When divorced children are grown up "My biggest fear is that this happens to me too"
By Teresa Sickert
What traces does an experience of separation leave in the parents’ house for the children? Three now divorced children talk about their attitudes and fears about love and partnership. One realization: the separation of parents is one of the most formative experiences in life.
"When my parents broke up, I was 17, it was 1998 and it was actually a mess, I would say."
Sebastian Ebel  is a post-child. This is the term used to refer to children who have already experienced their parents’ divorce.
"The separation as such was almost a relief. Rather, I thought: Now you finally do it, now is the time."
In 1998, the year in which Ebels parents separated, 157 thousand minors were divorced. The divorce rate in Germany reached an all-time high in the following years.
"In fact, the trigger for the separation was that my father had a new relationship and this relationship really shocked me severely, I never expected that because I was very much concerned with this woman – who is now my father’s new wife to this day knew very well."
Long-term study with over 60 divorce families
And so the relief for Ebel is short-lived. The long overcooled atmosphere at home continues to tip over after the father’s fraud becomes public.
"Then the mud fight really started. Of course, because my mother was deeply injured and it still is, I always notice that. And then my parents also found no more interaction with each other, could no longer speak to each other and actually it continues to this day – that they find no interaction, could not talk about it and still cannot speak about it today."
"Yes, parents play a very important role in this. Because it is their tendency to conflict that stresses the children and that also leads to separation. And then they have to come back to a cooperation after the divorce, especially with regard to the care of the child. They have to do it somehow. If there is a conflictual relationship between the two, the child gets into conflicts of loyalty. Then, from the child’s perspective, the divorce does not help much."
Some daughters who rarely see their fathers and grow up alone with their mother lack contact with male roles. (Imago floor & people)
So the divorcee Ulrich Schmidt-Denter. He did a long-term study with over 60 divorce families in the 1990s. The professor emeritus for developmental and educational psychology therefore knows that the phase after the separation is crucial for children and adolescents. Now the parents should show an example of how a separation can be managed. Divorce children are better off in the long term if the parents cooperate after the divorce and avoid conflict situations. And: when the family builds partnerships and intact relationships again.
"The processing of the separation process naturally also depends on how the parents, especially the mother, with whom they mostly live, shape their further relationship. That means whether she stays single and the daughter may never really develop a concept, what is a man? What are relationships with a man? How are they designed? All of this influences the concept of young people in relation to a couple."
"What I think was very difficult for me, now in retrospect, was age – especially as a woman, when you don’t see your father so regularly anymore. Because my father left at exactly the time when I became a woman and it was often the case that it was strange for him to accept me as a slowly adolescent as a woman."
Emilia Zessen’s  parents separated two times. The first time she was 12, the second 15 years old. Then the separation remained and the mother was alone for now. The father had new women, was no longer part of everyday life and only child Emilia became the partner replacement for her mother.
Children feel responsible for the salvation of their parents
"Then I was suddenly for the conversation partner and then she told me a lot, when I think in retrospect that it wasn’t so cool that she told me all of it: that she was mad at him, what she told him about everything feels – any details that I wouldn’t have needed at that age."
Many children of divorce feel responsible for the salvation of their parents: they want to be strong and take on the role of parents after the divorce. And then at some point they grew up themselves – and suffer from their missed childhood.
Emotional abuse is when the parents take advantage of their children’s mental health services, says the Berlin psychotherapist and couple therapist Miriam Junge. Manipulation, intrigue or trying to pull the child to one side can sometimes cause serious wounds. They often show up later in their own behavior in adulthood.
"And then I work with schema-therapeutic interventions. Which means trying to see that inner child that is suffering. That is with very big sad eyes: I do not know why I can not decide and I feel guilty and the patient often feels this guilt in adulthood – with a jealousy and anger and a mixture of very explosive feelings that can not be classified are. And if you can then establish the connection to the inner child, which is maybe four, five, six years old, then it is suddenly completely open and accessible and mostly that is when the patient is emotionally here with me is. And we can work on it and be sad and be able to take care of it and leave space for these feelings so that it changes today."
"He took something from me, he took small pieces from me, small pieces over time, so small that I didn’t notice. He wanted me to be something that I wasn’t and I made myself what he wanted. I lied for him, jeopardized my career and agreed to get married and wear a ring and be a bride. Until I stood there in a wedding dress, without eyebrows and I was no longer Christina Yang. And even then I would have married him. I had lost myself for a long time."
