My brother Marc and I sit close together at the top of the stairs while our parents yell at one another downstairs. At age 15, Marc has become my protector, my rock of Gibraltar. Yet, on this evening, I cannot find comfort.
Cupboards slam shut. Dishes and pans clank in the sink. The yelling intensifies. We continue to sit there with the lights off, staring down toward the foot of the stairs. I also want to yell, want to say: Stop it already! This is wrong! Don’t you see what you’re putting us through? But I am 11 years old and petrified to do anything. I hug my arms in front of me and hold myself tight. I have been hearing my parents fight incessantly for years, but I still can’t get used to it.
The next day, I learn that my dad has left home for good.
Even now, as an adult, I don’t remember anything more about that day or the months that followed. All I remember is the haunting silence that filled our house and the persistent questions it brought.
I grew up in an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, raised in a fairly strict Catholic home. To outsiders, our family of five modeled success. My father was a prominent surgeon whom I idealized, and my mother was a fashionable housewife. We belonged to the local country club, wore designer clothes and owned expensive cars. Achievement was a prominent value in our home and one that characterized much of who my parents were.
The image of my dad as a larger-than-life figure made it all the more difficult to understand his melancholy nature when he arrived home. He often sat silently at the dinner table with us. On occasion I glanced at him as I ate, afraid to talk or make any noise that might upset him. After dinner he either read in his study or went into the family room to play the stereo with the door shut.
There seemed only one way to reach my dad: Achieve as much as I could. So I spent long hours in my bedroom, studying and doing homework. Inevitably the fighting between my parents erupted in the kitchen directly below my room. I couldn’t hear what they were fighting about, nor did I try to make out their words. I was too petrified by the yells, shouts and door slams. I had to do something but didn’t know what. I was too afraid to leave my room, so I locked my door and played music just loud enough to muffle the noise. Then I would stare out my bedroom window at the trees and houses in the distance and imagine myself being a bird and flying away.
Those contentious moments were the scariest of my life. It was as if bombs were being dropped near me. I was afraid an explosion might hit my parents at any minute, that the yelling would turn to physical blows. Yet just when my fears became greatest, it seemed that God picked me up and held me. My fears would begin to dissipate, and a reassuring presence would fill their place. I heard what seemed to be God’s voice telling me that someday life would get better. I did not know how or when, but in my soul I had faith that it would. This belief, which I credit to God’s grace, was what allowed me to endure my living nightmare.
Despite my parents’ frequent fighting, I managed to earn straight As and win various awards. When my dad failed to notice, I blamed myself. I figured that I didn’t deserve his attention because my accomplishments in no way compared to his. I had to do better, achieve more. I moved the bar higher and set my sights on getting into Notre Dame. It seemed like a realistic way to get my dad to take an interest in me, as he was an ND grad with a great love for the place. Achieving became my addiction and means of escape.
The fighting between my parents grew more frequent as time went on. They did not argue in front of me, but when I went upstairs to my bedroom the yelling and screaming started.
It became so disruptive that I begged my mom to get a divorce. Yet she was too beaten down and too scared to take that step. Her difficulties increased my emotional distress, and I reacted by becoming enmeshed in her and my dad’s problems. It seemed the only way to ensure my survival.
The fear I experienced when my parents fought turned into a new kind of fear when my dad left home. My mother and two older brothers scattered in different directions, coping largely alone, while my dad moved out of state and eventually across the country. I rarely talked with him. Instead, we wrote letters. Yet my dad remained as elusive to me in his writings as he was in person. I became plagued by countless questions: Where did I fit in his life now? How in the world was I supposed to relate to him? When would I hear from him again?
I desperately needed answers but could not figure them out, so I told myself what I wanted to hear. I still idealized my dad and was unable to grieve the loss of him.
Since then, I have learned that many young people experience a similar lengthy denial period after their parents separate. What fuels it is the fact that children generally do not experience this loss as a final one. The nonresidential parent, after all, remains a parent.
“People can’t start grieving because the situation is indeterminate,” says Pauline Boss, professor emeritus and clinical supervisor at the University of Minnesota, who is widely recognized for her groundbreaking research that forms the basis for her book Ambiguous Loss. “It feels like a loss but it is not really one. The confusion freezes the grieving process.”
While I remained confused about my relationship with my dad, my adjustment was helped at the same time because I no longer experienced high conflict between my parents. “Anger between parents affects children’s emotional security, and they generally feel the need to do something about it,” says E. Mark Cummings, a Notre Dame professor of psychology. Along with Patrick Davies, he wrote the book Children and Marital Conflict. Parental fighting during a divorce can have an even more detrimental effect on children’s functioning after divorce than decreased contact with their nonresidential parent, they note.
