Children of divorce are not meant to be prisoners of their past.
Recently on a national Catholic radio talk show on the impact of divorce on youth, several mothers from divorced families called in and expressed a great concern about the significant troubling change in the behaviors of their teenage sons. Neither of these young men had good relationships with their fathers who left the families. They were both demonstrating excessive anger toward their mothers, a lack of respect and sadness. Neither one had expressed anger toward their father. This article addresses the serious growing problem in such Catholic families and steps that can be taken to try bring healing to the children of divorce and their families.
The proceedings of a two day conference that examined the effects of divorce on children, held at the St. John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family at Catholic University will be available within the year. The book will be entitled Adult Children of Divorce: Recovering Origins and will include my paper on children of divorce: conflicts and healing.
Conflicts with anxiety, sadness, insecurity and excessive anger in children and young adults from divorced families have been reported in a number of studies (Strohschein,2005; Kessler, Davis, & Kendler,1997 & Nomura, Wickramaratne, Warner, Mufson & Weissman, 2002). Children whose parents divorce exhibit more anxiety and depression than children from intact families.
A most troubling recent study from 2011 study of a sample of 6,647 adults found that men from divorced families had more than three times the odds of suicidal ideation in comparison to men whose parents had not divorced (Fuller-Thomson, E. & Dalton, A.D., 2011). Adult daughters of divorce had 83 per cent higher odds of suicidal ideation than their female peers who had not experienced parental divorce. This study highlights harm done to young males who lack the presence of a father in the home.
The divorce trauma results in strong anger in the COD, which can be buried for many years before emerging. This anger arises from sadness, loneliness for a stable family, and from a strong sense of injustice due the belief that the parents did not work hard enough to protect them by resolving their personal and marital conflicts.
Three Ways of Addressing Anger
The intense anger caused by the severe emotional trauma of divorce dealt with unconsciously in one of three ways. It can be denied, expressed or resolved through a lengthy, if not life long, forgiveness process. Divorce anger is denied most often with the father, but increasingly with a mother who has given into selfishness. Youth need to be taught that the most effective way to master anger and to protect their psychological health is through forgiveness.
Three Ways to Forgive
Children in families with high levels of marital conflict or divorce need to understand that there are three methods of forgiveness, with one’s mind or cognitively; with one’s heart or emotionally; or in prayer, spiritually.
Cognitive forgiveness involves a child thinking, “I want to understand and forgive my parent(s). In emotional forgiveness a child feels deep compassion for a parent and truly feels like forgiving. This is the deepest level of forgiveness and for many children of divorce never occurs unless the offending parent acts justly, admits the fault of failing to work adequately on the marriage and requests forgiveness.
If forgiveness education does not occur in the home and if the children of divorce are not encouraged to work regularly on forgiveness, this anger can be buried for years and then misdirected at the parent who was most trustworthy, often the mother. Many parents who never wanted the divorce are at a loss of what to do when a child begins to express excessive anger at her/him. Many of these youth have never admitted their anger at the parent most responsible for the divorce who often gave into selfish, described by many Popes as the major enemy of marital love.
In this common divorce conflict, mothers can suggest to the child who is overreacting in anger toward her that she suspects he/she may be misdirecting anger at her that, in fact, is meant for father. Then, the mother can request that the child try to think, “I want to forgive my father for not being here or God please forgive my father or please take my anger with my father.” Since two-thirds of divorces are initiated in marriages by women and since in two-thirds of marriages that result in divorce there is a low level of outward conflict, the anger can be truly meant for the mother who gave into selfishness or mistrust from her painful background with her father (the child’s maternal grandfather.)
Forgiveness with the Father
The most intense anger that we uncover is that which has been denied with the father. This anger is denied because the child of divorce has a fragile relationship with the father and fears losing it if he/she honestly faces this powerful emotion and the hurt that gave rise to it.
As the COD thinks regularly, “I want to try to understand and to forgive the parent whom I believe was most responsible for the divorce and all the pain that I suffered as a result the divorce,” then anger slowly diminishes and an understanding often grows in regard to the predominant emotional weakness in this parent. Not infrequently, an understanding emerges that the offending parent had a difficult childhood with a father or with a mother and may have repeated this parent’s behaviors.
A response of the loyal parent here can be to cite the wisdom of St. John Paul II that without forgiveness one can remain a prisoner of one’s past.
As so often happens, when selfishness is recognized as the primary reason for the divorce, then most CODs feel such intense betrayal anger and rage with the offending parent that they are not able to forgive with their minds or with their hearts. The only way they can make progress with their deep anger and its associated sadness, anxiety and insecurity, is to employ various types of spiritual forgiveness exercises. These including thinking, “Lord please take my anger with this parent; revenge belongs to God; I am powerless over my anger and want to turn it over to God, ” or by taking anger regularly to the sacrament of reconciliation.