In order for love to last, some separation child bends for the partner – such as the tough doctor Christina Yang, one of the heroines of Grey’s Anatomy. The American doctor series has been awarded several Emmys and Golden Globes. It’s actually about the relationship problems of thirtysomethings. The series has been a success for over ten years – also in Germany. Probably because it shows the uncertainties of today. The pressure on young adults: you have to give everything, you have to be successful, flexible, you have to have yourself under control. For some, the relationship becomes home in such a situation – for others, it becomes a prison.
"At the end of the relationship I asked myself, where did I go in the relationship? I make a lot of compromises and then avoid the conflicts because I myself don’t like the situation, that there is n conflict, and that’s because I simply don’t have the confidence that this relationship will last forever. And then I probably think subconsciously: I have to make everything beautiful, everything right, then it’ll hold. "
The divorce of the parents remains hidden
When Emilia Zessen’s relationship breaks up, the 32-year-old realizes: The feeling of guilt or being guilty has haunted her all her life. Even if it gave the appearance to herself and to herself, the separation of the parents was not that bad.
"So I’m only now, in my early 30s, gradually working through everything that has done to me and I believe that it had a huge impact on me. Back then it was the best thing I could do to deal with it – it is still the easier way for me to be strong and rely on myself than to go anywhere and tell someone how I feel. That’s what I’m only really learning now. And it never came – interestingly never – anyone from my family, even grandparents or something, asked me: How are you actually doing with it??"
"Most of them are very positive about their past. That was good now and I coped well with everything and then you notice with such small, small tones that a lot of grief or injury or anger or fear or all sorts of things was repackaged and actually shows dysfunctional today. And then this is looked at again very specifically and then comes out after three or four sessions – yes, it wasn’t that great. In the end you can reconcile yourself with it. But that leaves its mark. Everybody, actually."
Depression or burnout – separating parents can have psychological consequences. (Imago floor & people)
In fact, processing a divorce is a lifelong task for children and teenagers. Between 1998 and 2004 alone this affected almost 1.3 million children and adolescents. The effects of parental separation are strongest in the first few months and gradually decrease with time. Still, divorce is a cumulative experience for children. In later development tasks, the problem becomes acute again and again and the consequences are experienced in different ways.
"If you get married yourself, but also at family celebrations, let’s say you have a high school diploma, there is the question again, do you invite the father, who may already have his own family, with him or not. Then the whole thing comes up again. Or when you get to the age at which your parents divorced, you may have experienced a crisis."
Stomach pain, speech loss, depression
The major life decisions in the first three decades after the separation – such as entering professional life, being cut off from the family home and also choosing one’s own partner – are overlaid by these processes unlike non-divorce children. In any case, today’s young adults face major challenges: Parents’ prosperity can no longer be achieved, employment relationships are insecure and require ever greater mobility and flexibility, families rarely live in one place to support each other. All of these are additional burdens for relationships. Many adult children of divorce do not get along at a later stage in life, or do so worse because their resources are already exhausted from internal conflicts. Possible consequences: Depression, adjustment or delimitation disorders, fears, panic or physical complaints.
"People who suddenly have a great fear of being left in the here and now, or a panic disorder as a reaction to stress or occupational stress that then gets the outlet of fear, is often the cause of early childhood separation difficulties can imagine that collected emotions are in one. They are there, they don’t go out and if you don’t let these feelings out by speaking or by other problem solving, then they accumulate and find their outlet in a psychological symptom."
When it comes to letting go, divorced children may face major challenges. There is the dismissal by the employer, a death or the end of a relationship and suddenly you can no longer cope – not at all.
A lump in the throat, headache, back pain, stomach pain, loss of speech, depression, withdrawal, burn-out, loss of interest.
Nonetheless, post-divorce children do not necessarily become unhappy or failed adults. Many factors play a role in this, says psychotherapist Junge.
"How resilient the person was, how the environment was at that time from the one child, how the parents dealt with it, whether it was alone, whether it was not alone, how much it packaged the problem and managed to cope with retreat or me I’m super strong, so overcompensation (.)."
If the family has not broken up completely after the divorce, but can still be dealt with, this can also be an opportunity.
"I think: It is a lot of greatness if you just let things run their course without someone making the other bad. It was never the case that Mommy said "Oh dad and here and there and that’s not possible". And Papa never made mom bad, so it was always friendly, nice and kind. Nobody portrayed anyone badly, nobody forbade anyone to see anyone, if we wanted to see Dad, we could do it. If we didn’t feel like it, nobody was angry. (.) So everything was just as before. Just not in an apartment anymore."
