Divorce Ministry for Parishes
Divorce Ministry INFORMS
- parishioners of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce.
- separating couples on programs available that can help their failing relationship.
- the divorced on what the Catholic annulment process is and is not.
- the divorced where to find Christian Counseling for self and family.
Divorce Ministry INVITES
- the divorced family into full participation of parish life.
Divorce Ministry ENCOURAGES
- healing through Christ’s love and understanding by providing healing services, special masses, workshops, programming, and publications for the divorced.
- the divorced to remain connected to their faith community.
Divorce Ministry AFFIRMS
- that the divorced family is still family and is holy.
- and recognizes the unique needs of single parents and their children.
Divorce Ministry LISTENS TO AND RECONCILES
- families who have experienced divorce or who are in irregular marriages following a divorce and who feel excommunicated and alienated because of their circumstances.
Divorce Ministry PRAYS
- with and for the divorced and their families, specifically including them in the mass petitions.
- with the divorced before and during their annulment process, asking Christ’s healing through it.
Ten Ways to Help Your Grandchild through Divorce
- Don't disparage your ex-son or daughter-in law in front of your grandchildren. Make sure they are not in ear-shot when talking about their parents on the phone as well.
- Remember holidays. An important role of a grandparent is to celebrate and help create memories. These celebrations may look different than you had once imagined for your fancily, but if you keep the grandchildren's interests first, you will be creating memorable and wonderful family traditions. (Even a home-baked box of cookies mailed at certain times of the year can became a cherished childhood memory that lets a child know they are always loved.)
- Be a good listener. Your grandchild may be surrounded by chaos and angry adults; you may provide the only place where they can really feel heard. You are someone who has the time to listen without trying to "fix" it. A loving ear can get a child through a lot!
- Set up your expectations for their behavior before they arrive. You will probably have different rules than their parents do; children can adapt so long as these rules are specifically stated (writing them down is a great idea). A household where there are five compliments to every directive (i.e. "get your feet off the coffee table") is an environment where children will thrive. A reward based "star chart" can help make this easier.
- Become the unbiased, non-judgmental confidant children need in a loving authority. Their parents may be too wounded emotionally and unable to be unconditionally present for them. A special relationship with a grandparent can make all the difference to a child facing change.
- Don't sabotage agreements set up by either parent. If one parent has made arrangements for the child to attend a special class (dance, soccer, etc.) make your plans accordingly. If the child knows they must finish their homework before they can go out to play, don't let them off easy just because you feel sorry for them in their situation.
- Let your grandchildren know however they are feeling is OK. Many children are told that they "shouldn't" feel this or that, or adults feel guilty that a child is in pain so they try to talk them out of it. This only adds to the child feeling unheard. Even wanting their parents back together is a normal desire for children in this circumstance.
- Tell your grandchildren stories about challenges you have faced and overcome in your life. Help them see you as someone who believes things will be all right and that they are safe. Focus on the positive.
- Share your spiritual beliefs with them in a fun non-judgmental way. If you find rejuvenation in nature take them for a walk or to the beach. If you find tranquility in music share that love with them. Help your grandchildren connect to the quiet place inside themselves.
- Read together during a quiet time before they go to bed or in between activities during the day. Reading children's books about feelings or how other children have coped with the upheaval of divorce will help them find words to ask you the questions they need to have answered.
Children of Divorce: 5 Misconceptions
Through the work of my foundation and in counseling families, I have been blessed to help not only children and young adults of separation and divorce, but also their parents. The courage I have witnessed in parents to move on and their commitment to try and do what is best for their children—all while wrestling with their own pain—repeatedly impresses me.
Sadly, however, our society does not pay tribute to the courageous efforts of separated and divorced parents. More often than not, the media bombards us instead with information and portrayals that cast either an overly negative light on the plight of children or that give a one-dimensional view of their difficulties. It’s no wonder many parents are left feeling ample guilt and worry along with confusion about how best to help their children. Even worse, some parents admit to expecting only “failure” for their children.
The following are some of the most common misconceptions I have heard from parents concerning the effect of marital breakup on children:
Misconception #1: Divorce damages children emotionally for life. Or, conversely, that it takes children just a couple of years to heal from it.
