What Does Divorce Look Like from the Eyes of a Child?

Written by Lori Lowe


Although I’ve been blogging about research-based marriage tips for nearly three years, I’ve never written about my personal experience as a child of divorce. When I was asked to write about it, I hesitated, because I don’t want to focus on a negative past or hurt my parents. But I think it’s important for parents to know the truth about the impact of divorce on children: Children are not as resilient as you think they are.

We can only learn about how children are impacted by asking them after they grow up. Without sharing our own experiences of family breakup, we can’t hope to improve the experiences of the next generation.

I was born during a doubling of the divorce rate, making my generation (GenX) among the highest percentages of children of divorce. I was a blond, pigtailed second grader who enjoyed Barbies, arguing with my big brother, camping and Sean Cassidy records when I was abruptly told my parents were divorcing. Research shows children from low-conflict divorces like my parents’ have an even harder time with family divorce, because they had no warning. I wasn’t aware of any conflict. Divorce was not something I understood on any level. All I understood was heartbreak.

The only way I can explain the feeling from a child’s viewpoint is to imagine your heart is sliced into two equal pieces. Each half is boxed up and wrapped in a bow. You are told one half of your heart will continue to reside in your home, the other half will reside in a different home, and you’re not to make a big deal about it. At times, I anxiously clung to my brother and as decisions about custody and visitation were made for us.

Eventually we “adjusted” to visiting our Dad on weekends. Seeing his pain in not being able to spend as much time with us as he wanted and trying to balance what was “best for us” wasn’t easy. We couldn’t imagine living away from our mother either. So, we accepted our circumstances. We acted grown up, even when we felt like crying, and we never talked about it. We celebrated nearly all holidays with our Mom’s family—Christmas and Easter mornings, Halloween, Thanksgiving. Half of my heart wished I could celebrate with Dad, too, leading to holiday guilt.

My parents’ divorce, however, was only the beginning of a lifetime of consequences and complications. For us, that meant a controlling step-father from whom I never felt love. Three step-siblings dramatically changed our family dynamic, but eventually became our close friends. I changed my birth name, Laura, to Lori to avoid confusion with my new sister, who shared the same name. The divorce became history, but family life was anything but easy. We banded together. We waited to grow up so that we could do things our way. We didn’t share details of our other family with our Dad, because we knew it would only cause more pain.

Having two parents, and later a step-mother, who always loved and supported me helped immensely as I grew into adulthood. I knew my parents never meant any harm. They made me feel loved and worthy of love. College-bound, academically minded siblings pointed me in the right direction to create a different life for myself. College, grad school, marriage, and children all followed. Even on my wedding day, 17 years after the divorce, my four parents were uncomfortable being in the same room together. Despite the challenges, I am thankful every single day that I am blessed with the life I envisioned for my family. However, just because I and other children of divorce overcame a difficult childhood doesn’t mean we weren’t harmed in the process.

I have very few memories of my life before the divorce at age 7, and virtually no memories of my parents together. I think being in a kind of survival mode changed me and my world experiences. In a way, I lost who I was and needed to find where I fit in the world.

GenXer and author Elizabeth Marquardt wrote of her own experiences as a child of divorce in the 2005 book Between Two Worlds, also sharing a national survey of children of divorce. Participants reported remarkably similar experiences, and readers who have lived through family fragmentation find similar stories to our own on the pages. Marquardt’s main thesis that we children of divorce lived in two worlds, and sometimes “suspended uncomfortably somewhere in between” is piercingly accurate. The conclusion can’t be avoided that there are no good divorces (although some may be necessary due to abuse). Even when both parents love their children and attempt to make the divorce as amicable as possible, the negative consequences to the children are far-reaching and lifelong.

In a University of Texas at Austin national survey of individuals who have ever been divorced, only one-third felt they and their ex-spouses worked hard enough to save the marriage. When we minimize the effects of divorce, we aren’t compelling people to work harder to save their marriages. And we teach our children the opposite of what we intended, which is to live life with love and forgiveness.

As a child of divorce, I continue to strive for a strong marriage and a secure, intact family for my children, especially since the rates of divorce for children of divorce are higher than for children from intact families. I’ve talked to other GenXers who are fiercely committed to leaving a positive family legacy for their children—one they never received. Marriage isn’t always easy, and it’s never perfect, but it’s best for our children.

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  1. As a married mother of 4, my children are the ONE reason that I will not divorce my husband. I have been emotionally and physically detached from him for the past 5 years (we’ve been married 25), but I could never put my children through a divorce. If it weren’t for my children I would leave him in a heartbeat. Thank you for your article. It just confirms what I’ve believed for a long time.

  2. Hi Nancy. I’m sorry that you are having such struggles in your marriage, that must be very tough for you. I’m glad that you understand the serious implications of divorce on a child and how tough it can be. My hope is not that you would stay together for the children, but that you would be able to make progress in the relationship for the sake of the children and for you as the adults. I interviewed so many couples for my book First Kiss to Lasting Bliss who had nearly hopeless situations but who were able to find happy marriages. In many cases, marriages can improve and the adults can find much more positive, enriching relationships. Thanks for caring so much for your family. All the best to you.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article. I am so sad for my daughters that they are the children of divorce. Ours was a very high conflict marriage due to domestic violence. It still saddens me that my husband would not get counseling for his problem. I hate that our daughters still remember him throwing furniture, breaking down their bedroom doors and cursing and yelling at us at all hours of the night. I pray everyday that my beautiful daughters will choose men who will put their family – not money and power – first.

    • Vanessa, congratulations on this important step to leave an abusive relationship and to protect yourself and your daughters. I’m so sorry for the pain you have all been through and that your husband is unwilling to get help. Please bear in mind that your daughters can learn what not to accept and to have high standards. Despite being a child of divorce, I now have a happy marriage and will celebrate my 19th anniversary this month. While divorce is often unnecessary, in cases of domestic violence, protecting yourself and your children must take precedence. There is a better life for you and your girls. Wishing you peace.

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