Cooperative parents make it easier for their children
Dana Kaselow’s parents separated when she was 14 – without a war of roses, without intrigue and without tugging at the two children together. Dana Kaselow stays with her mother and brother after the separation in the old apartment, continues to the same school, friends and environment remain the same. Her father’s new apartment can be reached on foot. As a youngster, Kaselow was desperate for a while and later jealous of her parents’ new partners. Today the 29-year-old is married herself. And the whole family is happy with the new constellation.
"Mum married again, so my dad and his girlfriend were also at the wedding. For my own wedding they even slept together in a finca. So somehow all of this shows that maybe that was the right decision back then. You are both happy. Everyone has a new partner with whom they are happy, satisfied. So I think that everything was fine.
I have respect for how the two of them dealt with each other despite this separation and whether I could do it myself if I ever find myself in such a situation. I do not know if that is so … So I find it admirable. And I think I could learn from that if I ever came into such a situation. So I would definitely consult mom and dad and ask for advice on how they managed it back then."
Divorce of parents influences one’s own attachment concept
Many children of divorce are not as lucky as Dana Kaselow that the parents still understand each other after the divorce. The environment often changes. Emilia Zessen is looking for a replacement for the broken family. Shortly after the separation of the parents – at the age of 15 – she has her first boyfriend.
"… he just had the completely opposite family picture at home. The world was really still in order: the parents together, another sister and then I spent an incredible amount of time there. And in retrospect, I also know that I found my little family there, which I no longer had in my own."
"Yes, it has been shown that, especially for girls, the interest in heterosexual relationships is earlier than for girls from complete families, that they also have more frequent partner changes, but marry later than girls from complete families. You can already see a certain level of uncertainty in the bond concept."
Finds divorcee Ulrich Schmidt-Denter.
Grey’s Anatomy: "Because what if you learn that you need love and then you don’t have it. What if you like it and you rely on it. What if you shape your life around them and then it. falling apart. Can you survive this pain at all? Losing love is like organ damage. It’s like dying. The only difference is: death ends. but that – can go on forever."
Meredith Gray is the main character from Grey’s Anatomy. A doctor and a separation child who struggles with love. The feelings that the series heroine describes seem to know many young people from divorced families. The pain of loss is also deep with Emilia Zessen.
Afraid to make the same mistakes
"What are you afraid of?"
"Boah, I didn’t cry all the time. The biggest fear actually, which I would have in the context, is that I also have a partner with whom I have been with for a long time, we are getting married, having children and then it happens to them.
It is probably such fears that prevent many divorced children from entering into deep and binding relationships. Why they run away before it gets too painful. There are no positive role models. And the inner ideas of how bonds and relationships work are shaped in childhood. They have a lifelong effect and influence the later formation of social relationships.
"I actually asked my father once, she was actually happy at the beginning. And then he gave me the terrifying answer: we were never really happy. (…) This is also a point that I had to learn in relationships, that you treat each other in a nice and loving way and that they also do things actively and sometimes say nice things and rather confirm themselves. Actually, I didn’t learn that from my parents and lived it."
Of course, there are also loveless relationships without separation – they are also stressful for the children concerned. Still, it’s hardly surprising that when asked what love means to him, Sebastian Ebel quotes Don Draper – the creative director of an advertising company from the Mad Men series.
"You mean love You mean the big flash in the heart where you can’t eat and you can’t work and you just go away and marry and make babies. The reason why you didn’t feel it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell stockings. You were born alone and you die alone and this world is showering you with rules so that you forget these facts."
"Hmm. So Don Draper from Mad Men says yes, people like him invented love to sell women’s tights – my attitude to the term love has also changed a bit. Also since analogous to the concept of marriage, I thought in the 20s that there really isn’t. It’s kind of a construct of what society came up with. In fact, it really comes from such a romantic idea, but I definitely don’t know what people have come up with. I think love is actually a special affection for a person that is very, very strong. I think that’s love for me. God, that sounds very technical. But somehow yes."
Sebastian Ebel is 36 and lives in a stable partnership without children. A few years ago, he could not even imagine getting married.
"And I now understand that it is somehow a very nice promise that you can give yourself and that’s okay too. I can understand that more now, although it really no longer has the security it once had – if you do it once, you stay together until the end of your life. This is no longer the case. Nevertheless, I believe that these marriage vows in some form already give you security and make it difficult to separate."
Divorced children divorce more often
Based on their experience, adult children of divorce see the solution of relationship problems in a separation, or divorce, rather than people from core families living together. Women who grew up as children of divorces divorce almost twice as often after 20 years of marriage – around 28 percent in total. In men, this probability increases by more than twice: the divorce rate is almost 48 percent for them and almost 16 for men from whole families.