From my own personal experience, the truth lays somewhere in the middle. My parents separated when I was 11 years old, however, I did not experience the most harmful and powerful effects of the breakup until I was a young adult in my first serious relationship. The breakup of that relationship caused my grief to erupt like a volcano. Even now, decades after my parents’ divorce, its music continues to play in my life. Like a symphony, it sometimes crescendos, sometimes decrescendos. Nevertheless, it is always there.
Why does it take children—an estimated 30 to 50 percent—years upon years, if not decades, to heal sufficiently from parental divorce? First, because their losses lack definition and, as a result, are trickier to resolve. Second, because their grief is intertwined with their ongoing personal development. While children, including teenagers and young adults, may be able to understand the breakup, they often lack the emotional capacity for handling the difficulty. The abstract thinking skills of younger teens are often limited as well, causing their thinking to be polarized into “black and white.” This often hinders their ability to empathize and thereby forgive parents, encouraging them instead to hold onto anger and justifiable resentment for an inordinate time period. Finally children sometimes have a delayed reaction to parental divorce. Their internal conflicts about it can actually lie dormant for years and not spring to life until a development issue provides an impetus for them (e.g. graduation, going away to college, getting involved in a serious relationship, etc.)
While growing up in a divorced family elevates children’s risk for certain kinds of problems, it by no means dooms them to having a terrible life. Parental separation or divorce instead, offers children one of the best growth opportunities of their lives, provided they have a consistent and close relationship with at least one parent and rely on their faith for guidance and strength.
I grew more from my parents’ breakup than I did from any other experience in my life. And in the process, I didn’t fall prey to common problems often cited regarding children of divorce (e.g. academic difficulties, getting into trouble with school authorities or the police, engaging in early sexual activity or substance abuse, suicidal attempts). I credit the success and joy in my own marriage, in part, to all I learned and struggled with as a result of my parents’ divorce as well.
Misconception #2: If conflict surrounding the divorce is low, children will not be hurt.
It is true that when parents do not fight fairly, there is a spillover effect on the children. Therefore, the better parents can work together as “business partners” both during and after the divorce, the easier the adjustment will be for their children.
However, children still need to go through a grieving process nevertheless. Even in the best of circumstances where conflict is low and both parents nurture a close and consistent relationship with the child, that child still faces losses by living in a home where both parents are not present and acting as a unit. Along these same lines, research indicates that the worst situations for children may be low-conflict marriages that end as well as high-conflict marriages that last. Children need not be involved in these conflicts to be hurt by them either.
While my parents fought terribly for years prior to their separation, the conflict lessened considerably once my father left home. He continued to move farther and farther away as time went on. He did not seek custody of me either, all of which minimized the conflicts. My mother kept her legal battles for child support and alimony away from me as well.
Despite this low conflict, post-separation situation, however, I was scarred considerably because my father did not maintain a close, consistent relationship with me. Research has found that one of the most important factors affecting children’s adjustment is how well parents are able to be good parents in the process of getting a divorce and afterwards. In other words, what contributes significantly to children’s short and long term difficulties is living in an emotionally poor environment. Parents need to do more than just minimize their conflicts with one another.
Misconception #3: Denial is always a bad thing.
Just as separated and divorced parents need to move through grief at their own rate, so, too, do children, especially since they are still maturing. Often, when parents attempt to hurry a child’s grief process along, their efforts backfire. This is because grieving is not a skill like reading that children master by the third grade, nor is it something they “get over” like the terrible two’s. Instead, it is a lifelong emotional journey that children confront and move through, as they are ready.
Many parents, especially those with elementary-aged children, express worry if their youngsters are seemingly not “dealing with” the divorce. Often they ask me, what can they do to move their child through denial. I remind them of the need to be firm in stressing to the child the finality of the breakup and to give an age-appropriate reason for it. Beyond that, however, parents need to remember that their children are the ones in charge here. They also need to recognize that denial is a normal stage of grief and not always a bad thing.
The more important problem to watch for is whether or not the child is experiencing any significant behavioral changes—for example, if a child is having trouble sleeping, eating or completing homework. Or if he has lost interest in things he used to enjoy, such as play activities or friends, or if he is spending an inordinate amount of time alone. These responses show that a child’s sadness or frustration is turning inward.