With the pitched home battles at an end, I could concentrate more fully on my homework. I enjoyed the lack of tension. Yet the increased silence also gave me more reminders that my dad had moved far away. More questions filled my mind: When would I see him again? Was he thinking about me? Does he still love me as much as he did before?
My mom spent most evenings in her bedroom, sometimes coming out to sit with me in the living room as I tried to console her by playing her favorite songs on the piano. My older brother, Bob, was often out on dates or racing his Corvette with friends. My middle brother, Marc, was either playing sports or engrossed in various sporting events on TV or the radio. We weren’t sure how to console one another, let alone ourselves.
I often felt lonely and sad. I did not want to burden my mother with my feelings, nor was I comfortable sharing them with my friends. So I bugged Marc instead. I needed someone to talk with, and somehow he understood that. Gradually, we tried to make sense of the changes, often spending afternoons sitting under the cherry blossom tree in our front yard and talking. We were war buddies when my parents fought and remained war buddies in the wake of that fighting. It was the greatest consolation of my life to have Marc there to talk with and watch over me.
As my junior high and high school years went on, my dream of getting into Notre Dame distracted me from my grief. Getting good grades became the one thing I could control, and I clung to this pursuit like a life preserver. My accomplishments also served another critical purpose: They lifted my mother out of sadness and also reassured me that she, too, would not disintegrate from my life. I was proving to the world that we were not damaged goods.
National studies, I know now, have shown that about half of all children exposed to marital conflict exhibit behavior problems—typically excessive aggression, vandalism, depression, anxiety or social withdrawal. Kids from high-conflict homes also often do poorly in school. I, however, fell into the perfect-child pattern where, as Cummings has pointed out, “children do more than others to take care of parents’ welfare or help around the home.” It was another way in which I tried to keep my family together and not create more problems for us. Fortunately, my mother was able to get a job and carve out a new life for herself. Her adjustment kept my caretaking tendencies in check and gave me permission to focus on my own life.
Six years after my dad left home, I was accepted into Notre Dame. But fulfilling my dream did not give me what I truly wanted: My father did not become more involved in my life. I should have enlisted the help of a counselor at the University Counseling Center to work through my feelings, but I did not know much about the place. Plus, my shame was especially great at ND as I knew no one whose parents had separated or divorced. At that time, there were no support groups or retreats offered where students could be ministered to, no mention of separated or divorced families in the general intentions at Mass or in sermons, nothing that would have encouraged me to get the assistance I needed.
I simply was too embarrassed to take that first step on my own. So I kept my emotional difficulties to myself and wrote about them in my journal, convinced that admitting them to anyone would only make me more of an outcast. I sought emotional comfort in food as well. I didn’t become bulimic but did gain the “freshman 10” plus several pounds more.
My dad and I continued to write during my college years. He would give me advice on choosing a major or dating, and he would update me on his life and express an interest in seeing me over breaks. At times he also expressed his remorse about having failed me and his hope that someday he would live to see me happy despite his failings.
Those feelings stayed foremost in my mind when I visited him. Once again I tried to be the perfect child, listening to whatever he needed to tell me and giving him the impression that I was okay with everything about our relationship. This seemed to give him permission to share his side of the story and show me his tears. For this, I am forever grateful. Not only did those occasions allow me to see a different side of my father, but they also enabled me to empathize more with him. This made my task of forgiving him much easier.
I write about one such occasion in my book Now What Do I Do?:
“’If you have your health, you have everything,’ Dad says. He narrows his brown eyes at me and adds, ‘That’s one way our family has been very fortunate.’
“I force a smile, then look away. This restaurant is pretty amazing: the maitre d’ pulls out the chair for you, waiters tell you the menu, and strolling violinists ask what you want to hear. All week I had been looking forward to coming here.
“But Dad is ruining the evening with the way he’s talking to me. I know he’s trying to tell me something important, but I have no clue what it is. All I can think about is that I see him only once or twice a year, now that he’s divorced Mom and moved away, and here he is playing another guessing game!
“’You know, Lynn, I moved away because I had to. Things with your mother and me were just getting worse. I knew there was no hope of working them out.’
“I nod, listening to Dad rehash the past. Details about fighting and cheating that I’ve already heard. Details I don’t want to be reminded of. Details that have nothing to do with my life. Doesn’t Dad get any of this?
“He stares at his glass. ‘Moving away seemed like the best option at the time.’ Then he looks right at me and adds, ‘For everyone.’
“I feel like shouting, So what’s your point? Am I supposed to tell you that you did the right thing? What about all the times you didn’t call? Don’t you know how much that hurt?
