The most common suffering reported by adult children of divorce is loneliness. Despite any outward signs of success, they feel an emptiness at their core that persists throughout their adult life.
Everyone agrees that divorce is extremely traumatic for children. But even so, adults tend to view it as a stressful event to be overcome before moving on. Millions of us have moved on, built our own lives and started our own families. Yet we never feel fully connected with the world we live in. There is something about divorce that persists far, far beyond the event itself.
Fearing for survival
While adults focus on the breakup and the act of rebuilding their lives, children feel as though they have been abandoned—by both parents. One parent leaves to begin a new life across town or across the country. The other parent changes too, dealing with their own loss, possibly working more, spending time dating or being too alone. The child’s home is gone. Her world has crumbled. She fears for her survival.
She suddenly becomes aware of the concept of unreliability; that parents and home are fallible. Her parents are gone, the individuals replacing them are strangers. While the adults continue to see themselves as responsible for the child, she now feels that survival is up to her, with whatever limited means her understanding allows.
The adults will reassure her that this has nothing to do with her: “Mommy and Daddy just don’t love each other any more.” OK, but this is coming from the unreliable ones. It isn’t so much that children blame themselves, but they have to look out for their survival. And just as when they were born, their first need is to seek attachment.
In her desperation for attachment, whether to her new mother and father, or, worse, to her peers, she will inadvertently repress herself as she seeks approval to calm her fear of abandonment. Her home world is split in two and she avoids her mother and father’s pain with each other by maintaining this dual allegiance within herself. She cannot risk further estrangement. She has now also been replaced by a stranger.
The slow and gentle emergence of her true self, nurtured into ever widening circles by a trusted home, is abruptly halted. This is no place for such a delicate pupa. Avoiding further loss is far more important than the turbulence of true self-expression with the attendant risk of rejection.
Earlier she didn’t have anything to hide. She experimented more or less freely and added to her self according to her temperament and environment. But now that original self is hidden by her frantic attempts to belong in a world suddenly built of separateness. So a new self begins building on top of the self already in place.
The new self is built through either the cautiously, not adventurously, sought approval of her mother and father, or the acceptance by the peer group she has adopted as surrogate parents. Neither of these strategies leads to a resilient, independent person. Without a trusted, reliable home base, she is not free to seek her true tribe. She can never just be.
So begins the cycle of “me second.” Over the years the habits supporting this self-alienation become completely entrenched. In this way the children of divorce become and remain disconnected from their true selves, living their lives for the approval and protection of others rather than themselves. While some of the original self leaks through the barrier, much will remain repressed. Unintentionally, unbeknown, they are living in-authentically, constantly trying to fill the emptiness between their actions and their hidden self.
Their loneliness, often despite family and friends, is caused by the mask they unknowingly present to the world. The people in their lives are attracted to the mask, but it is the original self that craves the affirmation it should have had to become solid and independent. Without the right people in their life, they will never feel completely secure or fulfilled in their attachments. So they continue seeking to fill the need of the original self, but always by presenting the mask. They will never be free.
Do you feel pangs of disconnection, loneliness, or alienation years after your parents divorced? How do you deal with this or how have you overcome it? Share your experience here.