Divorce can be amicable or ugly, and what happens to the children can last a lifetime.
The names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
I can’t say for sure whether more damage was caused during our childhood by your terrifying midnight arguments and the daytime cold war, or during our adolescence and young adulthood while the two of you waged legal bloodshed and embarked on campaigns of moral destruction. I often wonder when you decided you hated Terry. After having one child? Two? Three?
Did you ever really love each other at all?
All I can affirm is, because of your patterns of behavior over a period of decades, one of us is psychologically broken, another is a shell of the person she should have been, and I—the most capable survivor—haven’t a single memory of my parents sharing a happy moment together. I do remember the relief I felt upon hearing the two of you would be separating. I remember the eagerness and anticipation of a peaceful household. I remember looking forward to finally inviting friends over after a decade of excuses designed to shield my social life from the maelstrom of my family dynamics. I remember hoping my older sister would heal; sharing a wall with our parents’ bedroom had forced upon her a battleground as a soundtrack to her youth. She eventually rarely talked anymore, except in whispers to herself, and was barely approachable due to a stewing and unstable temper.
This would finally all end, thanks to a separation.
But, it didn’t.
Through your divorce, the antagonism simply metamorphosized; it diminished in volume, but not in intensity.
After your separation, any relationship I had with Terry when we all lived together would now have to be hidden from you, Chris. I was fourteen years-old, and any communication with my excommunicated parent would be met with such passive aggression that phone calls, meetings, and trips to donut shops would be surreptitious at best, and always anxiety-ridden.
“Where were you?” you would ask.
“Who was that on the phone?”
“Whose was in that car?”
You were relentless.
“No one.” I would answer occasionally, attempting with futility to deflect the question.
“If you only knew the real Terry.” You would say.
You would follow with stories of theft, of lying, of withholding money from us children.
Shamefully, eventually worn down, I believed you.
Even after Terry was expelled from the house, even our weekly two-hour visits to that rent-subsidized one-bedroom apartment—furnished with third-hand office furniture and reeking of propane leaking from old stovepipes— also ended.
Having to explain and disguise our whereabouts to you proved too much for three teenagers who hadn’t learned the value of a strong parental relationship to begin with.
Your passive aggression as you eavesdropped on phone calls, or as you stood next to us while we waited for Terry to pick us up for those one hundred and twenty minute visits: your expression glowering, your elbows at our ribs, your arms crossed in defiance and disapproval.
I remember the shame I felt as I waved at Terry from the other end of the courthouse hallway.
“Can I go say hello?” I asked.
“I’d rather you stay here, please.” you said.
I hadn’t the strength to defy you, nor the willingness to disobey you in front of Grandma, who you had brought along as another member of your army of emotional support.
Terry stood alone.
It was only after I began living on my own that understood the scope of the damage.
Lisa, a big sister who took me to the movie theatre and the amusement park and stayed awake with me as we watched horror movies on the basement television when we were young, was now irreparably damaged. Her whispers, and her violent temper, and her long absences from home, we now understood to be symptoms of her schizophrenia. It is an illness which may not be caused by stress, but certainly exacerbated by it. Sharing a wall with warring parents for ten or more years will do that to a person.
She, ironically, now lives in a rent-subsidized one bedroom apartment with second-hand furniture. Fortunately, her heating is electric, so she is spared that horrible smell of propane.
Heather, my baby sister, also lives alone. After a parade of bad relationships she no longer reaches out. She goes to work, goes to the gym, and then goes home. Her home is 3,000 miles away.
She is an expert avoidist.
I think both my sisters have learned this pattern of isolation following childhoods which had so few periods of peace. Now, they’ve had enough . . . they just want quiet.
They no longer call you or Terry very much, if at all.
They just don’t want to hear it anymore.
You see, Chris, what is even more heartsickening than the hatred for Terry you so boastfully displayed twenty years ago, is how you harbor that same resentment towards Terry today.
You are still searching for victory; a clean sweep of your children’s approval and support.
But, you see, Chris, none of that is forthcoming.
In our adulthood, we have finally—belatedly—found the strength to ask questions of Terry. We have concluded on our own that there is enough shared blame.
All we see now is one parent who has forgiven, despite a shitty apartment and being emotionally and physically isolated from my sisters and me for years.
Despite our depressions and our psychological breaks and our failed relationships, we have persevered in becoming free-thinkers.
Me? After a divorce, I found love again. And support.
I spend my days with a woman whose childhood was not too different from my own.
We disagree, but never in front of our young children. We vowed to each other bedtime would be a time of hugs and stuffed animals and quiet songs . . . and then a time of silence while they slept.
Our children will wake up to group hugs with their mother and father. They will witness parental disagreement, but those will be far outweighed by displays of affection and declarations of love.
As for you, Chris, despite my repeated pleas for you to heal, to forget the past, and at the very least to be civil with Terry, you refuse.
All those articles I’ve sent, all those videos, and all I’ve written on the topic, being proven right is still what is most important to you.
You insist on hosting family suppers to which Terry is not invited. You refuse invitations to gatherings if Terry is included, and you still can be seen sneering in front of my children when they speak of their other grandparent.
That ends today.
There will be no more invitations sent to you without your acceptance of Terry in our home as well.
There will be no more attendance of family dinners while I make excuses to my children about Terry’s whereabouts.
Your three children spent the first decade-and-a-half of their lives shielding your animosity and hatred for Terry towards from our friends.
My shield is cracked.
The only thing which is left to protect me and my children is distance . . . or your admission that this decades long war is over.
Suggested reading for divorcing parents:
- Two scarred children and the shattering testimony that shows how divorce can damage lives forever.
- Research Highlights:Caught in the Middle: Protecting the Children of High-Conflict Divorce, Carla B. Garrity and Mitchell A. Baris. New York: Lexington Books, 1994.
- Advice for Parents Who are Divorcing
Photo: mark hoynes via Flickr