Two new books written by Catholic authors—Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak by Leila Miller, and Marriage and Equality: How Natural Marriage Upholds the Ideal of Equality for Children by Jennifer Johnson—explore the inner turmoil of children of divorce, the lifetime consequences of divorce, and the unique pastoral challenges divorce presents for children, whether young or adult.
Catholic World Report spoke to both authors about their books and how the Church can help adult children of divorce. Below is our interview with Leila Miller; our interview with Jennifer Johnson can be read here.
CWR: In the introduction to your book Primal Loss, you make it clear that you are a happily married woman whose parents have been married 52 years. What prompted you to write this write this book, the subject matter of which is so far removed from your own life, and how did you go about developing the questions and compiling the information?
Leila Miller: I have a good friend, Alishia Hanson (I dedicated the book to her), who would mention things in the course of normal conversations that got my attention. These things were experiences she had as the child of divorce—a divorce which had occurred decades earlier, but which seemed to still affect her in profound ways. What she was telling me was something entirely new to me, even though I have been around children of divorce all my life, as we all have. I started to ask her more questions about the divorce and how it was affecting her life even today. Though she is now a wife and mother of six, the complications and pain from her parents’ divorce and subsequent remarriages are still haunting her life, although manifesting in different ways. Looking back, I realize that I had been completely ignorant of the actual effects of divorce on the children, many long years past the divorce itself. I knew something had to be written, and since Alishia didn’t have the energy to do it, I decided I would.
CWR: What surprised you most about the book contributors’ answers? Are there any unintended threads running through the book?
Miller: What surprised me most was the raw pain, even and especially after so many years, and the fear of their true feelings being discovered. It was shocking to me! The pattern of the children protecting the feelings of the adults, sticking to the narrative they’d been given, and then acting out (or inward) in destructive ways as a way of coping with the explosion of their families—it was repeated again and again in their stories. Several of the contributors, upon reading the finished book, expressed shock that they were not the only ones who experienced the same feelings and patterns of behavior. In fact, some of them were surprised to see that certain entries were not their own! That is how similar many of their interior stories are.
Another surprising thing was that the devastation did not depend on the age of the child at the time of the divorce. Whether contributors’ parents had split when they were infants, small children, teens, or adults (even in their 30s!), the devastation, confusion, and sense of upheaval was profound. Also, whether the parents’ marriage had been abusive or low-conflict had no real bearing on their pain. We are told that “good divorce” is not damaging to children, and yet my contributors say otherwise.
CWR: Has compiling and editing this book changed your views on divorce in any way?
Miller: Oh, yes. I am much more against divorce than I was before. I have always known it is a bad thing, and, as the Catechism teaches, “a grave offense against the natural law” (2384). But now I realize that even I had made a million excuses for why this or that friend or relative “needed” to get divorced—even when there was no danger involved. And like most people, I focused heavily on what the adults were feeling and experiencing, not giving my attention to the plight of the children. Knowing what I know now, the present and future suffering of the children is now the first and heaviest thing on my mind.
CWR: What has reaction to the book been?
Miller: I have had a mix of reactions to the book, but thankfully, most of it has been extremely positive. So many have contacted me, thanking me for taking on a subject that no one wants to talk about. Many adult children of divorce (and abandoned spouses) are so deeply grateful that I am now the recipient of many, many prayers. They want to make sure I keep going despite any attacks, and for that I am extremely humbled. I don’t want to let them down. And speaking of attacks, that’s been the sad part. I shouldn’t be shocked by now, but I still can’t believe how many people reflexively recoil at what I have done, in giving voice to the children of divorce. There is a demand for “balance” in the sense that I’m apparently required to give equal time to the divorced adults, too. However, I can’t think of another subject where one side of the discussion is almost completely silenced, and then one book dares to give that side a voice, and suddenly it’s “unfair” not to provide “alternate views.” But the alternative view (i.e., divorce is necessary and good, and the children are resilient) is the only view we seem to hear about. One woman went so far as to demand, repeatedly, why a book like mine would even be published! I understand why the children of divorce remain silent.
