Children of divorce: forgive your parents!

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:

• “I never spoke badly about their father to them.” (Unspoken: “But I did move them to the other side of the country, making it impossible for their father to see them often.”)
• “My children need to know the truth of their father’s (mother’s) selfishness.” (My own selfishness in encouraging lifelong loyalty to me and against their other parent can’t even be noticed.)
• “I never wanted a divorce. It was entirely my spouse’s doing. S/he found someone else and left without warning.” (Unspoken: Let’s not get into the years of sexual deprivation or unacknowledged conflicts that preceeded the spouse’s involvement with someone else.)
• My ex drank too much/ate too much/had a gambling problem, etc. (And I enabled the addiction for years and then failed to take a stand insisting on treatment.)
• “My ex had serious psychological problems, and I needed to protect my children from them.” This one make sense if the spouse was any kind of threat to the children. If not, the unspoken lesson is that when family members have psychological problems, you should get rid of the person rather than supporting them in seeking treatment the way most of us easily do if the problem is medical.

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 drvlee1234@aol.com. You can find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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25 Responses to Children of divorce: forgive your parents!

  1. Skip Newby says:

    Very well thought out, and said. I’m sending this to everyone I know who may benefit from it, like me. Thanks.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Love this article.

  3. Scatty tatty says:

    I am probably what you would describe as an adult trying to distance themselves from a divorced parent. Ironically they divorced wheni was very young, and up until a couple of years ago didn’t feel like the victim and thought I had come out unscathed. That is until my own marriage announcement bought out the worst in my father and a lot of previously unfelt emotion in me. Whilst I won’t go into the detail, when the parent child relationship is the wrong way round it can cause all kinds of issues. Sometimes distancing oneself feels like the only way to protect your own “being” from the emotional blackmail that can still occur even many years later.

  4. Rosie Phillips says:

    As an adult daughter of divorced parents I definitely agree with the hypothesis about the reason it is so difficult to get over one’s parents’s divorce – the pain is never acknowledged or addressed, my parents have never (in 3 decades!) asked me how the divorce even impacted me, although they have freely discussed their own resentments about each other. Now as they are aging, caring for them is more work for my brother and I, (since my parents do not live together). I do fully agree with the importance of fully forgiving your parents, which took me a while to recognize. Without forgivness there can be no emotional freedom. Personally I find forgiveness a process, as divorce is not just a “one time event” but really affects so many aspects of life. The more I walk out the process of forgiveness, the more my relationship with my parents (and really with everyone) improves, and the more peace I have within.

  5. I don�t usually reply to posts but I will in this case. Good Stuff – Nice relationship Ideas too:)

  6. helena mcdonald says:

    good reading……I am a divorced sister-in-law, I am watching my brother go through agony with his I feel my nieces have also separated themselves from our family….it hurts, what can one do

  7. Samantha Friedman says:

    To Whom It May Concern:
    My name is Samantha Friedman, an alumna of the University of California at Berkeley and Fordham University, and I am currently a doctoral clinical psychology student at Saybrook University (San Francisco). I am seeking adults between the ages of 20 and 35 who have experienced parental divorce in either childhood or adulthood to assist me in the completion of a study that examines the effects of parental divorce on marital attitudes and intimacy.

    If you agree to participate in this study, please click on this link (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/TK8Q7GT) and complete the survey on SurveyMonkey.com. The online survey I am conducting is very easy to complete. The whole process is designed to take less than 15 minutes to complete. Participation in this study is completely voluntary and anonymous. You are free to not answer any question, to stop participating at any time for any reason, and to not have your information be part of the data set. All forms will be kept confidential; that is, no one will have knowledge of which questionnaire belongs to you.

    The aim of my study is to learn about the psychological impact of parental divorce, particularly how the age at which parental divorce occurs influences attitudes towards marriage and intimacy. It is of particular importance to examine the effects of parental divorce on marital attitudes and levels of intimacy because they are indicators of relationship stability. The ultimate goal of this study is to acquire data that can be used to assist adult children of divorce in understanding the impact of mid- to late-life parental divorce and develop strategies that encourage healthy, lasting marriages.

    Please contact me if you would like a summary of my findings when the project is finished. If you have any questions, please contact me at SamanthaFriedman@hotmail.com.

    Thank you in advance for your time and assistance. I really appreciate your help and I am sincerely grateful.