“I glance at him. He looks up from the table and, for the first time in my life, I see tears in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Lynn. I’ve tried in my own way, but it just wasn’t good enough. I’m sorry for all the hurt I’ve caused you.’
“I can’t believe Dad is actually crying right here in the restaurant in front of me. I never knew he felt sorry about anything.
“It’s okay, Dad.’ It’s all I can think to say.”
I graduated from Notre Dame and moved back to Pittsburgh in 1985. That fall I began law school, a respectable option which would disguise the fact that I was clueless about my life and my identity. Once again, I had an academic pursuit to distract me from my grief. Yet, after two semesters, I decided the field was not right for me and quit law school. Although it had been 11 years since my parents separated, I found myself in a similar place emotionally—filled with shame and low self-esteem and afraid of going out into the world.
I returned to writing, the one activity that had been a constant, nurturing part of my life ever since my dad left home. This time, instead of writing short stories and keeping a journal as I did at ND, I began to write a novel about a girl’s reconciliation with her father and personal triumph, outcomes made possible because of forgiveness and faith in God. It was a story I hoped my own life would bear out. Writing toward this resolution was cathartic and helped me feel as though I was starting to stand on my own two feet emotionally.
That growth didn’t last long. In September 1986 I found what became another “drug” to soothe my pain. I entered my first serious relationship. It seemed I had met Mr. Right; he was nearly six years older than me and much like my father. I could not see that I was replaying what I hadn’t worked through. My boyfriend was not a real person to me. Instead he served as a pair of eyeglasses that helped me see my dad more clearly, as they both related to me in similar ways.
As that dating relationship grew more tenuous, the ghost of my parents’ failed marriage reared its ugly head. If my boyfriend mentioned another woman’s good looks, I worried that he wanted to be with her instead of me, even though he never gave any indications of disloyalty. When he was late in calling, I became convinced he was with another woman, and I called around frantically, trying to track him down. To me, one message was clear in the uncertainty: My boyfriend was about to betray me and leave my life for good.
I’ve since realized that as a young adult in my first serious relationship, I was experiencing what research psychologist Judith Wallerstein and science writer Sandra Blakeslee named the “sleeper effect” in their book Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce. The authors studied 131 children from split families over a 10-year period. Although I had already begun grieving the loss of my father, my gut reaction to the breakdown of my parents’ marriage had been delayed. As the fears and anxieties in my dating relationship grew, it dislodged similar fears and anxieties I had experienced through my parents’ marriage. Like a volcano, I erupted. Wallerstein and Blakeslee say the sleeper effect typically affects women in young adulthood when they face issues of commitment and love.
I experienced an even more poignant intruder when the arguments with my boyfriend became more heated. It was then that I found myself thrown completely back in time and reliving those moments when my parents fought. This time I could fight back, yet I did so as if in my mother’s skin. Refusing to be defeated like I had seen her defeated, I set out to even the score by making ultimatums and threats to end the relationship.
Despite my threats, however, I could never muster the courage to end that pairing. At times I felt that God was nudging me in this direction, asking me once again to let go and depend on him. However, I was too afraid. I didn’t believe I could survive the double whammy of grief that would result, even with God’s help.
I stayed stuck in that wrong relationship until, finally, the day came when I decided I deserved more. I ended the relationship and was brought to the lowest point I had ever experienced. All I could do most nights was sit on the floor of my efficiency apartment and cry, listening to music with the lights turned off, music that would help me emote and embrace my struggle. In those moments of darkness, however, my faith was deepened and my transformation began. I sensed that God was with me in a very real way. Relief did not come quickly nor in large doses. Nevertheless, it came.
I continued working in public relations and writing magazine features. I also began attending Mass at a Newman Center near my apartment. The sermons I heard there stimulated and challenged me and touched my soul. I found my faith truly being nurtured, and I wanted more. I began going to confession every two to three weeks, just to have the opportunity to talk with the priests there and receive additional guidance. I had found something meaningful and sustaining at that Newman Center, and it gave me the strength I needed to learn how to love myself and, in turn, accept my pain. I found inside myself a strength I never knew existed. I began to learn who I was and looked to myself for approval and affirmation that I had always surrendered to some external source.
One year later, in 1992, I began a new job at a university that enabled me to take fiction writing courses at a reduced rate. I had taken a couple of these courses at ND and was even encouraged by the professor there to consider a career in writing, but I shrugged off the idea. Now with the pressures to become a doctor or lawyer behind me, I felt the freedom to return to my love of writing and seriously pursue the editing of my novel. I eventually completed the edits and shopped it around to publishers. I got some interest but no contracts.
