If you and your partner are getting a divorce with kids under your care, you’ll want to make sure they come out at the other end as unscathed as possible. In order to understand how divorce affects children on an emotional and psychological level, Cordell & Cordell interviewed adult children of divorce about their childhood experiences. To protect their privacy, these stories have been anonymised.
Blanca’s parents got divorced when she was 15. As she and her twin sister had spent a year living abroad they hadn’t witnessed the process of their parents growing apart – consequently, the day of the announcement was a day full of surprises.
“A month after we’d arrived home, in the summer, my parents took me, my twin sister and one of my older brothers parachuting – it was a long-standing promise,” she said. “The experience was thrilling and we came home feeling all dizzy! In this state, they sat us down at the kitchen table and told us in clear, practical terms that they were getting divorced.”
After a day of such surprise and excitement, Blanca couldn’t differentiate the emotional from the physical anymore.
“I just wanted to sleep and feel better,” she said.
In retrospect, she blames her parents for taking them on such an emotional rollercoaster. Her advice: “Don’t take the kids to do something fun and exciting, then tell them about the divorce. They will forever link that experience, which is supposed to be positive, to something as traumatic as a divorce.”
In her mind, it’s definitely not worth it for the children.
“I think my parents were trying to clean up their own consciences for what they were about to do,” she said.
Blanca went on to live with her dad, her sister and one of her older brothers, who was 25 at the time. For her and her sister, he was the reference point for adulthood while her parents were “acting like teenagers.”
“My brother was the greatest support, economically and psychologically,” she said. “He listened to us, acknowledged our worries and situation and tried to help as much as he could.”
In a practical sense, Blanca had to grow up prematurely.
“It was as if we were suddenly adults, two 15-year-olds, cooking and doing laundry. Other teenagers would seem childish to us.”
In terms of their community, Blanca had to come to terms with living in a family that wasn’t the norm in Catholic culture (father, mother and children), despite the fact that she doesn’t identify as Catholic herself.
According to how she was raised, anything beyond the nuclear family was perceived as failure.
“Because of my upbringing, it’s still hard to internalise that it’s OK not to have a nuclear family,” she said. “Sometimes it can make me feel sad and jealous to see parents that are still together being merry with their adult kids. I miss the feeling of having a united family, especially at Christmas.”
What could her parents have done better?
“I regret that we didn’t go to some sort of therapy together,” she said. “Psychological support would have been great to help us learn how to adjust.”
What’s more, Blanca never felt at home in her father’s apartment.
“I wish he had put more effort into making a home out of the house,” she said. “Staying with him felt like staying in a shared apartment, not a family home.”
On the upside, she’s grateful that she never witnessed her parents fighting.
“They aren’t comfortable together, but at least they respect each other and that is something positive,” she said.
What’s more, her parents always left her and her sister some level of autonomy.
“They respected our decisions about where we wanted to live and study,” she said.
Tarik, now 25 years of age, doesn’t really recall the day when his parents announced their divorce when he was aged 7. “Either I was too young to understand it, or it all happened quite smoothly. They went through the ordeal without any fighting or shouting.”
Even after their separation, both Tarik’s parents remained present in his life. During nearly all life events (school, birthdays, graduations, etc.) both of them were present together in an amicable fashion. “They did not and don’t seem to have any resentment, or they hide it very well. They always prioritised the well-being of me and my brother. They also made sure that we did not lack anything financially and paid for our tuition.”
In terms of logistics, not much changed for Tarik after his parents’ divorce. His father moved out, but moved to a place under 30 minutes away from his childhood home. “In addition, he kept working in the town where I lived so he was never far away or out of the picture.”
“From the divorce to my early teens I spent every second weekend at my father’s place and I also spent half my time there during holidays. I’m pleased that they made sure there was time and space for me to spend time with both of my parents.” If anything, Tarik says that he might have liked to spend every other week with his father.
“I do feel I spent less time with my father as a child than I would have liked to.”
Despite the relatively smooth transition, Tarik acknowledges the psychological impact his parents’ separation had on him as a child. “It’s still a rather disruptive event. My mother, at the time, was not very confident or independent. Consequently, my feeling of security and stability was clearly impacted during the years following the divorce.”
As Tarik’s father remarried, Tarik found himself having an unpleasant relationship with his father’s new spouse. He saw a child psychologist for a while to help him process these difficulties, but the relationship failed to improve. “I do blame my father for not standing up for me enough and I’ve always wondered: why her?”
Being a child of divorce does influence who he is today. “Up to a point, I think it has made me more cynical about family values and I generally undervalue the importance of family. The annual fuss about who would have the children and when around Christmas is one of the reasons why now, as an adult, I often book trips abroad around Christmas.”
Ali’s parents announced their divorce in Malta, after the family had moved there six months previously.
“My parents sat me, my brother and my sister down at the dining room table and told us calmly that they were separating,” she said. “I was in no way surprised as they’d been fighting horribly for some time. I hated hearing them shout at each other, so I was actually relieved when they told us.”
As Ali had already seen it coming, she didn’t have any particular concerns about the divorce. Her questions were more about the practicalities of when they would move back and where they would live.
“My parents had already decided that the three of us would be moving back to the UK with our mum while Dad stayed in Malta, where he was working on a three-year contract,” she said.
In the years after that, Ali and her siblings didn’t see their father much – however, they hadn’t been close while they had lived in the same house, either.
Her mother, however, was always there supporting them every step of the way, whilst also dealing with the upheaval of moving three kids and a dog to another country and sorting out accommodation, schools, work, etc.
“We didn’t appreciate at the time how much she had to deal with,” admits Ali.
