Some of my brothers bear the marks of our family crest inked into the skin of their bicep, shoulder, or thigh. It is a thistle and a bee with the words Dulcius ex asperis, Sweeter Through Tribulation.
Our surname may be the only thing they inherited from our father, whom they do not call father any longer. They use his first name or “that man” or some other choice and charged words inappropriate for print. Ferguson means “Son of the Angry Man,” and some of these sons seem set to make good on it.
My parents divorced in 2003. I was living in Central America teaching English when the voice came through the phone, and it felt another world away. They had been separated for nearly two years, but really, who was counting? They'd been fighting for a few years by then and, like the nails in my 14 year-old brother's coffin, their marriage was buried.
In divorce two people divvy up belongings, houses, finances, and finally children. But before all that, they divide themselves. I came home to our white farmhouse on the hill, the grass now overgrown, antique family heirlooms disappearing, my teetotaler mother drinking wine and shrinking away. A house divided by a divided mother.
“To be human is to have our being, to be made real, as this person belonging to these people. And this is what’s so painful about divorce. It ruptures the ‘this people’ that provides children the strength to embrace their own ‘this person.’ It ruptures ontological security,” writes Andrew Root in Young People, Divorce, and Youth Ministry.
Dividing children—what does it even mean? Are we dividing children from their parents? From one another? Or dividing them even from themselves? Even at 23 I felt the division of my soul when the subpoena papers were delivered once, twice, three times to my apartment door. The custody battle wasn't just for the bodies of my youngest brothers, it was for the allegiances of their older siblings, too. Legally a child can choose which parent to live with at a certain age—but there is no age when that choice doesn't cut through the identity and marrow of the child they both made with one flesh.
Before divorce we were a family; after divorce he became “your father” and she, “your mother,” as though we children bore the weight and responsibility of all their sins because he was mine and she was mine, and they were one another's no longer. As if it was our fault we were the progeny of two people who couldn't make flesh stick.
“This is one of the most difficult consequences of parental separation. It throws division into a student’s identity… the young person now needs to figure out who he’ll be in the future and who he’ll be now that there is a division in the union of the communion that created him.” (Young People, Divorce, and Youth Ministry)
Divorce, to the children, is not a gift as much as the gathering of the wrapping and bows for the garbage. But for so many parents, divorce is the gift, the ticket to freedom and newness. With the added benefit of legal permission to war against someone they promised to love, honor, and cherish until death—sometimes a battle with all manner of ammunition, including their children.
I have met few who would say their parents' divorce was for the best—their mother was being abused or their father was a serial philanderer. Almost every person I have asked would say it wasn't in the best interest of the child, and they know because they are that child.
The forgotten casualty
Yet in all this, the forgotten casualty was not the child himself—most divorcees try their best to minimize damages to the children—no: the forgotten casualty of divorce is what might have been.
Because we believe the goodness of God keeps us within the safe and pleasant boundaries of His will, we can trust that what is is also what might have been. But all it takes is a look at my holiday calendar to dwell on what might have been.
Family portraits—always lacking.
Weddings—one parent always missing.
The list goes on.
From here to as far as I can see in the future, there is division. That division is never not there for the child of divorce. For the rest of their life they feel that division constantly and acutely. God can heal, and indeed does, and there are testimonies of those who say they wouldn’t be where they are today without the wounding of divorce. Jesse Chaney, whose parents divorced when he was in middle school says, “Because it happened, I know it to be the better situation, because I have seen God’s sovereignty at work.” But what could we say had it never happened? That is the forgotten casualty of divorce.
For the good of the children
For the good of the children means to account for the rest of their lives during the heated argument. For the good of the children means to flee from adultery and the boastful pride of life—that which offers short-lived pleasure and long-lived pain. For the good of the children means when the fighting won't stop, the anger won't abate, the manipulation can't be avoided, the finances won't get under control, you press on. The dissolution of the marriage covenant puts the full weight of those sins on the child alone.
Please think of that, parent, if you cannot see any way out of this difficulty but through divorce. Think of your child bearing the full weight of your spouse's sin on their own shoulders—without you, by himself, by herself—because they will. For the rest of their lives they will bear the weight of what you decided you could not—and they cannot divorce themselves from it, hard as they try. It will be branded on them as clearly as my brothers' tattoos; they are the sons of an angry man, and that's all some of them know to be.
For the good of the children, do not get divorced if you can help it. For the good of the children, bear on your body the mark of covenant, the suffering of your own flesh for your own flesh, the sacrificial example of a parent who stays. Bear the name you took or gave, bear it well. For the good of the children who will someday be mothers and fathers considering the weight of their own marriages.
Dulcius ex asperis. Sweeter through tribulation.
Note: Like most evangelicals, I understand that the Scriptures make some limited provisions for divorce in a fallen world. The safety of any children involved needs to be a top priority.