying? How could he not call when his sister’s baby was born?”) Gently bring yourself back to love and forgiveness: “Whatever he’s choosing is the best he’s capable of right now.”
Wendell Berry said:
To My Mother
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.
So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,
prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,
and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it
already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
Though they do happen, estrangements like the ones mentioned here are much rare between mothers and their daughters. In every form, it hurts! For all who suffer from the effects of being cut off from those you love–blessings. Have faith. Eventually, love carries the day.
You may post a response here or email Victoria Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.