Children of Divorce


Can you build a lasting marriage after seeing your parents’ union come apart? The answer is yes—and gospel principles can teach you how.

More and more we hear this sad lament: What do you do when an eternal marriage is the deep desire of your heart, but you have already witnessed the marriage most familiar to you—that of your parents—come apart? What you dream of is “exaltation and glory … sealed upon their heads” (D&C 132:19). But what you have seen is misery, anger, distrust, and emotional wreckage as your parents went through a breakup. Maybe it happened when you were so young you barely remember, or maybe it scarred your teenage years. Maybe it happened before you knew about the gospel, or maybe your parents were one of those couples sealed in the temple who somehow let “forever” slip away.

If they couldn’t hold onto the dream, can you still attain a marriage relationship to endure “from everlasting to everlasting”? (D&C 132:20).

The answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

You may not realize just how much you have in your favor. As you incorporate gospel principles into your life, you will find they teach all the truths you need to build your own eternal marriage. When you look within yourself, you will find surprising strengths to meet the challenges that will come.

The Damage of Divorce

Research shows that children of divorced parents suffer in numerous ways, but one of the most profound effects is the impact on a child’s later marriage. What children see and experience during the failing marriage of their parents can become part of their view of themselves and of society. As a divorced parent, I watched my children suffer and wondered at their chances for a happy marriage and family life. As a professional counselor and social work educator, I watch others struggle with this painful issue. Yet my testimony and my personal and professional experience teach me that the gospel can help children prevent the bitter experience of their parents from determining the outcome of their own lives. These children have great potential for happiness.

Often, however, children of divorced parents will have to overcome negative attitudes or behaviors they have developed in trying to cope with their parents’ divorce.

Jennifer, 1 for example, is a 19-year-old college student, serious minded and determined to succeed. Her good grades often come at the expense of social life. She deflects attention from young men by telling them, “Dating is bad for my grades.” She says she has good friends who are young men, and maybe one day she’ll marry her best friend. In the meantime, she has goals to complete a graduate program, then serve a mission. Jennifer’s confidence in the possibility of a happy marriage was shaken by her parents’ divorce. For her, happiness means taking control of her life, being successful in school and a career, and keeping marriage in the distance.

Stephanie’s parents were also divorced, but her response was different. Along with devastating loss, she felt a desperate need for reassurance. Premature and inappropriate intimacy with young men became a way to compensate for the loss and to prove to herself that relationships could be successful. After a series of heartbreaking romances, compromising her values in frantic attempts to feel loved, she finally saw the folly of selling herself short, but she felt alienated from the Church.

There are a number of reasons why people like Jennifer and Stephanie, children of divorced parents, might have difficulty later with their own marriages.

Trust and intimacy. Being disappointed by the two most important people in one’s life (parents) sets us up to be disappointed by others. Children of divorce may even believe that people will pretend to love them but eventually will leave. At one level, this attitude denies the hope we are taught in the gospel.

Fear of repeating the mistake. Children of divorce may naturally fear that they will grow up to be too much like their parents in some ways. One student explained: “It took a long time for me to finally be OK with the idea that someday I could get married. I really don’t want to make the same mistake my parents made.”

Damaged sense of self-worth. “After my parents’ divorce, I struggled to feel good about myself again. Because I felt disconnected from the love that had created and nurtured me, I was uncertain of who I really was,” recalls one child of divorced parents. 2 Fragile feelings may be further damaged by the stigma attached to broken homes. Todd, a returned missionary and college student with a promising future, recently lamented to me that in the eyes of his girlfriend’s parents, his own parents’ divorce tainted him. For Todd, overcoming that hurdle will require both the strength to forgive others and the faith that sustains us when we know we are living as the Lord commanded (see D&C 121:45). It also would have been easier for Todd if his girlfriend’s parents had valued him for who he was and not held him responsible for his parents’ mistakes.

The Question of Eternity

Knowing the eternal nature of families may bring an added dimension to the suffering of Latter-day Saint children of divorce. One child of divorce poignantly recollected her father’s promise, “We’ll always be a family because we’re sealed in the temple.” 3 The earthly dissolution of the family, coupled with the priority placed by the Church on families, makes the breakup more devastating for most Church members.

In addition to damaged feelings of self-worth, difficulties with trust and intimacy, and fear of marriage, Latter-day Saint children of divorced parents may sometimes struggle with questions that threaten the core of their testimonies. In a heartbreaking talk, a 10-year-old girl said it was difficult for her to believe in God because what she prayed for most was that her mommy and daddy would get back together again, and God hadn’t answered her prayers. Of course, Heavenly Father would not take away the agency of the divorced parents. In situations such as this, sensitive family members, friends, teachers, and leaders can help by making special efforts to share their faith and knowledge that Heavenly Father loves us, and that the power of the gospel for our own lives is still available.

Happily, not all children of divorce are represented by this example.

