The Divorced Child

When one parent leaves another, it’s because the relationship between them has broken down in some way. It’s an issue concerning the adults in the relationship and the fact that it is no longer working; it is not about the children but sadly this is rarely understood by a child. A legal divorce or separation can be over in a matter of weeks but the emotional divorce or separation, for all concerned, can last years and in some cases a lifetime.

I remember my father leaving when I was about three. At the time I had no idea of the why’s and wherefores, I simply knew that he was leaving and that my mother was sad. Of course I was protected, I was loved, but nonetheless I felt my mother’s sadness. I hurt too, not just because my mother was upset but because my father had gone, abandoning us. Her pain and sadness became my own and in a way my responsibility. Love me as much as she did, she was unaware of the transference of emotions and how I was absorbing and responding to her pain or that, without reason or need, I put had myself in the role of caretaker.

The loss of an emotionally important person, in this case my father at an early age, impacted on my subsequent development and self-esteem. However much I was loved, and indeed I was, by my mother, I could not come to terms with the feelings of abandonment. I carried around with me the emotional pain connected with this loss at such a vulnerable age.

Growing up, I always struggled with being good enough, never quite believing I was. After all; if you’re not good enough for your father you’re not really good enough for anyone. I went from trying to prove myself to throwing in the towel at the earliest opportunity. I often settled for second best too, believing I was lucky to have been noticed at all. I married my father, or a character very similar to him although I didn’t recognise this at the time.

I always had an incredibly strong need to please, which didn’t help me because I rarely asked for anything in return. Wanting to please comes from a need to be liked, loved even, and of course if you want to please all the time you leave yourself open to those who will take advantage of any kindness. Couple this with an inability to blame others because it must be your fault and you can see there’s really nowhere to go unless you make some changes.

I was well into adulthood before I began to understand this, long after I’d become a mother myself. I didn’t understand this when my own husband left me and there continued the cycle for my own son. A child can internalise feelings of rejection, hurtful and traumatic experiences and carry them forward, the rejected child becoming the unacceptable and incompetent adult. They become imposters in a world where they constantly feel they have to prove themselves, while at the same time knowing they never will.

I wrote recently about imposter syndrome because it strikes a chord with me and seems to have done so with others. I understand what happened to me, I’ve completed the work as an adult, giving myself space to reflect. I acknowledged the loss I felt as a child and carried around for far too long before letting it go. There are many that haven’t and there are many children growing up today believing they are unworthy.

If this resonates and you are the divorced child, or you are concerned about your own children internalising symptoms from family divorce, separation and loss, isn’t it time to deal with it now?

Liza Aitken