CWR: Who should read Primal Loss, and why?
Miller: The book is full of human stories, so everyone will find the stories compelling. For the adult children of divorce, they will find a group of “comrades” that they never knew existed. They may feel, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone. For those spouses considering divorce, they may well reconsider. I’ve had a couple of readers tell me that after about 10 pages in, they knew they could never get divorced. For those already divorced, this is an opportunity to enter into their children’s hidden grief, perhaps entering into much-needed dialogue. Children of intact families, like me, will have their eyes opened to suffering that exists all around them that they never saw. And for priests, deacons, counselors, and therapists—I pray they find strength to stop routinely counseling for divorce (yes, it happens all the time, even when no danger is present, and it’s a big problem).
CWR: What would your response be to someone who says, “My spouse and I divorced, but my kids are well-adjusted and happy. Not all adult children of divorce feel this way.”
Miller: I would say that could be possible, as some children are better able to handle the trauma of the death of their families. But it may be more likely that the child, while functioning and appearing to do “fine,” is not telling the parent the whole truth. This phenomenon (protect, placate, pretend) is ridiculously common. No child, no matter the age, wants to hurt a beloved parent (and kids do love their parents), and no one wants to upset the family dynamic and narrative. Sometimes, children of divorce do just fine until they themselves get married and begin raising their own children. At that point, for some of the contributors, the walls came crashing in—and the implosion was a complete shock to them. I have an entire chapter dedicated to their answers to the question: “What would you like to say to those who claim that ‘children are resilient’ and ‘children are happy when their parents are happy’?” That question elicited actual anger, much more than you will see in the rest of the book.
CWR: Have you talked to any of the contributors since the book’s release? If so, what kind of feedback have you gotten from them?
Miller: Yes, I have talked to the majority of the contributors since the release, and I’m in touch with some of them daily. And, to my surprise and delight, they have been in touch with each other. They feel like they have connected with “old war buddies” as one woman said, and it’s been beautiful to watch these friendships grow. Most are still careful to stay anonymous, still terrified of being shamed or attacked, or having their parents find out that they spoke. Old patterns of behavior die hard. I’m just grateful they had the courage to tell me all that they did.
Many of the contributors, upon receiving the book, had a physical reaction just to its presence. Some of them would place it on the table and not open it for days, but just look at it. Others would hold it and their hearts would pound and palms would sweat. Others would read a page or two at a time and stop, only able to take it in small doses. Some wept through every page. Others have yet to find the courage to read it at all. I am grateful that [according to] everyone who has read it, they are very happy with the book (as difficult as it is to read). This is a relief to me, because telling their stories is a sacred trust. They have learned so much about themselves just by reading their own stories in juxtaposition with the others. Many have said that the revelations and realizations they’ve had since the book came out make them wish they could expand upon their answers, because they now have so much more to say. We’ve talked about a follow-up book, and we will see where the Lord leads.
CWR: I want to talk about chapters 8 and 10. Chapter 8 is titled “For Those Facing Divorce,” and chapter 10 is “Stories of Hope.” Tell us about these chapters and why they are important.
Miller: Those chapters are important because the bottom line for me is the prevention of this profound pain, the pain of divorce. In chapter 8, I wanted the contributors to speak to those who are at this moment making that crucial decision that will affect so many children for so many decades and even generations. And the stories of hope in chapter 10 really highlight the fact that no matter how far gone you believe your marriage might be, God can work miracles, and you can be given the grace to persevere, even to great and unexpected consolations and reward. Too many people give up, when what God is asking them to do is remain steadfast and trust him. Many people have told me that the chapter on hope is the one they love the most, the one they keep rereading.
CWR: In your opinion, what can the Church do to prevent divorce from happening?