Jamie also suffered a variety of losses because of the divorce of her parents. As a young teenager she worried about her future and wasn’t sure about the present either—how to fit in socially, or whether she even wanted to fit in. But she worked hard to find answers to her questions. She sought out teachers, friends, and a bishop to confide in. She also received help from trained counselors from time to time. She was able to identify which concerns were rational and which were not, as well as practical ways for ensuring the success of her own marriage, and she has now been happily married for several years.

The Opportunity for Strengths

Life for children of divorce may sometimes seem depressing. But without question, divorce is like other crises of life in that danger almost always comes with a companion—opportunity. 4 So, what are the opportunities—the factors that may become strengths—for children of divorced parents?

Enhanced appreciation for enduring love. Losses associated with their parents’ divorce frequently result in children placing an even higher value on sustaining relationships and on love, fidelity, and compassion. Although they may experience heightened anxiety in forming enduring attachments, most are strongly committed to the ideals of a lasting marriage and to morality. 5

Maturity, independence, and realism. Because they tend to mature more quickly and are more independent and because of their less idealized view of marriage, children of divorce tend to be more realistic, researchers have found. 6 They are familiar with possible difficulties and may be more likely to enter a marriage relationship with their eyes open. This need not mean they are cynical or doubting, only that they are aware of the need for charity and cooperation in a marriage.

Wisdom and determination. In my conversations with Latter-day Saint young adults whose parents were divorced, I have found in some a maturity and common-sense wisdom that we might hope would be evident in all of our children, though none of us would want them to gain it through watching their parents’ marriage fail. One young woman said, “My parents’ divorce gave me the determination to do whatever it takes to make my marriage succeed.” Another noted that she finally realized she could find happiness in marriage when she envisioned eternal marriage with a young man who had been her friend for a long time.

Young adults whose parents have been divorced frequently see a long-term friendship as a way to develop trust and to make wise decisions regarding marriage. One young woman mentioned that because of the divorce of her parents she was more keenly aware of the importance of communication in marriage. She made extra efforts to strengthen her own commitment to eternal gospel principles and sought opportunities to develop communication skills.

Growth through struggle. Lehi taught that without “opposition in all things,” righteousness and good cannot be brought to pass (2 Ne. 2:11). Young adults who have successfully dealt with the challenges of their parents’ divorce frequently show great spiritual growth. The difficulties they have faced often have taught them of their dependence on the Lord and their need for spiritual guidance. Through the prophet Moroni, the Lord said: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).

For example, after struggling with a childhood and adolescence spoiled by the trauma of divorce, one woman reported that her own marriage was surprisingly comfortable and satisfying. To make it work well, she identified principles that would be basic to any successful marriage but had personal meaning for her. She emphasized: “The key to making marriage work is having Heavenly Father with us in our home. That includes consistent prayer, studying and pondering the scriptures together, and effective communication.” A young woman looking forward to marriage noted that because of parental divorce, she focused on her own individual choices and responsibilities. She shared a determination to “stay in tune and rely on the Spirit.”

If This Applies, What Can You Do?

The effects of divorce unquestionably can be damaging, but they do not need to be crippling. You can overcome the pain and suffering, though you may feel the situation has been devastating. You can regroup, learn, and grow.

Trust in the Lord. Heavenly Father is mindful of each of us in a very personal way, and His divine plan includes a way for us to overcome the effects of opposition and enjoy eternal blessings. There is great wisdom in the Lord’s counsel to the Prophet Joseph Smith during a time of severe persecution: “Be still and know that I am God” (D&C 101:16; see D&C 101:12–18). Talk to your Church leaders and close friends about their relationship to God. Read the scriptures and words of the Brethren, pondering and praying sincerely. Reread your patriarchal blessing, remembering that the Lord has great blessings in store for you. Exercise and increase your faith in God and in the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

Develop trust in friends and family. Your trust in a divine plan can generate trust in those around you who may be less than perfect yet are children of God. Through Christlike charity, we can learn to love people despite some imperfections. There is no comfort in freedom from heartache gained at the cost of freedom from loving others. Trust and disappointment are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Forgive your parents. Don’t let your parents’ mistakes be your excuses for error. Don’t be misled by barren statistics; for every child who followed the path of a misguided parent, you can find one who didn’t, going all the way back to Abraham, whose father was willing to see him sacrificed to an idol (see Abr. 1:5–7).

Repent of your own wrongdoings and forgive yourself. If you grew up in a home where people were hurt, you may have picked up some harmful behaviors and caused pain to others. You can repent of this once you come to understand your mistakes. The needed repentance for such mistakes is not so much about assignment of blame or self-flagellation as it is about making amends for the hurt, where possible.

Learn to choose. Your individual accountability and agency empower you to choose, and you need not be imprisoned by damaging family patterns or relationships. You have the right to say no to manipulation or degradation, and it is not your responsibility to keep everyone happy, particularly if they are determined to persist in unproductive or morally unacceptable behavior. When divorce has occurred, find in the new family structure a way of developing healthier and more enjoyable traditions and patterns for your own life and the family you will create by marriage.