    Best wishes,

    Samantha Friedman

  8. Nana L says:

    I cried when I read this article because it hit home so deeply. My 38 year old son has distanced himself from me, his stepfather and my daughther and her family because of the many “hurtful” things I do. We haven’t seen him or his children in over a year. Up until he married, we were all extremely close. He is a graduate of an Ivy League school, one of the best law schools in the country and was an outstanding athlete who thanked me at every dinner and banquet that was held to honor him. Today he hates his career, blames me for chosing it, and refuses to speak to anyone who has anything to do with me. His life is complicated by the fact that they have a child who was born with a significant disability. My daughter-in-law has always had problems with me: I did too much, I didn’t do enough. I said too much, I didn’t say enough. His wife has helped him to rekindle his relationshop with his Dad which seems to be replacing the one we enjoyed rather than adding to the family constellation. I know he is in a difficult place right now believing he has to chose between his wife and children and my side of his extended family and I am trying my best to cope, but it is taking its toll on my health both physically and mentally. I worry about his heath. My daughter’s relationship with her Dad is now strained because he is enjoying my being estranged and has said as much. Any suggestions?

  9. Jak says:

    wow. this explains a ton. thank you for this!

  10. missesk11/11/11 says:

    My husband’s daughter, 19, and son, 17, both refuse to come around because their mother has convinced them that I am the cause of him leaving and divorcing her. I will not say that they treated each other well in the course of 20+ years; however he treats me like a princess. Theirs was not a healthy relationship, in which they seeked counciling from many sources, (religious, financial, etc.) which came to no end. My husband, while her husband was the only income in the family, she refused to work for the better part of 15+ years yet felt justified to spend, spend, spend and wondered why many of the aforementioned coucilers recommended she get a job to help out with the finances. Whenever she attempted to look for a job it was not for her, but for my, now, husband so that he could earn more for her to spend. The point is, the children saw what was happening throughout the years and still blame me for their parents split. I hope and pray that the reading of this story/article will jar both my husband to seek forgiveness and give admittance to any wrongdoing, and for his children to open their minds and give them the ability to forgive and move on, for their and their father’s sakes. Pray for us all, please.

    • victorialee says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. My prayers are with you. You represent many. Your stepson and stepdaughter are experiencing grief over the death of their family, their security, their trust, and their confidence in those who were charged with protecting them. Pray for the grace to treat them as the bereaved young people they are. Even if they express themselves inappropriately toward you, it is not really toward you. You are the safest person object of anger or sadness. Try to be their friend, without expecting them to meet your need for then to treat you well. It may take years.

  11. A says:

    wow. You missed the boat. My Mom left. She left. I did not leave. She left. It is amazing how people try to make divorce a normal thing for family. Forgive. When my Mom reconciles our families marriage she will know she is forgiven, Yes Our families Marriage. Marriage is part of a family. I am not going to follow my Mom into her divorce crap. It is her life and she can either turn around or she can die in it. I will NEVER follow her. No I am not bitter. I am actually doing very well. Making more money than I ever have and going to school. My Mom will live with her choice to leave and I will not follow. My voice will not follow her. My words will not follow her. She has the next move – reconciliation or ? Every parent who walks out of their marriage should cry their eyes out and hopefully for the rest of their lives. As far as me I will keep my life going with my Dad who did not walk out. My sister is the same way. My Mom has CHOSEN not to reconcile her marriage covenent in our family for a year. That is her hard heart, not mine. Please do not shift responsbility from a walk away Mom/Dad to their kids. Reconciliation is an evil word to these walk aways. Again, when she reconciles she will know she is forgiven. Until then she will live with her choice.

    • victorialee says:

      Thanks for your heartfelt comments. I do deeply understand that divorce means the death of a family to a child, and that lifelong pain over the loss is the result for many. By urging forgiveness and healing, I don’t mean to be insensitive to the grief that parents who choose divorce inflict on their child. I have been one of those parents, and I am profoundly sorry for the pain my own children and step-children suffered when their families died. At the same time, since I want to facilitate healing wherever I can, I stand for forgiveness. As so many wise teachers have told us, it is the only path to freedom from being forever controlled by the choices made by others.

  12. AWD says:

    This article concerns me. Seems to be heavily biased toward relieving the parent consciousness, and very glossed over and dishonoring of the child’s (even/especially the adult child’s) experience. I’m sure you must have encountered parents, in your years of practice, who seem devoted and can put on a good show if anyone from the outside is watching, but who have caused an incredible amount of damage and hurt–through abuse, and neglect, and denial that anything “that bad” ever happened. These parents look for just such an article as this, to wrap themselves in as a shield against taking responsibility–“You’re an adult now, so you have to forgive me.”

