The Depths of Divorce

Illustration by Sara Calhoun

Third year Human Centered Computing major, Duncan Okes, remembers clear as day when his father sat the whole family down in the living room. He broke down when sharing the news that he and his mother would be separating.

Okes’ sister said nothing while her father spoke, and held back tears as she ran to her room moments after the conversation ended.

Okes felt numb to the news. 

Experiencing a parental divorce at any age can have negative effects on a child or adolescent throughout their life. The impacts can range from initial feelings of guilt, to having to handle adult problems at a young age, to seeing effects on their own future relationships.

As children we like to think that our family is perfect, and most children don’t want there to be any separating force. Brian Barry, associate professor of Psychology and Sociology, talked about initial thoughts young children might have.

“Younger kids tend to feel very vulnerable. ‘If my family can split up, what else in my life can be disrupted?’” Barry stated. 

Gabriel Stoute, a fourth year Film and Animation major whose parents divorced when he was 14 years old, didn’t want to end up with the family situation of some of his friends.

“I had friends who had divorced parents and I was — it was a little rude at the time cause I was immature — like, ‘Oh your parents got divorced, that’s not going to happen to me,’" he said.

Forty percent of children have experienced a parental divorce by the age of 18 and approximately 40 percent of married couples divorce, as written in the book “Daughters of Divorce” in 2016.

When a divorce initially happens, it is not uncommon for children to think that it’s their fault.

A Guilty Conscience 

According to licensed family and marriage therapist, Adriana Rogachefsky, children might try to personalize what’s happening. Guilt and shame might boil inside them as they blame themselves for their family falling apart.

“It’s very common,” Rogachefsky said. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked a case where a kid has not felt guilt or shame for a divorce happening. In some way, shape or form, I think it’s normal.”

In the summer of 2016, Okes came home from a two-week-long trip with a couple of friends to the news that his parents were going to be separating. 

Before Okes embarked on his trip, he decided to leave a note for his parents. It mentioned how he could tell that they seemed a bit distant and that, since his older brother no longer lived at home and his sister was at camp, they should take advantage of the empty house. He laughs at his past actions now, but didn’t quite know how to feel at the time.

“I also felt kinda guilty because I wrote that letter and I felt like if I didn’t write that letter, maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” Okes said. “Logically though, no. Maybe I might have spurred the horse a little bit.”

In other situations, impending divorces are best brought into the light as they might ease household tension.

“In adolescence, it’s a bit different. They are more aware that even though married, a couple might not get along well and that it could be okay if they split up. [Adolescents] tend to recognize that living in a conflict-laden home is not an absolute joy,” Barry said. 

Amy Adams, a fourth year 3D Animation major, felt relieved when she and her mom moved out during her sophomore year of high school. 

“Honestly, it just kind of made everyone more civil. A lot of people think that divorce is this huge separating force that tears families apart, but my family was more separated when we all lived together,” Adams remarked. “Now that the constant hostility isn’t there anymore, we’re able to kind of coexist better.”

 "A lot of people think that divorce is this huge separating force that tears families apart, but my family was more separated when we all lived together.”

Life is simpler for Adams, since her family no longer lives under one roof. But, a physically divided home can have a few implications.

A Double Life

When a household splits, time ends up splitting as well, and one life ends up feeling like two separate ones. The back and forth can become a hassle.

“[It] got very annoying very quickly because I had high school work and I couldn’t have one consistent home to go to get that work done,” Stoute said. “Every time I had to switch houses it would be like ‘okay, do I have everything I need from this place to go back to the other place?’”

Okes’ parents lived in two separate states after the separation due to his dad’s job. He felt bad for his sister who had to make tough decisions, like which parent to reside with. 

“There are times when [these] choices are being laid down on my sister and it kind of makes me upset for her ... whereas my brother and I already [have] our own life,” Okes said. “We don’t have to worry about making these decisions. When I do, it’s much smaller like ‘who do I go to for Thanksgiving or Christmas?’ Still decisions, but not “who am I living with for the next two years?’”

Going between houses isn't the only thing kids have to handle. Communication factors in as well — whether that be making two separate phone calls or sending two separate messages about the same life happenings.

“My family has two snapchat groups,” Okes said, laughing. “We have ‘Mommy’s Kiddos’ and ‘I love you Dad’ — I didn’t name these. My siblings [and I] post the same things on both so that both parents can see the things, but then we have the same conversation and I’m like, ‘Do I respond to my dad’s or my mom’s or both?’ ... Having to do things twice is annoying.”

In some situations, the need for multiple lines of contact leads to miscommunication. The pressure for the child to facilitate communication and plans might end with unintended consequences, like what happened on the night of Stoute’s high school graduation.

“There was some sort of miscommunication that ended up in my dad going out to dinner with my brother and my mom [going] out to dinner with my sister and my grandparents,” Stoute said. “ ... each parent thought the other was taking me to dinner. I still feel bad about that to this day. And after the fact it was like ‘oh it’s my fault for ... not speaking up.’ I didn’t know what was going on either, but they sort of made it seem like it was my fault.”

Sometimes parents aren’t willing to talk to one another, and the child ends up stuck in the middle. 

"Sometimes parents aren’t willing to talk to one another, and the child ends up stuck in the middle."

Role Shifting and Parentification

It’s easy for parents to want to talk to their children about what’s going on in the family during a divorce — in some cases, it’s good to be kept in the loop. But on more occasions than not, it turns into the parents confiding in the children about the adult problems of the divorce.

“It’s one of the biggest things I see, and I think it’s one of the most damaging,” Rogachefsky stated. 