Along these same lines, if a child starts to engage in physically dangerous actions or gets in trouble with school or legal authorities, this too is a “red flag.” Conversely, it can also be a “red flag” if a child is acting “too good to be true,” in which case he may be repressing feelings to his own detriment.
Misconception #4: Divorce is not problematic for older teens or young adults.
Older teens and young adults take the news of their parents’ breakup quite hard. As with younger children, separation and divorce shakes the stability of their world. They experience the same feelings of grief and may be left with even more confusion as to why the breakup occurred, especially since their parents had been married for nearly a decade or more. Older children, who may be living away at college or on their own, often note shock as well because they had been unaware of the problems between their parents.
In addition to these difficulties, older children may feel added responsibility for taking care of a troubled, depressed, or impoverished parent. If commitments to their own family or career prevent them from carrying out these responsibilities, they may feel excessive guilt. And even if they do mange to help a parent, they may feel the need to “rescue” him or her, thereby developing an unhealthy, enmeshed parent-child relationship.
Finally, older teens and young adults are not yet adults. They remain dependent on parents to help them make the transition to adulthood, a transition made more difficult when parents, who because of their own grief, are emotionally unavailable.
Misconception #5: Annulment makes children "illegitimate."
The Church’s annulment does not mean that a significant relationship, even a marriage, never existed between parents. Instead, what it means, from the point of view of the Church’s canon law, is that the marriage which appeared to be genuine was originally defective in some way. In other words, it never was a true bond between wife, husband, and God.
Illegitimacy is a legal way of looking at children, not a godly way. The legal system looks at annulment as the same as divorce. However, just as children of divorce are not considered illegitimate, neither are the children of annulment.
Helping children grow from this experience is a long, difficult journey. However, despite the difficulties, divorce does not doom children. It, in fact, can give them a tremendous advantage, provided they have a consistent, close relationship with at least one parent and rely on their faith for guidance and strength. In the end, it is this support that will enable them to turn their rocks of pain into diamonds of peace and growth.
Such is the nature of our Catholic faith, which finds God reflected everywhere, even in adversity. Just as suffering did not triumph over Jesus, neither will it triumph over children of divorce as long as we, their mentors, help them depend on God.
The Moral and Spiritual Experience of Children of Divorce
Beginning in the late 1960's and 70's, each year this country saw a growing increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce. The number of divorces per year stabilized in the early 1980's at its present rate of almost one in two marriages, meaning that as many as half of the people in their twenties and thirties today have experienced the divorce of their parents. Yet, with the exception of Judith Wallerstein's pioneering work, very few researchers have demonstrated an interest in the inner lives of children of divorce. More specifically, despite the predominance of divorce in family life today, no one has asked significant questions about the moral and spiritual experience of children of divorce, especially as it develops over a lifetime.
There are at least two reasons why we must inquire about the moral and spiritual experience of children of divorce. First, due to the high divorce rate (and the rising rate of children born outside of marriage) it is now more common to grow up without an intact family than with one. Second, the experience of children of divorce is often quite different from that of children in intact families. There are substantial bodies of literature on moral and spiritual development in children and how these factors influence the kinds of adults they become. Yet, this literature almost universally assumes an intact family experience — that a child grew up in a single home with a married mother and father with whom the child had some kind of daily interaction. However, removing a father or mother from a child's daily experience changes the way a child interacts with his or her parents, extended family, and the wider world.
With regard to their moral experience, I suggest that children of divorce who grow up seeing both of their parents are like travelers between two lands. In each land the child is both an insider and an outsider. The child is an insider because he or she shares physical and personality characteristics and experiences with a parent. At the same time, the child is an outsider because at times he or she looks, acts like, or shares experiences with the parent in the other land. In each land the child has a realm of experience the other parent usually knows little about. When the child grows up, there may be a whole thread of experience that the other parent knows practically nothing about. Each land also has different rules and customs and it is usually up to the child, not the adults, to assimilate and negotiate between them.
