Divorce as a Form of Trauma

Teen boy sad about parents divorce

Over the years I have helped several people navigate the rocky waters of divorce and have had my own personal experience several decades ago when my children were 12 and 14 years old.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Robert Fonda and Dr. Vincent Felitti conducted the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) surveys. The ACEs research showed the irrefutable and highly negative impact of specific adverse childhood experiences which included divorce as one of the childhood adversities. That gave me pause as to why divorce should be considered a form of childhood trauma and an underlying cause of so many physical, emotional and relational issues in adulthood.  (For more information on the ACEs research, check out www.ACEsconnection.com , https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html or https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/ )

It is always important to appreciate anything that creates excessive amounts of unhealthy stress in a child’s life, especially ongoing stress, can change both the architecture of the brain and the physiology of the immune system. (Two outstanding resources that describe this in detail are Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology by Donna Jackson Nakazawa and Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease  byRobin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley.)

Certainly, divorce and everything that leads up to it as well as much of what comes after it causes a great deal of stress for both husband and wife. Some divorces are nastier than others but almost all divorces involve some level of extreme stress.

The problem with divorce that often is overlooked is its impact on the children. Adults can better tolerate even the extreme stress of most divorces better than children can. The nastier and more volatile the divorce experience is, the greater the impact on the children and the degrees of stress they experience. Sometimes parents become vicious towards each other; sometimes one person may be more vindictive, vengeful and manipulative than the other. Or one parent becomes immobilized and overwhelmed by feelings of loss and rejection.

Upset little girl over her parents fighting

I remember feeling totally lost, alone and inadequate as a wife and a mother for probably at least two years after my husband declared he was leaving. I often look back and feel guilty for the times I emotionally neglected my children or failed to set and maintain healthy boundaries and consequences because I felt so guilty for the pain and stress our divorce was causing them. And sometimes I simply was too self-focused to have the energy needed to adequately care for them. 

No matter what, parents often put all their energy into their own anger, frustration and/or sense of loss and hurt around their disintegrating marriage. They sometimes are unable to focus on the needs of their children. This leaves them feeling scared, powerless, insecure and abandoned. These are all feelings associated with trauma. Add to that the children often feel that they are responsible for their parents’ breakup, bringing feelings of guilt and shame that can also overwhelm their emotional world while increasing their levels of toxic stress.

There are two forces we need to keep in mind to understand why divorce can be so toxic for children: invisible loyalties and double-binding.

Invisible loyalties is a concept I first learned about through one of my mentors, Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy when I was working on my Master’s degree. Dr. Nagy was the founder of Contextual Family Therapy and proposed that we are all loyal to our family’s beliefs, values, life goals and even the behaviors of our parents and grandparents. These loyalties are invisible in the sense that we often do not know that we are being driven by this deep need to perpetuate aspects of our family’s unique and life and relationships. When those beliefs, values, life goals and behaviors are healthy, our loyalties allow us to easily maintain them and therefore function well in life. And we pass these on to our children and grandchildren, usually un-conscientiously.

The problem comes when our loyalties are being threatened or we experience what is called split loyalties; where loyalties are challenged and, especially in the case of children, when there is pressure to decide to whom we are to be loyal. This is a source of extreme stress on a child who is being forced to select and therefore be loyal to one parent over the other.

Sometimes parents intentionally or unintentionally activate the anxieties around loyalty by pressuring children to see the other parent as the bad guy, the one to be scorned, criticized and even abandoned.  

When put in a position of experiencing split loyalties, children are often placed in what is called a double-bind. According to dictionary.com, a double bind occurs in a situation “in which a person is given conflicting cues, especially by a parent, so that to obey one cue is to disobey the other.” It is truly a no-win situation and for children, they can feel so torn and guilty no matter what they do, even as the forces of invisible loyalty pull them toward certain beliefs and behaviors.

No wonder children experience extreme, toxic stress as a result of divorce, especially when the divorce is contentious, and the children are asked to choose one parent over the other! Perhaps without consciously intending to and because the focus is on hurting the spouse and/or winning in court, parents can actually exploit their own children in order to emerge victorious over their spouse.

When asked, divorcing parents usually say they want the best for their children. The problem is when they get caught up in negative feelings directed towards their spouse their children are actually deeply wounded. One or the other may want the children to side with them, to make their children see their spouse in a very negative light, to even coerce their children into lying if needed in order to win a court case or somehow diminish the power of the other parent.

Not only is such behavior reprehensible in general, it needs to be seen through the eyes of someone who is trauma-aware and trauma-sensitive. These kinds of words and behaviors can tear children apart because of their loyalties and can put them in double binds that cause them toxic stress that can be so hurtful to them, both in the present and for their future.

No wonder divorce is considered one of the 10 childhood adversities in the ACEs research!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you experienced your parents divorcing or even separating for some period of time, how did you feel about it? Do you recall feeling torn as far as who to believe, who to follow, who to admire more? Were either of your parents trying to make you align with them against your other parent? To what extent did you feel powerless, scared, helpless, or trapped? Looking back, if any of these things happened to you, do you see how much stress this engendered for you then and even now?
  2. What information in this blog is new for you? How does it impact your understanding of how and why divorce can be traumatizing for children?
  3. How might you use this information to help someone who is going through a divorce to make it less traumatizing for any children who might be involved?

Additional Resources

For more information on invisible loyalties, check out http://scholar.google.com/scholar_url?url=https://content.taylorfrancis.com/books/download%3Fdac%3DC2006-0-15175-X%26isbn%3D9781317839361%26format%3DgooglePreviewPdf&hl=en&sa=X&scisig=AAGBfm0wCOzJDiI2A7HcV7-6VEYdyStFuQ&nossl=1&oi=scholarr

Invisible Loyalties Reciprocity In Intergenerational Family Therapy by Ivan Boszormenp-Nagy, M.D.  and  Invisible Loyalties in Family Systems https://familysystemic.com/2012/07/12/invisible-loyalties-in-family-system/