Acquire new interpersonal skills. Taking charge of your life is one of many skills such as communication, joint problem solving, and conflict resolution that are learned, not inherited. Don’t be afraid to take a class, attend a seminar, or seek counseling to develop more effective and rewarding interpersonal relationships. But be careful; the training process in acquiring new skills should fit comfortably within the guidelines of the Church. Be in tune with the promptings of the Holy Ghost to know if the schooling and counseling you are receiving are appropriate. In fact, there is no better schooling than the guidance of that still, small voice as you try prayerfully and lovingly to apply the teachings of the Master in your interactions with others.

Identify compensating factors in your life. Every family has strengths. Every environment has supportive resources. Instead of focusing only on losses or problems, find out what is good about your family and what resources are available to you. For example, let yourself be open to receiving help and comfort from extended family members or friends who may be uniquely qualified as mentors. After spending time with an aunt and uncle who were obviously happy, one young woman realized for the first time that a happy marriage is possible. She said, “Somebody in my family actually pulled it off!”

The Promised Hope

Faithful Latter-day Saints are not disadvantaged eternally because of their parents’ missteps. President Ezra Taft Benson’s promise to a family of divorce makes that abundantly clear: “Please note that a cancellation of sealing of a wife to her husband does not affect children born in the covenant or previously sealed. Such children are entitled to birthright blessings, and if they remain worthy, are assured the right and privilege of eternal parentage regardless of what happens to their natural parents or the parents to whom they were sealed.” 7

Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles underscores that promise: “I testify that with unimaginable suffering and agony at an incalculable price, the Savior earned His right to be our Intermediary, our Redeemer, our Final Judge. Through faith in Him and receipt of the requisite ordinances and covenants, you will earn your right to the blessings of eternal marriage made possible through His infinite Atonement.” 8

My first marriage ended 19 years ago, but I continue to learn of ways in which my children and I were affected by that divorce. Nevertheless, there have been growth opportunities for me and for them because of it. I am a different person because of my struggle. I have been humbled; I understand what it means to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit (see D&C 97:8), and I have learned something about patience in suffering. I have learned that a broken heart is not a crushed or destroyed heart; it is a heart broken open to receive inspiration, love, and service. I have learned that there is no easy road to the celestial kingdom and that there is no way to get through life untested.

Divorce—even when it is our parents’—can be one of many stumbling blocks in life. Yet regardless of the struggle we face, we can strengthen our own marriages by humbly relying on the atoning sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ and on the principles of love and truth that He taught.

Hope for Single Parents

Elder Gene R. Cook

“One spiritually motivated parent can successfully raise up a family to the Lord. Some of the best men and women I have known have come from such families.” Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy, Raising Up a Family to the Lord (1993), xv.

More on this topic: See “Building a Successful Marriage,”Ensign, Mar. 1998, 27; “Mending Our Marriage,”Ensign, Oct. 1996, 44; Theodore M. Burton, “A Marriage to Last through Eternity,”Ensign, June 1987, 12. Visit www.lds.org or see Church magazines on CD.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or personal reflection.

  1. 1.

    As you prepare for temple marriage, what can you do to assure that you understand the eternal covenants and blessings promised?

  2. 2.

    What qualities can you seek in a marriage partner to help assure that he or she is committed to making and keeping eternal covenants of love and fidelity?

  3. 3.

    If you are already married, what can you do to see that the inevitable challenges in a partnership will not affect your own commitment to eternal covenants and the ideal of everlasting marriage?

[photos] Photography by Robert Casey, posed by models

[illustration] The Lord Jesus Christ, by Del Parson

Elaine Walton is a member of the Edgemont Ninth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont North Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    In most cases, names of people used as examples in this article have been changed.

  2.   2.

    Deborah Milne, Reflections from a Broken Mirror: Spiritual Values I Learned as an LDS Child of Divorce (1998), 139.

  3.   3.

    Milne, Reflections from a Broken Mirror, 61.

  4.   4.

    Two characters—one meaning danger and the other opportunity—have been used to represent crisis in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages.

  5.   5.

    Judith S. Wallerstein, “Children of Divorce: Recent Findings Regarding Long-term Effects and Recent Studies of Joint and Sole Custody,” Pediatrics in Review, Jan. 1990, 197–204; “The Long-term Effects of Divorce on Children: A Review,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, May 1991, 349–60.

  6.   6.

    See Wallerstein, “Children of Divorce”; Paul R. Amato, “Parental Divorce and Attitudes toward Marriage and Family Life,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1988, 453–61.

  7.   7.

    Letter to Deborah Milne’s family, as quoted in Reflections from a Broken Mirror, 146–47.

  8.   8.

    “Receive the Temple Blessings,” Ensign, May 1999, 27.