St. John Chrysostom says, “the love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together.” But what if you are a child of divorce, and the love between your parents proved incapable of holding your own family together, much less society? Where, in this world of false freedom and loose commitments, can an adult child of divorce turn for strong examples of holy marriage?
This is a question I’ve reflected on often throughout my life. My parents divorced when I was eleven years old, and I think of that chapter as the time when my childhood ended. I’m not saying that to sound dramatic. It is simply honest. Navigating adult issues and emotions forces a child to grow up quickly, regardless of how amicable the situation might be, or how much effort adults devote to shielding their children from the aftermath.
Still, I remember feeling drawn to the idea of marriage from a young age. In high school, I had an experience that sealed my desire for marriage as something stronger and more deeply rooted than all my other aspirations.
It happened in my junior year Theology class. A guest speaker shared his testimony of how chastity had been a key part of his relationship with his fiancée. I listened to him describe how purity had helped him and his future bride center their relationship on God, giving them a strong foundation for a marriage built to last, and I remember thinking, That’s what I want.
It might seem like a small moment, but most pivotal moments do seem small at the time. Either way, I know now that this young man and his humble reflection provided me with the first tangible example of what I believed marriage should look like, and of what I wanted for myself when I was older.
Now, a decade removed from that day in Theology, and more than fifteen years since my parents’ divorce, I am engaged and preparing for my own marriage this year. As you can imagine, I’ve done a great deal of introspection on my ideas about marriage and where they came from, what it means to be a wife and eventually a mother, and what is to be expected in my relationship with my husband.
I have also required a fair amount of healing. My journey toward the altar has brought to light wounds I never even knew I had from navigating divorce. With that, I would like to share five things that have helped me prepare for marriage as an adult child of divorce.
A greater appreciation for the permanence of marriage
Any hardship can produce either bitterness or improvement. History can either repeat itself, or it can spark a change for the better.
While we should all ideally be able to rest in the peace that marital love--whether our own or our parents’--is permanent and unconditional, divorce provided me a constant reminder that marriage requires work to remain healthy and thriving.
I know many whose parents are still married, and those individuals also have a tremendous appreciation for marriage and its permanence. I would in no way imply that children of divorce are more likely to value that aspect of marriage than their peers from intact families. I can definitely say, however, that for me personally, encountering divorce as a child forced me to evaluate marriage early on and decide what it meant to me, and what I would want if I got married one day.
For me, that extra element of reflection and intentionality made a huge difference in certain decisions I made as I got older, like striving for chastity and choosing to make faith a key component of my romantic relationships. Strewn throughout my dating life were subtle habits and tendencies--mostly faith centered--that I believed would help “divorce-proof” my future marriage, because that security was extremely important to me.
Trusting in the grace of the sacrament
It’s often said God will not give us more than what he knows we can handle. As Catholics, we believe when we receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, we gain special graces that will help us fully live out our vocation to married life.
Coming from a broken home, it was no secret to me that marriage brings obstacles and challenges, many of which test the bond of commitment between husband and wife. As I grew older and reflected on the struggles that led to the breakdown of my household, it wasn’t unusual for me to become discouraged by doubt. I wondered how couples overcome trials or simply recovered from arguments, and wondered whether a lasting marriage is an unrealistic expectation in the world we live in.
This is where understanding grace played a significant role for me.
When a couple receives the sacrament of marriage, they likewise receive all the graces necessary to help them fulfill their vocation: as spouses to each other, as parents to their children, and living out the universal call to holiness in their individual lives--ultimately gaining eternal salvation. Of course, this doesn't mean marriage will be easy, or that doing what is required of us always feels good or provides immediate fulfillment.
But it does mean we have all the tools we need to live out our marriage in accord with God’s plan and be sanctified by it, because we have the unyielding support of sacramental grace.
The sacramental aspect of marriage acknowledges God’s indispensable role in the relationship between husband and wife, a reminder that marriage is not something we do alone. In order to be successful, we need to constantly rely on God and on the graces of the sacrament, in sacrifice and in radical trust.
Making peace with the past
Throughout my dating experiences, especially as I became more serious about marriage and became engaged, it was important for me to make peace with my past. This mainly meant talking to each of my parents about what happened in their marriage that led to the divorce. Not only did these conversations help me piece together a narrative I would not have been able to process as a child, they also shed light on some of the issues capable of driving marriages apart.
I have been fortunate to have a strong relationship with my parents, both of whom were gentle and understanding with me over the years as I came to them with questions. Their candor allowed me the opportunity to explore our shared situation and to better my own understanding of marriage. I realize, however, that such openness is not possible in all divorce situations. In those cases, there are other ways a person can make peace with her past and find the healing necessary to move forward.
More recently, I was very fortunate to stumble upon a discussion group specifically geared toward adult children of divorce who share the Catholic faith. With this group’s support and shared insight, I've been able to revisit many questions and thoughts I’ve carried with me from various points in my journey. Several members of this group have been married for many years, and talking with them about their experiences has given me valuable insight and perspective.
Talking to good priests and mentors
Marriage preparation and sessions with a priest have been so much more than just another item to check off the wedding list. God has placed so many wonderful priests in the lives of my fiancé and I who have guided us in our spiritual journey.
I have been blessed, in particular, by two priests whom I’ve leaned on and sought out at all stages of this process. Both are wise and holy men whom I know are deeply invested in the fruitfulness of our lives and in the success of our marriage. They have guided me in spiritual direction and are always willing to discuss whatever dilemma or anxiety is on my mind. They have answered all my difficult questions and provided peace when I needed it most.
My fiancé and I are also grateful to have met many married couples through our work for the Church; couples who image what it means to embrace God’s plan for marriage. Some of them are older and several steps ahead of us, but many are our own friends and peers who are able to walk with us side-by-side, as we venture into uncharted territory together.
Priests and mentors are great resources when it comes to journeying through the spiritual life. There is truly strength in numbers. Creating a network of support around yourself and your relationship can make a huge difference in your marriage. When building a support system for your marriage, it is important to look for individuals who advocate for the unity in your relationship, and who will not take sides or create division during times of struggle.
If you are healing from a broken home as you prepare for marriage, I highly recommend finding a priest you feel comfortable talking to and allowing him to walk with you on your journey.
Looking to the Holy Family
Finally, if you ever feel at a loss for a good model of marriage and family, especially in a culture where it can be difficult to find examples of holy marriages, our Catholic faith gives us an excellent blueprint in the holy family.
When I struggle with my image of what a wife and mother should be, I find consolation in talking to Mary. When I need a reminder of what familial love looks like in God’s plan, it helps to reflect on the interactions between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
Overall, the challenges we experience are part of what shape us into the people we become. Our wounds can become our strengths if we invite God in and allow him to heal us. And while divorce has been a painful part of my past, I have faith that with the constant help of God and the sacraments, my marriage will be built to last.
About the Author: Alexa is a 2013 graduate of The Catholic University of America, where she earned her B.S. in Biology with a minor in Psychology. She serves as the Assistant Director for Youth, Young Adult and Family Ministry for the Diocese of Allentown, where she has been happily employed since 2014. Alexa and her fiancé Patrick got engaged in December 2016, and are excitedly planning and preparing for a June 2018 marriage. Together they enjoy Cracker Barrel breakfasts, long walks around Barnes & Noble, and deciding which bridal expos have the best cake samples. Alexa's hobbies include writing, photography, and drinking coffee.