With regard to their spiritual experience, it is clear that the primary experience for the children of divorce is loss. If a child continues to see both parents then he or she still "has" them, but it is never the same. To be with one parent automatically means not being with the other and this is a constant, yet ever-shifting experience in the lives of children of divorce. In addition, a divorce often causes children to lose such things as their home, neighborhood and more — even family friends and extended family may disappear.
One theological metaphor that allows rich description of this experience is the Judeo-Christian story of the exile. Children of divorce experience a kind of exile, with the attendant emotions of loss, grief, anger, and fear. Yet, in the Biblical tradition the story does not stop with exile. God promises a return, a deliverance from fragmentation to a state of wholeness. The role of the Church is to help children of divorce in their journey to find home and wholeness.
Today, many church leaders are asking how they can attract and welcome young adults into the full life of the Church. The phenomenon of divorce directly affects as many as half of the young adults in the populations and it deeply impacts all young adults as they wonder whether they will be able to form stable, lasting families of their own. If the Church can recognize and speak to this experience, these young people are likely to respond favorably. In addition, if the Church can adequately minister to the young children among them who are affected by divorce, these children will be much more likely to grow in the faith and consider the Church their spiritual home for a lifetime.
We have in our offices a poem called "The Torch," about a man who traveled to meet with his father because the father was dying. The old man was in a coma and could not talk. But that did not stop the son from sharing with his father his fears of closeness with him, his reactions to his father's aloofness and his desire to tell his father — and to hear back — the words "I love you."
The poem reminds me of so many of the men we work with in our practice. Their characteristics are common:
- Longing for closeness with the father;
- Sadness at lack of intimacy;
- Superficial relationships with father — according to the father's standards;
- Wanting a "Dad" rather than just a "father;"
- Feeling inadequate, like young boys, around their fathers;
- Keeping their "walls" up with their fathers;
- Desire to behave very differently with their own sons;
- Overreaction to criticism by the father;
- Playing a role with their fathers rather than being themselves;
- Feeling guilty about not making the relationship better.
For many men, the awareness that something was missing in the relationship was felt at an early age. But the recognition that the problems were not their fault usually occurs during adulthood. By then, many men were acting out a part in a play they never tried out for.
I know these feelings and those issues, because they were true of my relationship with my father, who died 4 years ago. I desperately wanted closeness with him and I did the best I knew how to do to make that closeness — but it was not enough to bridge the gap between us. Two men, wanting closeness, or afraid of it, not knowing how, or afraid, to take the risks necessary for real closeness.
Many of the fathers of adult sons had relationships with their own fathers, and grandfathers. This pain, unresolved, became part of the barrier in the relationship with their sons. I believe that I accidentally triggered, by my actions, the pain my father had with his father, and this resulted in him becoming critical and aloof, maybe just like his father had done to him. The pain became transgenerational, passed on from one generation to the next.
My father was a good mechanic and carpenter and I tried to copy him. When I was a boy, I accidentally left a crescent wrench of his in the yard. It became rusty in the rain and he became extremely angry with me — maybe just like his father had once done with him. I was so afraid I hid outside of the house alone in the dark. My behavior triggered both my father's pain as well as his shame because after this incident — he simply avoided me for hours or for days. That was his way of licking his wounds — it was the best he knew how to do. But it did not meet my needs and it set the stage for our relationship.
I loved my father and I was afraid of my father, but I did not feel close to him. And if he felt dose to me, I did not know it. Throughout my childhood and my adolescence, I do not recall my father ever hugging me. I recall the first time I hugged him. I was in graduate school and I returned to my parent's home for vacation. At the front door I greeted my mother with a big hug and a kiss. Then, rather than shaking my father's hand, I reached out and hugged him. Usually his hugs included 3 pats on the back which seemed to mean, "that's enough, now let go." During that same time I began to tell him I loved him. At first he hesitated, but over time he would tell me he loved me also.
I have a strong memory of the last time he and I were face-to-face before he died. As we said goodbye, he grabbed me, hugged me and said, "I'll miss you, son." (And he said this with tears in his eyes.) Those words were the most spontaneous and the most intimate I recall him sharing with me. I am truly grateful he shared them — and himself — with me. It was very healing.
My dad and I were making good progress on becoming men together. I regret we did not start the journey together much earlier.