    In all cases, forgiveness is healing. But that doesn’t mean it is healthy to continue the relationship. Maybe there are a lot of glib estrangements out there… I don’t know about others, but I have made my decision to protect myself from the ongoing hurt of a narcissitic mother after many years of trying to make things work–at great cost to myself. In my case, I understand that my mother was much too young to be a mother. I understand that she has mental health issues. I understand that she had limited ability to cope with my father’s abusiveness and alcoholism (although she did manage to make sure she was never the target of his abuse. And she made sure she was absent– a lot–leaving me, as a child, to handle his drunkenness). Still, I do accept that she did the best she could, at the time. (I can’t imagine she would have wanted things to be the way they were…) Her best, however, did create a huge pile of deficits and issues that I have had to work hard to overcome–and I have, to pretty good extent…(I will never be “done,” but then, who is?) I have found other ways to learn and receive what I didn’t get from her–as many people have to. What I can’t accept, though, is the continued ways in which she plays out her anxiety and narcissism, in the present. It is overwhelming, and I can no longer handle it. I have my own daughter and my own life to live–I can’t keep leaking my life to fill hers.

    It is a tricky balance. I want my daughter to experience compassion and love and forgiveness–And to also know she should never be a doormat for anyone–not even her mother. Mothering should build a person up, not tear them down. I do not hate my mother, do not resent her (although she would tell anyone who cared to listen that I do) but I cannot give that relationship any more of my energy.

    I guess this is a particular sore spot for me. There seems to be an awful lot of “blame the ungrateful kids” mentality out there when it comes to parent/child estrangements. Just wanted to stand up for us kids–the ones who really tried and are heartbroken that their parents are, seemingly, fractured beyond repair–and who, to add insult to injury, are told that they should just grow up and let their parents off the hook.

    Thanks for considering my thoughts.

    • victorialee says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I support you fully in making the decision you feel is best for your life. It can make sense to withhold contact from parents with personality disorders, addictions, and other mental health issues. Coming to an inner place of forgiveness toward them can still have positive spiritual and emotional benefits; no one chooses to have a personality order for the adult child.

      I especially appreciate your point about giving more attention to the child’s point of view. I’m working on a new book which starts from the premise that the wounds of divorce run deep and long for almost all children, even in cases of “enlightened divorce.”

      My original blog post was really about the value to those who suffered divorce as children, and who cam enjoy increased peace and freedom if they are able to let go of the past.

  13. […] Another article I read when I first delved into the topic of forgiveness is this one:http://rumisecret.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/children-of-divorce-forgive-your-parents/ […]

  14. Jay says:

    I appreciate the article and I hope that, one day, I can actually see the point in forgiveness for my parents’ divorce and hatred in each other. I hope you respond to this; I’m at an extremely tough point and I don’t want to post on message boards.

    I am 23 and my mom has been in two divorces. She hates my dad and he hates her, and her second husband was abusive. At this point, mom admits no fault in herself as far as parenting goes, but is quick to point out everything wrong about me, even though she and dad put me in the middle of everything. I do have an anger problem that is really blown up when I think about my feelings not really being taken into account, and I don’t understand why I should grant my parents the grace I felt they never granted me. I don’t really want children because I don’t want to place this burden on them.

    I still love my folks, and unfortunately I would take care of them before allowing them to live in a home or something in old age. My heart just could not allow otherwise. However, this does not mean I am OK with what they did or even willing to look past it. I have had years of therapy and about none of it has truly changed me because the word ‘forgiveness’ is like a trigger. I instantly see it as accepting both the faults of myself and my parents, even though they do not do the same, and continue to fight like children after 14 years. My sister and I are close, but my rage will consume everything between us once she and her husband have children. I refuse to be a part of a big family that involves my parents continuing their charade and me having to accept it with a false smile. It just feels completely dirty and morally painful to think about.

    I do hope things get better, though, because this is a terrible and excruciating way to live. My emotions are already out of whack due to bipolar disorder, ocd, and asperger’s syndrome, none of which were sympathized with by my parents in regards to my general anger.I am unable to define what I think happiness is, and I have almost no direction or true desires in life because I honestly don’t believe it will get better than this. My whole family is messed up, but I admit that I’m the pissed off dragon that still bleeds and breathes fire. I have nothing besides my mind, and even that is abandoning me. I quit believing in God because I feel he abandoned me when I needed him most. The world feels pitch black and I am lost in a storm of my rage and childlike pain.

    Thank you again. I really am not a bad person, but I sure feel like one. I am wanting this to be visible to people here so that hopefully they will feel better about themselves…

    • victorialee says:

      It’s important to understand that forgiving those who have wronged you is a profound act of healing for yourself. It does not change others, and they may well continue their unfortunate behavior. Your parents were wrong to put you through the pain of a terrible divorce, but as long as you cling to your rage about it, you put a huge barrier in your own life. Depriving yourself of having children (if you would otherwise want them) means allowing your parents to continue hurting you in a very profound way.

      I recommend the Hoffman Process for the most effective resolution. You can locate their office in San Anselmo, CA; they have branches all over the country and in other countries. In the Process you have an opportunity to free yourself permanently of the wounds your childhood has caused.

