Divorcing parents absorbed in their own disdain and anger can put their children at risk.
Consider this the complaint of a childhood consumer of divorce. I’d never say divorce is a bad thing. That’s like saying driving is a bad thing. But, there are a few rules of that unhappy road that are essential, especially if you’re a parent. If you’ve got kids and are getting divorced, you have to stay in control, to make sure everyone gets to the next destination safely.
My folks didn’t and I got tossed out of the car. There’s a part or two of me that has never recovered. Worse, I was badly broken for years.
My parents divorce was a long delayed journey. My mom wanted to bail out of the marriage shortly after my younger sister was born. She knew it wasn’t going to work. Rather than pulling it off, however, the older generation prevailed on my still young parents to seek counseling. Nice idea but it only forestalled the inevitable.
In the meantime, I grew up watching a loveless marriage stumble through the years on little affection and a lot of politeness. No yelling. No nothing beyond my father’s taste for bourbon (his own anti-depressant) and my mother’s pre-Prozac battle with the same condition. While I didn’t realize a relationship was supposed to have a few degrees of warmth, I knew, at least, that I was safe.
Seven years later the marriage blew up into a contentious two year battle over property and child custody. In that age of “children are made to be seen and not heard,” the kids were more or less lumped into the property category. In all of that, my parents become more self-involved with their pain and anger. That’s when the pedophile, an English teacher, swooped in and abused me for a couple of years, right under their preoccupied noses.
Now I knew I wasn’t safe. Dad had decided to concentrate on his bourbon-based career and a divorce game whose tactics left children as pawns. Bludgeoned by the battle and her own despair, my mother was just numb.
I followed suit into disconnection. Mid-way through the first time the English teacher abused me, I left my body to float somewhere off to the side, to disassociate myself from the present. My world, and what was left of my childhood sense of trust, confidence, and safety were now in tatters.
I spent the next few years living in my head, using the pharmacopeia of the late Sixties to steady myself. PTSD symptoms and abuse flashbacks occasionally put me back into that little fearful victim’s body, not a good place to inhabit for sexual delight or ease in relationships. I had plenty of sex but could have enjoyed it a whole lot more. A single, no-commitment, perfect encounter, for which I am eternally grateful, proved to me, at last, that I actually wasn’t entirely broken, that I could find joy and peace in my body and in bed.
All of that struggle was due to the abuse. Through a combination of good luck, will and early wisdom, a solid relationship and marriage, treatment for depression, and the wherewithal (good health plans) to hire a few therapists over the years, the effects of the abuse and my parents’ divorce are well behind me. There’s still some damage but time is now the healer and that’s enough.
I’ve admired those who have chosen to stay together “for the sake of the children.” That level of sacrifice deserves respect. Those parents, individuals who, after all, volunteered to become so, have met their responsibilities to their children provided the home they created is one of safety and respect, not martyrdom and anger.
I know, too, that unhappiness in a home serves no one and that often divorce is the best route for parents and children alike. There’s no rule or GPS for this trip because, as Tolstoy put it, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Yes, I realize this piece is as much about sexual abuse as it is divorce. And, yes, I realize that even in this day of greater awareness, pederasts hide in plain sight and are among the world’s master manipulators. If their skills were turned to Madoff-class Ponzi schemes, we’d all be broke.
But I’m also convinced that if my parents had managed to divorce well, to drive that unhappy road with greater awareness of the situation, I might have avoided decades of struggle. Even with just one pair of eyes wide open on that dangerous road, I would have been safe. And I wouldn’t be, decades later, complaining about what crappy drivers they were for those two awful years.