Primal Loss: The Wounds of Divorce No One Wants to Hear About

Primal Loss has profound lessons to teach us as a society if we are willing to heed.

By Jennifer Hartline Published on June 11, 2017

Catholic author and blogger Leila Miller asked a few questions and got an earful of profound pain and heartache for her trouble. And thank God for it.

In her new book, Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak, the bandage is ripped off to expose a bleeding wound no one wants to acknowledge. It’s not a book of Leila’s invention, but rather a labor of love on behalf of those who’ve felt invisible and silenced for decades.

The authors of the book are 70 different adults whose parents divorced (for a wide variety of reasons). Their stories are painfully raw, candid, and until now have been unwelcome. Primal Loss seeks to change that. It’s time to talk about the real effects of divorce on children.

Primal Loss has profound lessons to teach us as a society if we are willing to heed.

What inspired Primal Loss, and what made you decide to put this book together?

LM: I am not a child of divorce myself, but over the course of a close friendship with another wife and mom here in town, I started to clue into the pain she was still dealing with from her parents’ divorce, even decades later. Most of her comments were made in passing, and she seemed nonchalant about it all, but I started asking more questions.

With the answers came an awareness that divorce left a more devastating legacy than I had ever realized. Eventually, I told my friend she needed to write a book about her experiences as a now-adult child of divorce. She never did end up writing about it; it was just too difficult to think about digging all that up.

So I took it upon myself to ask more adult children of divorce about their feelings and experiences. I continued to be stunned at their answers — and their hidden, unspoken pain. Imagining that I’d throw together a quick e-book, I wrote down a few simple questions and created a questionnaire.

On my Facebook page and my blog, Little Catholic Bubble, I asked for volunteers to give me their anonymous answers about their parents’ divorce and its effect on them. I was absolutely blown away by the replies. I knew this project had to turn into much more than just a quick e-book. 

What was so shocking about the responses you were getting? 

Each parent is half of who the child is. When the parents reject each other, they are rejecting half of the child. — Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., from the Foreword of Primal Loss

LM: Two things, especially. First, that even “good divorce” left terrible scars and ongoing suffering. It was as if the shock of divorce in a low-conflict marriage was even more difficult to comprehend. If a marriage can end over something non-catastrophic, then is anything sure? The insecurity level of the contributors, the struggle to find firm footing and to trust — it was hard to read as I went through the participants’ answers.

Second, I was shocked by the fear there — the fear of being found out. Most of the contributors were afraid (some even to the point of terror) that their parents would find out they were participating in a book like this. Most of them have spent their lives placating and protecting the feelings of their parents, and parroting “the narrative” that the divorce was not only for the best, but also even a positive good. I had no idea that the children of divorce carry around this terrible burden year after year after year. 

 So the anonymity you afforded all the contributors is what allowed them to be completely honest. For the very first time, they can say out loud how they really feel about what was done to them. And that’s the point, isn’t it? No one in our society wants to acknowledge that divorce is committed against our children. It’s not only about the adults. Yet no one ever asks the kids how they feel, because we don’t want to know.

LM: That is correct. We don’t want to know. It would ruin the narrative that “kids are resilient” and happy as long as their parents are happy. And since marriage in modern America is not so much about vows but about romance and sex, we are not to interfere with the adults’ romantic decisions.

What is really eye-opening is seeing this silencing play out in real life: As I and others started putting out excerpts from the book, or as comments from those wounded by their parents’ divorce came in, it was uncanny how consistently divorce defenders jumped into the conversation (one demanding to know why such a book as Primal Loss would even be published!).

The pro-divorce comments served to shame and silence the adult children who were now daring to speak out. A child of divorce put it best, on one of those contentious Facebook threads: “I wish for once that those who are divorced/divorcing will be silent and just listen. I’m so tired of feeling like I have to be mindful — yet again — of the grown-ups’ feelings.” It’s what they’ve done all their lives. 

Who is Primal Loss for?

LM: Several different audiences. First, it’s for the adult children of divorce, who thought they were alone in their pain.

Second, it’s for those adults now considering divorce. Please read this book. I’ve had folks tell me that after reading the first ten pages, they will never consider divorcing.

Third, it’s for divorced parents, to give them more insight into their children’s pain, even decades later.

It’s also for priests, pastors, and therapists — who far too routinely counsel for divorce.

It’s important to note that I have an entire chapter with stories of hope — disastrous marriages that were redeemed, and how those redemptions came about. It’s possible to overcome the worst of situations, and the reward is both earthly and eternal. 

Finally, Primal Loss isn’t about shaming anyone. It’s not about piling on the guilt. It’s about honesty, healing, and correcting our ways going forward. We simply cannot go on believing that divorce is no big deal. The Catechism calls divorce a “contagion,” and it’s infecting and corroding our families and our nation.