Miller: That is an important question. First, pastors and bishops must start preaching against divorce. I had gone my whole 50 years as a Catholic and had never once heard a homily dedicated to the Church’s teaching on divorce, until this past Divine Mercy weekend. My own shepherd, the incredible Bishop Thomas Olmsted, preached on the silent suffering of the children of divorce, and I almost fell off my pew! It’s so very rarely talked about, and that has to change. If Catholics simply studied what Christ and the Church teach on divorce, including its contagious effects, including the chaos and disorder it introduces into families and societies, we would not feel as complacent as we do about the subject. We also need much more support for struggling marriages, including mentoring couples in parishes. Remember, a large percentage of young marrieds today are themselves children of divorce who never saw the model of a successful marriage. They did not see how crosses can be weathered, and that there is hope even in the dark seasons of a relationship. We live in a culture of unrealistic expectations for marriage (life is not a Nicholas Sparks romance!), and we need to present our engaged and married couples with realistic expectations. Sanctification in marriage comes through the crosses we bear, not in spite of them. I’m not sure married couples understand redemptive suffering and the graces that are available for our marriages.
CWR: What can the Church do to minister to adult children of divorce?
Miller: That is a difficult question to answer, because other than just having priests or youth directors or catechists listen to their pain (which they are often reluctant to share for so many reasons), what can we do, really? The adults make their decisions, and the children must go along, and therein lies the devastation, loneliness, helplessness. As for adult children of divorce, and for divorced parents, too, there is a new healing workshop being brought to parishes by the Ruth Institute called the Healing Family Breakdown Spiritual Workshop. I hope we will see more of these types of things in the future, but I am not sure the victims of divorce, especially children, are on the radar yet. There is the need for a lot of healing, as the numbers of children of divorce are growing.
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Good article. This also need to be heard by many Church tribunals in the U.S., who act like divorce courts, granting annulments to facilitate the remarriage of the petitioning party; and there is usually no consideration whatsoever given to the children or even the other spouse and the impact on them, and how the Church has facilitated the breakdown of marriage.
I have never heard of even one annulment being denied. Even I met a deacon who was on a tribunal for over 30 years and he hasn’t seen one denied either.
How true what you say about keeping the pain and even more to ourselves! I want to share this article on Facebook, but I don’t want to stir up emotions as both of my divorced parents or other family members could see the post, unless I block them, of course.
I think to this point, in my case, the best solution is to focus on my own marriage and family, but having to hear the stories about my parents’ marriage once in a while, and then, ironically, having to remain silent myself when I want to talk about my own experiences and feelings, because one of them doesn’t want to listen to anything that provokes feelings of guilt is really frustrating.
Another idea for Leila Miller’s next book: a book about divorced parents, who did allow themselves to look at the pain and destruction they’ve caused their children, and who have realized that this sort of thing is exactly why Jesus came… When we cause damage that we can’t repair and can’t take back, we are at the very center of Jesus’ mission. We need a book for our divorced friends that shows how repentance, accepting Jesus’ healing, and apologizing to their children will heal the pain they are running from. Until they see that someone else has done it, I’m afraid most divorced parents will keep running from what I call “the mother of all fears.”
I have a divorced friend who confided in me from time to time about his ongoing custody battles, his ex’s new boyfriend, and whatnot. I really did see his side of things and thought his ex-wife has flaked on him, so I thought he felt I was his ally. But when he told me about some of the troubles his kids were having, and I suggested that maybe he could be honest with them… I even put it on myself… I told him that I wish my own parents had apologized to me and my siblings after they got out of their fighting and drinking phase. If they had just said “look, we wanted the best for you, and we tried to do our best for you, but we’re imperfect humans, and our best was still less than what you deserved.” It happens, I told him… We do our best for others, but it’s still less than what they deserve. My divorced friend lashed out at me in much the same way people are lashing out at Leila Miller for this book. That’s when I realized that divorced parents are facing their mother of all fears: that they have hurt their kids. They don’t know it’s possible to go through that fear and come out the other side, so they want to silence anyone around them who wants to focus on their kid’s pain.
Call the Book “The Mother of All Fears” and maybe have it direct readers to the Ruth Institute retreats.