Not all the things that have had a hand in shaping who I am are positive things. But that’s generally true about life, isn’t it? Adversity is a great crucible for refining one’s character. There are several crucible moments that have left a lasting impact on me and the divorce of my parents when I was 12 is one of those.
For my generation, the divorce of one’s parents is a common reality. We are more likely to have grandparents who are still married to their first spouse, but parents who are not. When I was 12, a classmate’s parents got divorced. He was sad and unsure about a lot of things, like who he was going to live with and where, whether or not he’d continue to go to school with us, what the custody and visitation arrangement was to be. I remember remarking to friend how lucky I was that my parents weren’t ever going to divorce. I was wrong. Just a few weeks later, my brothers and I were sat down by our parents in the family room.
They told us that they were going to separate and likely get divorced. I was shocked. I just didn’t see it coming. There didn’t seem to be any warning signs: no roof-raising fights, no lipstick on the collar or inexplicable late meetings, no money problems. I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation. I’m pretty sure there were tears, though.
A few weeks later, over spring break, my dad took my brothers and I to visit Washington, D.C., while my mom packed up her things and moved out. Things had been going down that road for some time, I’d later find out, and my parents did all they could to shelter us from the unpleasantness of it all, with mixed results. There had been fights, behind closed doors, and there had been unfaithfulness. When my brothers and I returned from the D.C. trip, I remember going into my parent’s bedroom and opening up their closet, hoping beyond hope that I’d find my mother’s clothes still there, that somehow she’d changed her mind. The closet was empty.
The divorce hit my brothers and I in very different ways. I can’t speak for them, but I dealt with pain through anger. I placed a lot of blame on my mom, then on my dad, then on my mom again. I blamed God and I blamed myself. I saw the worst come out in Christians through the divorce. My father resigned his position of leadership in the church, my mother was shunned by her “friends,” and there were people in my youth group and Sunday School classes who looked at me as if they might catch something.
People say that even the darkest clouds have a silver lining. I can spot several silver linings in this dark cloud. First, my relationship with my brothers got a lot tighter. We lived with my dad and for a few years, I helped to raise them. Together we learned how to fix dinner for the family, how to do our own laundry, what it takes to be responsible with household chores. The trips with my brothers back and forth to see my mom, especially after I was old enough to drive, are still some memorable times. We would listen to music loud and make unnecessary pit stops for junk food. Second, my relationship with my dad. I saw him change a lot after the divorce. He became a lot more present and involved. He still is. Finally, my relationship with my wife is great because of things I learned through my parents’ divorce and subsequent recovery. You can learn a lot from a broken marriage, including how to make a whole one stronger.
My mom and I are working on our relationship, for the first time in 20 years. I’ve been the big hold up, unwilling to entertain overtures of reconciliation. My hard heart has been softened, however, and my mom and I are slowly rebuilding our relationship. It’s scary and hard, but worth it.
Divorces are like snowflakes, no two are the same. My experiences with my parents’ divorce are unique, and I’ve known enough other people from multi-marriage households to know that I can’t speak for anyone but myself. I wouldn’t wish this kind of trial on anyone, but I can’t imagine who I’d be otherwise. I grieve what might have been, and I grieve the stupid and ugly things I said along the way, but these kinds of things mar us in a way that adds depth to our lives we just cannot get any other way.
I still have questions about what exactly happened between my parents and why and how. I always will. Things like this don’t get answered to your satisfaction, and you can waste your life chasing after just one more piece of the puzzle. That pursuit of answers, though, is often the biggest thing that stands in the way forgiveness. William Paul Young writes in The Shack, that “forgiveness is letting go of the other person’s throat.” After years of holding on to people’s throats, I’m finally letting go. I didn’t realize just how tiring all that throat grasping is.