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  • ImaginaryDomain

    Thanks for this. The breakdown of the family is at the heart of all the craziness we are seeing today. Started in the 50s. Without being too melodramatic about it, as I lawyer I’ve studied this problem fairly deeply. Not long ago the contract of marriage was pretty ironclad. Very few things could move a court to grant a divorce – usually only proven infidelity and physical abuse. But, as America boomed in the post-war era, there was a sudden push, mostly by rich white men, to lose the ball and chain. So, with money, power and influence, they convinced judges and legislators to adopt no-fault divorce rules, so that people could enter -and exit – marriage for any reason or no reason.

    Just as an aside, prior to this divorce rates in poor communities were exceedingly low. But, once the marriage laws changed, all could take advantage – and voila – here we are today.

    • Dean Bruckner

      David Wyrtzen taught us in Bible school that the biblical book of Hosea records God speaking the words of divorce–he himself endured it–to his unfaithful wife Israel. He understands. But he did not do it for convenience, or self-actualization or because he deserved to be happy. He did it because it had to be done, so that his wife Israel might be restored to him through many, many painful trials, but none as severe as the pain he himself endured for her.

      Some readers will feel uncomfortable with the pronoun “her” used for the nation of Israel. I submit that is the root of the problem, that we as a culture and as a church have rejected God’s design for male and female, let alone everything built on that.

      I challenge each reader to start by letting God choose the pronouns we use. We should go back into the biblical text and and recover his uses of the words man and woman, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and yes, she and he, and his and hers. This is a baby step towards accepting the Lordship of Christ over us, no matter the cost.

      I am Christ’s bondslave. I will not steal names, titles or pronouns that he has not given to me. I will not let anyone else make me either.

      • Wayne Cook

        Good comments, Dean…I have read that book and tried to imagine myself in Hosea’s shoes. A wife leaving you by choice, having to retrieve and love her, seeing her parade herself in front of others like a mad woman…bringing her home and loving her…I don’t even like the idea, much less being called to something like that. I can sure see all my friends calling me a fool and many leaving me over it. And odd very sad book of the Bible, yet…as Christians, we’ve all done it. Sinned like fools and God took us back. contrary, warts and all. We don’t have the mind of Christ very often…..

        • Dean Bruckner

          Thanks, Wayne!

          Real love like that, and forgiveness, and grace to the undeserving, is something the world, the flesh and the devil cannot counterfeit. it comes only from God. So he deserves all the glory and praise!

  • pngmac

    My parents, both of whome passed on in the last two years, divorced 40-some years ago. As a child of divorce, I would describe my parents divorce as a death that kept on dying. Holidays were always difficult. Which do we visit? Which do we visit first? Can we visit at all? And, of course, being in the middle was no fun either. To their credit, decades ago, when I informed them privately that I loved each of them and was not desiring to be in the middle, they left me out. My siblings cannot say the same. God’s grace was surely a factor in that.

  • James

    Imagine if the Odd Couple were a married couple instead of roommates. That would be my parents. They divorced when I was four.

    They were good Catholics, who followed all the “rules”, but forgot to figure out if they could actually live together under the same roof. As an adult, I can see both why they got married and why this was a bad idea.

    The divorce itself doesn’t bother me. The fallout from the divorce does. Two people who were barely scraping by together became two people who were weren’t scraping by. My father in a cheap apartment and my mother went into debt. Mother dated and married even worse the second time. My father never remarried.

    I missed having a dad around simply to give me the advice that sons need to get from their dads. I saw my dad on weekends and he did what he could in that time, but it’s not the same. Perhaps it would have been better in an age of instant and free communication, or perhaps not. I love my dad, but I hated having to schedule my weekends around him.

    I have no siblings. I did have an older step brother and step sister from my mother’s second marriage. Now I don’t.

    I hate the assumption that children of divorce are either completely resilient or completely damaged. I had problems in life that were totally unrelated to the divorce.

    Also, I often feel like I don’t have a right to complain because so many of my peers had things so much worse. My parents’ divorce was mostly amicable, no adultery, there were no custody fights, and both were in my life.

    My parents divorce made my extremely cynical toward the Church. If you follow all the rules, you can still get divorced and then some “helpful” priest will find grounds for annulment. Yet these “rules” do not help my parents find a good marriage. Another “helpful” priest solemnized her second marriage, even though it was known that there were grounds for nullity before the wedding. Not surprisingly, this marriage ended in divorce and annulment too. Strict rules against remarriage may not have saved my parents’ marriage, but they would have protected her from herself.

    I am not against divorce, especially if there are no children involved. My best friend’s wife had a brief, disastrous first marriage that ended within two years with no children. Even if one holds a strict view of marriage, there was nothing in that relationship to save. But if there are children, you have an obligation to them to work it out.

  • Great, informative article. ALL people of divorce should read. Thanks for sharing Jennifer!

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