Right after his parents separated, Okes experienced this first hand. His parents would come to him to talk about things that were going on between them and vent about various frustrations — topics that one would typically talk to a significant other or adult about.

“I’m the one that’s supposed to be coming to you with my problems. It was this weird role reversal ... it made me upset about how they weren’t just talking to each other about these things,” Okes said. 

Parents can fall into a so-called confidant trap where they rely on their kids for conflict mediation or to talk about what should be confidential information, a Washington Post article wrote.

“You know like when Ron and Harry are fighting and Hermione is like, ‘I’m not your owl!’” Okes said. “That’s how I felt. It’s like, ‘I’m not your owl.’”

“You know like when Ron and Harry are fighting and Hermione is like, ‘I’m not your owl!’ That’s how I felt. It’s like, ‘I’m not your owl.’”

It’s not healthy for kids to be let in on adult problems. It robs them of their childhood and forces them to grow up quickly.

“When both parents are both ambushing — let’s say emotionally — with information ... it’s suffocating. The kid doesn’t get the opportunity to figure out ‘what do I feel about this? Let me be the young adult’ as opposed to the parentified child,” Rogachefsky said. 

Parentification is when children take on the roles and responsibilities that should be reserved for the parents. 

“[It’s] when the young adult gets put at the top of the hierarchical family structure and then the parents are sort of like the kids,” Rogachefsky stated. “Of course [no] teenager should ever have to do that; they’re trying to figure out what color to dye their hair or if they like a guy or not.”

Especially when children approach their teen years and go through adolescence, parents might view them as more grown up as they truly are.

“[Parents] need to continue to recognize that kids are not as developed as they [adults] are. [Parents] should limit the kinds of confidences that they share and dependence that they put on their kids,” Barry stated.

Experiencing these problems during and after a divorce, while the child is still developing, often leads to their own problems down the road.

Relationship Perspectives

Children of divorce, come adulthood, tend to approach relationships differently. 

According to a study about marital commitment and confidence conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, these adults usually have less faith in the institution of marriage.

Young adults affected by divorce are generally less optimistic about the longevity and health of a marriage. The results of the marital study demonstrated that women are usually more affected in that they enter these long-term relationships with the idea that it could end rather than it could succeed. That’s not to say that men go unaffected however, they are just less likely to have this particular mindset.

“They’re [relationships] definitely not as set in stone as I used to think they are,” Stoute said.

In addition, seeing a failed marriage might lead these individuals to fear a repetition of their parents mistakes since they don’t know any different. 

“[There might be] a sense that ‘maybe I’m doomed to the same failure my parents had,’” Barry said.

This relates to the idea that more teens and milennials are less open to the idea of marriage, and in turn aren’t getting married as often as previous generations. In fact, milennials are three times more likely to have never married than members of the Silent Generation — folks born between 1925 and 1945.

“They [millennials] divorce the idea of relationships,” Rogachefsky said.

“They [millennials] divorce the idea of relationships.”

Okes isn’t opposed to the idea of marriage simply because his parents’ didn’t work out, but he is more cautious before entering long-term relationships. He said he will most likely do the “millennial thing” of waiting longer.

For Adams, witnessing her parents’ persistent financial arguments initially made her think that relationships were less about caring for one another — rather they were about making enough money to live off of. This impacted the way she now approaches relationships, non-romantic included.

“I tried not to care about the financial status of who I was dating and who I was friends with because I didn’t want to care because my dad cared so much,” Adams said. “I think that’s helped me to be more humble, honestly.”

It’s not uncommon for children of divorce to give relationships a wealth of deep thought. 

“A lot of kids take a lot of pride and value in relationships ... building trust, [asking] what is a healthy relationship, what are values in my relationships,” Rogachefsky said. “For a lot of people who go through pain during a [parental] divorce, they do this thing where they think, ‘I don’t want that. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to me ... I’m going to do everything in my power to make this relationship work and not repeat what happened with my parents.’”

Barry concurred, “I think [children of divorce] are more realistic. [They] don’t expect a marriage where there’s no conflict, no anger ... that’s endemic in all human relationships.”

While financial problems are one of the most fought-about issues, Rogachefsky notices through her work that in relationships, people think they need to be someone they are not in order to impress or win over the person they’re after. That’s not the case, though. 

“Something [what] I really think is important in a relationship is being the most authentic version of yourself,” Rogachefsky stated. 

Adams thinks that she has learned enough from seeing failed marriages to know the core of relationships.

“I just think that if you’re going to marry and support someone, you should work together,” she stated.

“I just think that if you’re going to marry and support someone, you should work together.”

A Lasting Impact

To many children of divorce, the idea of getting a divorce and putting their children through what they have dealt with is seemingly not an option. But the reality is that no one really plans on getting divorced and sometimes, things just happen.

It doesn’t all have to be a difficult time, though. Rogachefsky mentioned that for anyone needing advice or resources, she is more than willing to lend a hand and guide them in the right direction. 

“As a therapist, helping people to gain insight — ‘hey, this is really traumatic, this had a major impact on me; let’s explore it’ — can help them to move into healthier relationships,” she said.

It’s easy to look at everything one has experienced with a negative perspective. But the experience and insight you gain from these experiences — good and bad — can help you to avoid becoming another divorce statistic.

“In the moment, it’s really hard ... to see the other side — the positives that could come of [divorce],” Rogachefsky said. “But I think if you give people a couple of years and say, ‘Let’s talk about this and process the way that you see the world’ ... I think most people would say, 'Yeah, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but it’s shaped me to be who I am.'”

"I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but it’s shaped me to be who I am."