TORN APART: Divorce continues to have repercussions on children, even in adulthood. PIC: online
Emma was just eight years old when she realised her parents’ marriage had ended.
At first, it was through subtle signs: constant arguing over new toys, the silent treatment, lack of time and increasing lack of temper. She even found herself counting the number of times they would fight a day: once, twice or at every meal. The last sign hurt the deepest: she placed their hands together at church and they pulled them apart.
From an early age, she had realised it wasn’t an easy marriage. She sometimes felt like her birth and the birth of her brother had been ways for them to stay together.
Little did she know her 8th birthday would remain the most significant birthday of her life:
“It was the happiest day of my life. Mom and Dad had gone out of their way to make me happy. Maybe they knew it would be my last birthday with both of them present.”
GAME OVER: Children often find themselves as the pawns in their parents' failed marriage. GRAPHIC: Vanessa Smeets
All of her friends from school were invited to the first pool party of the year. It was finally spring in South Africa! Her dad looked after everyone swimming, while her mom made sure everyone had enough fun games in the garden: playing catchers, throwing each other with flour and eating a lot of cake.
Six months later, Emma was in a new house.
“When is Daddy joining us?”
“He’s not coming, sweetheart. We’re now divorced.”
“Divorced? What’s that?”
Divorce: she had heard about it at school: Teacher Sarah can’t come to school. She got divorced.
It sounded like a horrid contagious disease.
“Mommy, is it a disease? Are you sick?”
“No, not really. The marriage is sick. It’s when a marriage doesn’t work anymore.”
“If it’s broken, it can always be fixed.”
“No, darling. This time we can’t fix it. It’s when two people who once loved each other go their separate ways.”
Loved. Separate. The words spun around in her head.
“You and Daddy don’t love each other anymore?”
“It’s complicated. We still love you and your brother. That will never change. We are doing this because we love you both.”
For a child, this was extremely hard to comprehend. How could taking away the love between two parents be love in the end?
It took years for Emma to understand. She asked her father about it. For the first time in her life, she saw tears in his eyes:
“It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
KIDREAM: Children often believe their parents will get back together, no matter the circumstances. GRAPHIC: Vanessa Smeets
“DON’T DO THIS TO ME!” she screamed in her head, but didn’t dare tell him.
Those words haunted her for the next few years. It hurt that her parents saw her too little to understand. She was old enough to understand the silence was painful and that she and her sibling were caught somewhere in between a silent war.
They never really spoke of how it fell apart, so in her mind Emma believed it was her fault:
Maybe I should have never kept that dog that made Daddy so angry.
Maybe if I had been a top swimmer like he wanted me to be, he would’ve stayed.
Maybe I shouldn’t have teased my brother so much. Mommy wouldn’t have had to protect him so much from Dad’s harsh words.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so spoilt; maybe he would have made more time for us.
It took almost a decade for Emma to stop waiting at the phone or door-step for her dad’s visit, or to stop visiting her old house which was only two blocks away. She had to let go of those memories, because they became increasingly bitter.
The shared custody was the worst. She dreaded each weekend in her old house. The walls were cold and the memories were stale. Even running around the garden was a constant struggle of juggling new memories with old ones.
It made it easier when her father moved away. Although she missed him everyday, she could create new memories each time they saw each other.
Ten years later, she asked her father for that chat he promised her years ago. She slowly made peace with all of it and realised it was indeed love in the end. Although it took years for her parents to make peace, it finally happened. Being friends was more loving than a tense and uncomfortable marriage. They were there at her 21st, at her graduation and even when she fell extremely ill.
Emma also finally made peace with the lost little girl inside of her, explaining:
“Two people you love dearly don’t necessarily have to be together. They remain great parents, separately. Once upon a time, they were deeply and passionately in love, but changing lifestyles and conflicting personalities pulled them apart. Not you.”
She continued: “Look at them now, talking and laughing. Those present memories are just as precious. Maybe one day, you and I will be brave enough to love too…again.”
Advice to divorced parents:
- Do not keep it a secret or wait until the last minute.
- Tell your child together with your spouse.
- Keep things simple and straight-forward.
- Tell them the divorce is not their fault.
- Admit that this will be sad and upsetting for everyone.
- Reassure your child that you both still love them and will always be their parents.
- Do not discuss each other’s faults or problems with the child.
Source: the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/children_and_divorce
Through the ages
How children react to divorce depends on their ages:
Infants lack the cognitive development to understand what is happening, but they sense and react to changes in emotions and energy levels of their parents.
Preschool children may fear abandonment and often feel they are the reason for the divorce, by misbehaving in some way.
Preadolescent children have a better understanding of the divorce, but also greater self-awareness of their own pain.
Teens can feel overwhelmed with the stress, anxiousness and loss of parental support in coping with becoming an adult.
WHOSE FAULT IS IT ANYWAY? Graphic: Vanessa Smeets
- Divorce can be either fault-based or no-fault. Fault-based means that you will have to prove your spouse is to blame, through: adultery, abuse or addiction. No-fault means that no one is to blame, claiming “irreconcilable differences.”
- Couples who live together before getting married are more likely to divorce.
- Children living with only one parent are more likely to suffer from poor health.
- Divorced people are more likely to suffer from mental illness, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic conditions. This is caused in part by the stress and long lasting trauma of divorce and the fact that married couples tend to have better health habits and thus live a cleaner and healthier lifestyle. Source: http://www.divorceadviceformentoday.com/divorce-facts