"One should not make a marriage with the promise: You stay together, no matter what, until death. Because everyone just suffers from it."
But what is the solution? Divorcee Schmidt-Denter.
"It is known from divorce research, from family psychology, that partners with an unsettled attachment concept have a higher divorce rate. Particularly concerns relationships in which both have an unsettled educational concept. So you could jokingly say that if you already have one as a divorce child, you should choose a partner who is sure of your attachment."
Romantic, realist, pessimist?
Not so easy for the generation of divorced children around the turn of the millennium. The divorce rate at that time was almost 50 percent. Divorces are still part of normal society today, and it is clear to the children of divorce that this can also happen to me. But, you can do it better, Sebastian Ebel thinks.
"They played us out a bit against each other, also used us to hurt the other. Not so big, but a lot of small things. Perhaps it was even a little bit that they then discussed the separation as such too little with us. Rather, we were faced with fait accompli. And now, in retrospect, I think I would say that you can involve the children there – we were already older – more. And they didn’t do that. Of course it is, there is of course not the perfect way and the silver bullet and everyone who goes through something like that probably makes mistakes – but surely it is better than my parents did."
Miriam Junge has been observing in her practice for several years that couples in their 30s want to work on their relationships again – after a long period of non-commitment, driven by superficial dating apps.
"That is certainly also due to this Tinder trend. Somehow there was a big uproar. So, oh God, we don’t really want all of that. The trend is definitely going back towards ‘I want long-term relationships’."
The exclusive love relationship is still an ideal. With the difference that you could only live out such a love relationship in the form of marriage. It’s different today. Loving goes without a marriage certificate. But maybe the children of divorce are more skeptical about marriage because they are afraid of the promise "until death do us part" unable to comply. The marriage is disenchanted. You have always experienced failure in your own family, with friends and acquaintances. More often than no other generation before.
"Well, if you deal with it a lot and then now when the parents are no longer together, there is of course a lot of romance. However, I believe that it is not only clarity, but that it is an attempt to find a way to a partner who does not have to be perfect now. You just can’t expect everything to be perfect and the sky full of violins and it’s totally n drama when something happens. Of course it’s a drama at first. But I think if a person is important to you and if you think that’s who I am now, then you should try to go other ways."
Sensitized to imbalances
Dealing with the fear that love will pass is not easy and the processing strategies are varied and individual, says couple therapist Junge. There are relationship romantics who close their eyes and want to stay with their partner at all costs. But there are also the pessimists who are very suspicious, reluctant to get involved or even afraid of relationships. And: there are realists.
". which says okay is a relationship, even if my parents got divorced, there is a possibility that I can get a divorce, but I try to approach it realistically and not have the big romantic expectations. Because I definitely think that romance is always bad for a long-term marriage, because we cannot find our soulmate romantically and look into the heads of others, that always means work. And getting involved and getting involved in crises and solving conflicts – through frequent help or through self-reflection."
"Of course I’m afraid that love will pass away. Then how do you deal with it? What do you do when love is no longer there? Because then you have to make a decision somehow. I’m definitely afraid of it because I know it’s just not fun. This is definitely not nice. That’s why I’m rather inexperienced when it comes to something and rather plunge into measures that create loyalty. So we bought a car together, something like that. And I moved in with my new girlfriend relatively quickly, or rather think: Well, come on, do it now, because I feel like it and have the feeling that it fits now and that would make a separation much more difficult , because we now live together, now we have also bought a car, we have a garden together. We’d have to, even though we’ve only been together for two years … we’d actually need a divorce lawyer if we split up, but I don’t care. Maybe I try to keep her with expensive purchases because she’s in it and then she can’t get out of it."
Lifelong love is possible
Lifelong love and a fulfilled partnership are also possible for adult children after marriage – if they manage to develop a realistic view of their parents’ relationship, of themselves and their own partnerships. Getting there is sometimes difficult, but it’s worth it. Dana Kaselow and Sebastian Ebel do not believe that they are protected from separation, but are sensitized to difficulties in their relationships. Perhaps the children of divorce at the turn of the millennium, the hopeful relational realists of the present who have learned from their parents’ mistakes.
"Sure, at least you always look at your own relationships that you have with such glasses. I think I would be more sensitive to it than my parents. In fact, they also come from another generation and had no divorce role models, so to speak, have never experienced this themselves and I believe that if you have been through something like this as a child or adolescent, then you are probably sensitized – I would say now."
"So of course I do not hope that I will break up. But I think that being a divorce child myself would make it easier for me to deal with it. So I know there is. And I think you would somehow get along with it."
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