Looking back on it as an adult child of divorce, Ali is grateful that her parents separated. She says: “It was a key factor in me becoming fiercely independent and self-sufficient. For the most part that’s not a bad thing! With hindsight, looking at my own situation, I think there is a tendency for parents to assume that it’s best to stay together ‘for the sake of the children,’ but I have always been glad mine separated because the atmosphere at home had been really bad for a long time.”
Ali is the Director of The Effective English Company, a flexible support for busy communications teams.
“My biological parents got divorced before I can remember,” he said. “I was 3 at the time and up to this day we haven’t really had a proper conversation about what actually happened. It’s only in retrospect that I pieced the pieces together.”
John’s mother divorced his father, against his father’s will, to join families with another man.
“I think my parents have always sheltered us quite heavily from what was going on,” he said. “One day, my mother mentioned to me quite casually that Dad was moving out, and pretty much immediately after that we all moved in with my stepdad. My mother left my father for him, but barely spoke a word about it.”
The major difficulty in the separation was that John’s father did not want the divorce. He never wanted to part with his children and felt like they had been taken away from him.
“This left him very bitter, and not a day would go by without him speaking ill of my mother,” he said. “Of course, I found this difficult – my mum’s still my mum.”
John does feel sorry for his dad, however.
“He’s always wanted to have lots of contact with us,” he said. “As children, we would stay with him every other weekend and one day a week.”
However, spending the weekends away from home was also quite disruptive.
“Money was tight for my father, so he lived in a two-bedroom flat; this meant that my brother and I had to sleep on a sofa bed together when we were staying there,” he said. “Unfortunately, it never quite felt like home – more like a place we were visiting.”
When John was younger he thought the divorce hadn’t impacted him at all, but in recent years therapy has shed light on some of the ways in which it has affected him.
“Being the youngest in a big family meant I didn’t get a lot of attention,” he said. “My mum and stepdad had to work hard to make ends meet, which took up much of their time and energy.”
As an adult child of divorce, John has noticed how this need for attention affected his relationships.
“I craved a lot of attention and reassurance in order to be OK,” he said.
His main childhood coping strategy – doing extremely well at school and being the best at everything in order to gain love and attention – resulted in a deep-rooted sense of perfectionism.
“I’m pretty sure that the level of pressure I put on myself has played a large role in triggering my chronic health problems,” he said.
Overall, John feels his siblings and step-siblings have been his main source of emotional support. He got on well with his stepsister, and in their childhood they would complain together about each other’s parents. What’s more, John’s brother is a good example when it comes to setting boundaries.
“He doesn’t cater to our parents’ unwillingness to be in the same room together,” he said. “He and his family refuse to have a separate Christmas for each one of them – it’s just too much to ask of his wife and his children.”
“Sometimes, we’ve had to parent our parents.”
Adam, now the co-founder and CEO of a company, is also a child of divorce. His memory of his parents’ separation is hazy, but it happened when he was around 12.
“I recall that they took the time to explain to me that they were divorcing because they could see things were getting worse between them, and they didn’t want to wait until things got really bad before splitting up – they wanted to be a divorced couple that was still on speaking terms,” he said. “They both reassured me that this wasn’t about whether they loved me, that they both loved me, and that this wasn’t anything to do with me.”
Adam doesn’t remember having any particular worries about his parents’ divorce at the time.
“I imagine I had my own concerns, about being bullied at school,” he said. “When I think about my parents’ divorce, it feels pretty distant. I feel a faint pain in my heart, but otherwise no strong reaction.”
His father moved around 10 minutes away by bike – a 30-minute walk – so Adam could still see him quite easily and frequently. He doesn’t remember there being a major disruption in his life, which might have been due to his dad already being quite emotionally distant beforehand.
Eventually, his father moved from Holland, where Adam grew up, to the UK, and Adam followed him to go to school in London at 16.
“They made sure I was able to spend time with both of them,” he said. “Even when my dad was in the UK and I was in Holland, I would go and visit him every once in a while, including for a couple of weeks at a time over the summer.”
Adam imagines that the psychological impact of his parents’ divorce was a continuation of the emotional distance that he had experienced for a number of years already.
“During that period, I was also being constantly bullied at school,” he said. “Every day I was afraid to wait at the bus stop, so I waited until everyone else had gone to catch my bus, or I just walked home. That was a more dominant emotional dimension of my life at the time. It didn’t feel like my parents were able to help me with that. It’s only very recently that I’ve even been able to raise the topic and have a productive conversation about it.”
“They’re human too, and flawed, and they did the best they could, even where it wasn’t enough.”
Psychological support, for Adam, came from an unexpected corner.
“Touchingly, I think I did receive psychological support – from our pets,” he said. “We had dogs (Labradors mostly) throughout my childhood, and cats too. The dogs, in particular, gave me a source of unconditional love and physical contact that was lacking otherwise.”
From other humans, however, Adam doesn’t recall any help, particularly around the bullying. Only once did a teacher reach out to him to acknowledge that what the other kids were doing to him wasn’t right.
“Whatever psychological support I might have needed for the divorce was drowned in the bullying, I think,” he said.
Interestingly, Adam’s parents are living together again now, and have been for over a decade.
“I’ve observed the patterns of how they are together from my adult perspective, and it’s given me a clear sense of their co-dependent, unstable and undesirable tendencies,” he said.
Although it makes Adam sad to observe them, he is aware that his parents’ choices aren’t his to fix.
“I am just conscious that I don’t want to do the same in my relationships, with my wife or others,” he said.
“They could have been more emotionally open, available and connected – to themselves and to me.”