When youth overreact in anger toward their mothers, we encourage the mothers to remind their children that they have always been trustworthy and do not deserve such anger. Then, we advise the mother to recommend spiritual forgiveness exercises for the youth. This means suggesting the anger be given to God since these youth cannot forgive cognitively or emotionally a father who shows little interest in the well-being of his children. Some youth are open to do this and find relief from their anger. They are pleased that they have learned how to uncover and master their anger. However, other youth who previously practiced their faith may begin to misdirect this anger meant for a parent at God also and refuse to employ spiritual forgiveness. These youth can feel an anger toward God for allowing them to be traumatized by divorce. They know unconsciously, as the Catechism states, that they needed their parent’s stable union.
St. John Paul II
A response of the loyal parent here can be to cite the wisdom of St. John Paul II that without forgiveness one can remain a prisoner of one’s past. They can recommend that unless the child thinks of forgiving the offending parent; that same parent may have a controlling influence in their emotional life, perhaps even for the rest of their lives. They can reassure their child that betrayal pain can diminish but forgiveness is essential. Also, parents of such youth sometimes find it helpful in grace before meals to bring in a prayer of gratitude to the Lord for taking one’s anger with those who have inflicted hurt.
In this forgiveness work, many Catholics discover that they cannot forgive on their own, and are helped by giving their anger to the Lord in prayer or by taking it into the sacrament of reconciliation. For most CODs the forgiveness process will go on periodically for many years because of the severity of the trauma, if not periodically for the remainder of his or her life.
The resolution of anger is aided by a request for forgiveness directly from a parent who did not work sufficiently to save the marriage. Naturally, difficulties can arise in the face of a parent who initiated the divorce; a parent who denies the pain and harm they have caused, and who, therefore, does not see the need to ask for forgiveness. Individuals who give into selfishness rarely admit how they harm others and, therefore, rarely ask for forgiveness (Exline, J., et al. 2004). An approach to such a parent can be to draw attention to the denial of the harm caused by his or her selfishness or other conflicts that led to divorce.
Some children from divorced families harbor intense rage and may have violent fantasies or impulses against a parent. Often these young people are unable to use the word “forgiveness” because they sincerely believe that the parent, stepparent, or parent’s friend should not be forgiven. In lieu of using the word “forgiveness,” when these children choose the spiritual form of forgiveness, they are asked to think that they are powerless over their anger and want to turn it over to God. Also, the failure to uncover and resolve this anger predisposes these youth to difficulties in trusting, along with anxiety and depressive episodes, with males being particularly vulnerable as described earlier.
The lack of confidence male CODs, in particular, arises from the lack of a close father relationship and the loss of a respected role model, which in turn inhibits their ability to attain success in education, relationships and work. A 2013 study revealed that male children raised in single-parent households tend to fare particularly poorly, with effects apparent in almost all academic and economic outcomes, (Autor, D.A. & Wasserman, M., 2013).
Benefits of Forgiveness
The benefits of forgiveness have been well established in research and in clinical work and are cited in the second edition of our textbook on forgiveness that will be published in the fall of 2014, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, American Psychological Association Books. Forgiveness not only decreases anger, but it also reduces sadness and anxiety and increases in self-esteem. Unresolved anger causes numerous symptoms and interferes with recovery from anxiety and depression. Forgiveness is truly good news for the COD. Parents from families traumatized by what the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to as the “plague of divorce” benefit from using it daily in their lives and from teaching their children how to use it daily. Some parents introduce a prayer of forgiveness in grace before meals when they add the prayer, “and Lord help us to forgive those who may have hurt us today and in our past.” Other parents incorporate a similar prayer of forgiveness at bedtime.
Catholic educators would help youth and their families by learning more about forgiveness education and by encouraging children to employ forgiveness in their daily lives as a major way to help them master their anger and to protect their emotional lives from sadness, anxiety and insecurity and their relationships from the harmful effects of excessive and misdirected anger.
The Contraceptive Mentality and Divorce
An irrefutable relationship exists between the contraceptive revolution/mentality and the divorce epidemic. Contraceptives made marriages less “child-centered,” which then led to a weakening of marital commitment. The psychological damage from the contraceptive mentality includes a diminished trust in God and in one’s spouse, an increase in selfishness, the major enemy of marital love, and anger — all of which damage romantic love, the marital friendship and sexual intimacy. More courage is needed to protect marriages and the million youth damaged yearly by the trauma of divorce by communicating clearly the truth about the dangers of the contraceptive mentality described in depth by St. John Paul II.
Forgiving the father and working with a spiritual director on a relationship with God or St. Joseph is helpful to young men from divorced families who are in great need of role model for masculinity and for comforting father love. Such a spiritual relationship also is beneficial to young women for their severe inner loneliness for comforting father love.
The wounds of divorce do not have the last word in the lives of these individuals. Children of divorce are not meant to be prisoners of their past. The major emotional conflicts of anger, sadness and insecurity can be uncovered and their influence minimized by growth in virtues and in grace.
Newer divorce prevention programs need to be developed to protect youth, innocent spouses, the Church and culture from the severe psychological and spiritual damage caused by divorce.