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The Spirituality of Children of Divorce

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In her classic text, Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, author Ana-Maria Rizzuto wrote, "God is not the creation of the child alone. God is found in the family." She elaborated, "It is out of the matrix of facts and fantasies, wishes, hopes, and fears, in the exchanges with those incredible beings called parents, that the image of God is concocted."

As a student in divinity school in the 1990s, I wondered how one's image of God might be shaped if one grew up, as I did, with divorced parents. If your experience of your parents informs your impression of God, what does it mean to live always apart from at least one of your parents? What does it mean, spiritually, to experience parental absence as much as parental presence?

I went looking for answers and discovered to my surprise there wasn't much out there. With mentoring from a wonderful University of Chicago professor, Don Browning, who passed away this year, and with support from my fellow students, I set out on a quest that eventually resulted in my book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. In that book, based on a new study conducted with University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Norval Glenn, I wrote that young people from divorced families differ profoundly from those who grow up in intact families in their moral development, spiritual journeys, and religious identities.

Young people from divorced families told me they had to grow up traveling between two worlds, literally and metaphorically. When their parents divorced the tough job of making sense of the differences between the parents' values and beliefs did not go away. Rather, this job was handed to the child alone. When it came to the big questions in life - Who am I? Where do I belong? What is right and wrong? Is there a God? - those from divorced families more often felt like they had to struggle for the answers alone.

Young people from divorced families felt just as spiritual as those from intact families, but their spiritual journeys were more often characterized by loss and suffering. For children, there is a kind of elemental wholeness in being with both of your parents, an experience that evokes the place where God is present. That experience becomes foreign for children of divorce.

The Sufi mystic poet Rumi writes of the pain of separation and the longing for wholeness:

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone separated from the one he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.

Some suggest that a solution is for divorced parents to get along well and to come together at important events in the child's life, such as for the winter holidays that are now upon us. But when I asked grown children of divorce how they felt when their divorced parents were in the same room, they said things like, "It was so hard! I was my mom self when I was with my mom, and my dad self when I was with my dad. When they were in the same room together, I didn't know who to be." Far from being a comforting experience, after the divorce that elemental wholeness could never be felt by the children of divorce again. The parents might be in the same room but they are not together. The child still felt divided inside.

What did grown children of divorce do? They adapted. In our study, those from divorced families were less likely overall to say they were religious, or to attend a house of worship regularly, or to be leaders in a faith community. But some did become more religious in the wake of their parents' divorce, finding in God a father or parent figure they did not have in real life. Others became self-reliant, learning to take care of themselves and family members at an early age, sometimes even gaining skills that serve them well in adulthood. But even those who survive well still lose something profound. After their parents' parting, the children of divorce are unable again to be unself-consciously at peace, taking their parents for granted, resting in the place where God is present. Instead they become seekers, longing, like Rumi, for the ones they love, forever seeking the source from which they came.