      Blessings to you in every challenge and every joy!

  15. Sherry says:

    I am going through the same exact thing. I stumbled upon this website by accident (though there are no accidents…) and was shocked. My son and his new wife will not speak to me. She is angry at me because I had a discussion with my son three months before the wedding asking him if he was 100% certain he should be getting married. They have had many public fights and struggled to make a long distance engagement work. He said he wanted to do this and I said I would support him. She either read our emails or he confessed this all to her (I believe the former) one week after the wedding and she emailed me a horrible message that announced I was a horrible person, not a proper mother and that she would never speak to me again. This was followed up by a phone call from my son who backed her up even though he and I had been just fine since the original conversation. I had been at the wedding and he had called me for my birthday the day before. Now he must be in a position to have to make a choice. His choice is made easier by the fact that his father still hates me (after 17 years) and has been coaching him on hating me since my son became an adult.

    I have admitted to my past errors, have tried to be a better mother as a result and love my children with all my heart. His choice to align himself with his father and new wife have left me without a son. It has only been six weeks now but I worry this will be the way it is for a very long time. Mother’s Day is this weekend and I dread it…if he doesn’t call I will know that my fate is sealed. If he does call then how do I handle that. He has thrown me under the bus several times over the past several years but this last assault has been horrible. I have gone from hurt to angry this time. I am afraid permanant damange has been done.

    • victorialee says:

      Please don’t assume that any place on the journey is the final one. Sometimes, it can take years to heal a breech, but healing is always possible. Hugh Prather once advised me as follows: “Hold them in love in your heart all the time. When critical thoughts (‘I don’t deserve this,’ ‘I am going to be permanently hurt by this,’ etc.), gently remind yourself to return to love. Make it your commitment and your discipline to hold them both in a loving way in your heart. Eventually, they will call, and your voice will show them that you love them and want loving contact with them. This gives the relationship the best chance to grow from there, and I predict within 5 years that the relationship will be healed.” I was horrified at the 5 year prediction. It took 4. Where love prevails, healing is always possible.

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  17. Sam says:

    I am one such “emotionally distant” son who hasn’t forgiven his mother for divorce, so I guess I can throw in my two cents with everyone else.

    Why haven’t I forgiven my mother? It’s hard to say. My parents divorced when my youngest sister was 18, so my siblings and I were all adults. Initially, I took my mother’s side and saw her as the innocent party. But as I grew older I realized that, while neither parent was blameless, my mother was actually far more too blame than she let on, and her own insistence on playing innocent victim – well, it just seemed childish and a little strained on her part. I mean, when is she gonna grow up and admit her part in the marriage breakdown?

    My dad ain’t perfect. And, sure, he can play the martyr as well as my mother can. But he’s less of a pain in the arse than my mother is. I guess my mother tries to use the marriage breakdown as a way to manipulate and exert (moral) control over others whereas my dad just admits that most marriages fail and doesn’t point the finger of blame.

    So, in short, maybe mothers (and women in general) spend too much time claiming the moral high ground and not enough time owning up to their mistakes and shortcomings. And this is offensive, because women who judge their ex-husbands often come across as judging men as a whole. My mother talked smack about my dad. How do I know she won’t talk smack about me? How can I trust her ever?

    So, yeah, what will it take for me to forgive my mother? I just want her to get off her high horse and stop pretending to be Ms Virtuous. If my dad’s’ such a monster, why did she marry him in the first place? Was she naive? Stupid? Or is she just rewriting history to suit her ego? The real problem is that once I adored my mother and thought she was perfect. Then the divorce – it showed up all her ugly human traits and, worse, her failure to admit that she’s as fallible as the rest of us …

    My mother isn’t the Pope. It’s about time she stopped acting like she’s God’s delegate on earth and has never done anything wrong ever. lol

    • victorialee says:

      I can appreciate your feelings. Having our parents disappoint us in major way hurts. There are a few points you might want to consider:
      1) We forgive for ourselves, not for the other. I forgive in order to become a better person, and a happier one. Until I forgive, the person I’m holding a grudge against has power over me–power to alter my moods and power to interfere with my current life.
      2) Forgiving people who have gotten it together, changed for the better and apologize is easy. What’s hard–and important–is to forgive the ones who (we think) don’t deserve it. When we have forgiven everyone, we experience true freedom and the ability to fully forgive ourselves. Not before.
      3) Figuring out which of your parents is more to blame will not help you. All divorces involve mistakes made by two people.

      Learning to forgive can be a lifelong journey. Nothing could be more worthwhile. If you need help with the journey, please write again. Also check out my Advice Blog at http://www.coupleswisdom.com. I’ll be answering a question about this subject soon. Many blessings!

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