It isn’t news that growing up with divorced parents has an impact on our psychological and emotional lives. It’s already well-known that children of divorce are more likely to end up in a broken marriage of their own as adults. It’s also known that the earlier in one’s life that they experience the divorce/separation of their parents, the greater impact it tends to have.
Divorce can have an impact on various dynamic processes in one’s life. One such process I have seen with adults who grew up as children of divorced parents is an internal split that can actually develop as a response to divorce. It’s almost as if there is a constant struggle inside of oneself between two opposite worlds that seem unable to be reconciled (an internal mirror of the divorced parents). Consider it a form of “grass is greener” syndrome, or, “too country for the city, but too city for the country.” There are two (or multiple) entities dwelling within you, but how do you reconcile them so they can coexist?
In working with many people over the years who have grown up through parental divorce, this internal split tends to show up in numerous ways. This is more than choosing particular wants in life, such as where to live, who to date, or what career to have. This split, as the residue of parental divorce, manifests more in how people actually experience themselves. For example, feeling like you’re one person on the inside and another on the outside — showing people one side of yourself, and hiding another, feeling that you’ll be rejected if you don’t hide certain parts of yourself that you’ve determined to be unacceptable. This can even include hiding (dissociating) parts of ourselves from ourselves.
The side that people generally try to hide is the one that threatens to identify with the subconsciously experienced “bad” parent. To clarify, part of the split is that with divorce, one parent is often considered “good” and one is unconsciously or consciously seen as “bad”. Splitting the parents as good and bad can still happen even without divorce, however when there is divorce, this split generally starts to feel more threatening. The experience of the parents breaking apart is very different than the perceived good and bad parents who stick together. With divorce, the underlying experience starts to become: if you identify with the “bad” parent, then you and your world will break apart, people will leave and abandon you, and you will lose your sense of self and be alone. So one side of yourself becomes perceived as threatening and dangerous to your identity while the other side is safe and acceptable.
One of the problems with the split is that the more these parts of oneself are dissociated, the harder it becomes to create a sense of fulfillment in how you experience life, relationships, self, and more. A side of yourself essentially becomes starved out while trying your hardest to stay on the safe and acceptable side. However, the more starved out that side becomes, the more you may start to feel like something is missing in areas of life and holding you back from feeling more fulfilled.
The deeper concept is that there are parts of both parents within ourselves, often of differing temperaments, personalities, values, desires, affect, morals, etc., and that just as in real life with the parents when they get divorced, it feels as if these parts of self aren’t safe to coexist with us without destroying us.
This can cause significant internal friction and conflict. Not only does it in some ways feel like you have to internally choose one parent over the other (a form of choosing sides in the divorce), but it also puts you in the position of feeling that you have to sacrifice a side of yourself, even if both are important to you.
The result can lead in adulthood to behaviors such as people-pleasing, trying to exist as the “good” person, trying to possessively keep people close (so they don’t leave you), infidelity, and more. Also, the split can lead to fear (and dissociation) of parts of yourself that you’ve deemed as “bad”, and other reactions that aim to keep peace, even if it means pushing away our own needs and parts of ourselves in order to do so. This can make achieving fulfillment and acceptance of our whole selves harder to come by. Passions and (healthy) risks are often avoided for fear that connecting with these parts of ourselves will wake up the internal “bad” parent, which threatens self-destruction. Keeping emotional control becomes the priority a more whole sense of connection and fulfillment.
It is possible to merge and resolve these splits through therapy. Learning and experiencing that these parts of you can be acceptable and coexist, and working through the (understandable) fear of connecting more fully to yourself, while also allowing these parts to inform you about the life you want to live can be quite liberating. Just because you went through a childhood of divorce doesn’t mean you have to divorce yourself as an adult.