Six years later, in 1998, I entered an MFA in Writing program. After one year in the program, I found the courage to write about my experiences in the form of nonfiction vignettes, instead of hiding myself behind a fictional character in a novel. The weekend I decided to take that risk was the same weekend I met the man I would marry two years later. I began to see my suffering as purposeful. Not only did it bring me closer to God, it also prepared me uniquely for my ministry with children of divorce.
My Life Today
Parents often want to know, “How long does it take for children to get over parental divorce?” My answer is simply, “As long as it takes.” Some young people adjust fairly well in a few years, absent continued or additional adversity. Others require decades. I fell into the latter category. Fortunately, though, I didn’t marry until my mid-30s, which gave me time to build a relationship with myself and find ways to be happy alone. My years of being single gave me an excellent foundation for marriage because they afforded me ample opportunity to work through the losses of my parents’ divorce, at a time when I was ready and strong enough to do so.
Marrying later in life also gave me the space and time to bring God into the solution. I believe firmly that the only way a child or young adult can truly grow from such an experience is if they let God enter their struggle in a real and recurring way, as these losses are often too confusing for the human heart to handle alone.
Children from divorced families were 50 percent more likely than their counterparts from intact families to divorce, according to a 1996 National Opinion Research Council survey of 21,963 adults that spanned more than 20 years. This statistic, in my view, stems from a likelihood that these young adults married without having sufficiently resolved their losses.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown past my pain. I have an extraordinary husband, a close-knit family and a promising career in counseling. It is a truly blessed life.
However, I cannot sit on the sidelines and do nothing about the lack of resources available for children with divorced parents. In sharing my journey I try to instill hope that they, too, can rise above this adversity and grow stronger with God’s help.
Today, I run a small nonprofit foundation, Faith Journeys, through which I provide faith-based support groups and day retreats for adolescents and young adults with separated or divorced parents. I also conduct workshops throughout the country to provide education and support to separated and divorced families, teachers and clergy.
Faith Journeys began with a question I kept asking myself: What enabled me to beat the odds when others were not? Yes, I had significant advantages: financial security, a devoted mother and a brother who mentored me. Yet those advantages could not shield me from poor self-esteem, persistent sadness, playing “rescuer,” addiction to achievement and trouble with intimacy. What did enable me to overcome the obstacles was an openness to God’s grace. I realize now, more than ever, not only that God never abandoned me but that it was God’s grace that allowed me to learn from my wounds.
It continues to be important to me to help the Church’s ministry with separated and divorced families as well. When starting Faith Journeys in 2001, I met many pastors who were quick to dismiss the need for this ministry, saying divorce was not a problem in their congregation. Others refused to let me conduct a workshop at their church as if, in ministering to these families, I was somehow promoting divorce. Fortunately, in recent years, I have encountered less denial and resistance from clergy and more willingness to offer ministry programs to these families. There is still much need for improvement, however.
Virtually every young person from a Catholic school with whom I have worked has expressed not only embarrassment but the belief that they are the only one in their school whose parents have separated or divorced. This is unlikely, however, since 21 percent of Catholics who have been married have been divorced, according to a 2004 study released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California.
It appears that some Catholic schools silence the subject for various reasons, not the least of which may be judgmental attitudes taken toward these young people, attitudes that are rarely taken, if ever, when children experience other losses such as the death of a parent. Wallerstein and Blakeslee found that fewer than 10 percent of the children in their study had any adult speak to them sympathetically as the divorce unfolded. While the Church views divorce as a deep wound to the natural moral law, it also recognizes that it claims innocent victims. These victims always include the children. Any judgmental attitudes toward them need to be set aside, and this need is especially prominent in the Church.
A Solution With Many Parts
The solution to this difficulty is achievable, but it requires the cooperation of many parts of the community.
Separated and divorced parents need to look past feelings of guilt and anger and realize that their children are also experiencing a difficult loss. They need to insist on services for them as well, be it psychological counseling or enrollment in a support-group program. Most young people are resistant to such help. However, just as it is necessary to get a cavity filled and thus avoid a root canal, so, too, must parents recognize that their children’s grief will likely grow more problematic if ignored.
My family did not turn to the Church for help with our crisis. We were filled with too much shame, shame we could barely admit even to ourselves. I have spent most of my life trying to overcome that feeling of not measuring up. It has taken me decades to get there. Now I can say with certainty that I am grateful for the challenge. It has made me a better person and has led me to my ministry, adding a meaning and purpose to my life that it otherwise would not have had.
Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski is founder and president of Faith Journeys Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Baltimore dedicated to supporting young people with separated or divorced parents.