The Emotional Side of Divorce
About the Guest
Pastor Dave Wilson and his wife, Ann, talk to Ron Deal, Director of FamilyLife Blended, about the hard realities of his parents' divorce when he was seven years old. Dave recalls his family's last Christmas Eve together, when they arrived home from church to find Santa's gifts waiting for them. The next morning, Dad was gone. Hear firsthand how divorce impacts a child.
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Dave and Ann Wilson talk to Ron Deal about the hard realities of his parents’ divorce when he was seven years old. Hear firsthand how divorce impacts a child.
The Emotional Side of Divorce
Bob: Dave Wilson remembers having a very strained relationship with his father once his parents got a divorce.
Dave: When he would come up, it would usually get ugly—he would drink; he would get loud. I’d go hide in the bedroom—wait until it was over—until the storm cleared. That was my experience with my dad. I remember that in middle school; then high school. And then, I hated this—right after the divorce—seven, eight, nine years old—I, for whatever reason, had to go see my dad at Christmas. I would fly to Miami, Florida, on Christmas morning.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 18th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. Growing up in a home where mom and dad divorce will have a lot of ramifications for how we relate to one another as we get older. We’ll hear more about that from Dave Wilson today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. Well, you guys have not been at this all that long; but it’s become very clear that—at least, with you, Dave—you need a counseling session. [Laughter]
Dave: It’s never Ann; is it?
Dave: Has my wife been talking to you, Bob? Ann?
Ann: I’m very excited about this session. It is going to be a counseling session. [Laughter]
Dave: This is not going to be a counseling session—I don’t do that! I’ve already done that actually. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes; you have done it.
Dave: I’m all good. I’m perfect now.
Ann: But there’s ways more, honey—ways more.
Bob: Oh, I love this dynamic.
Dave: I think this is an intervention. That’s what this is.
Bob: Here’s what it is—
Ron: It’s an ambush.
Bob: —we have got our friend, Ron Deal, who is joining us today. Welcome, Ron.
Ron: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Bob: Ron gives leadership to FamilyLife Blended® and is pretty excited about what’s coming up here in three or four weeks—the Blended and Blessed® event that’s going to be taking place?
Ron: It’s our annual livestream event that can be viewed from anywhere in the world, which is amazing. Think about it—all day: music, worship, speakers—topics specifically addressing marriage and parenting in the blended family. Our theme, by the way, is going to be “Keeping in Step with the Spirit”—a little pun there: “keeping in Step”—talking about the fruits of the Spirit and how we live that out in a blended family.
Bob: This takes place—it originates in Minneapolis; but churches, and living rooms, and—
Ron: —cell phones,—
Bob: —and personal computers—all around the world, people are going to be watching this.
Ron: Very easy to be a part of that. Your church can host it for a nominal fee. You can watch it for even less, as an individual couple. You can have couples in your living room if you want—lots of ways to participate.
Bob: So go to FamilyLifeToday.com if you want more information about the upcoming Blended and Blessed event. What’s the date?
Ron: April 27th, Saturday.
Bob: Saturday, April 27th. Again, information’s available at FamilyLifeToday.com. You guys are going to be speaking; and part of the reason you’re speaking at this event is because, Dave, this is a part of your history.
Dave: This is a big part of my history. It’s actually something I haven’t talked a lot about. That’s why Ann’s so excited to dig into this. [Laughter] But yes, it’s—you know, when I was seven years old, my family sort of blew up; and that’s where it all started.
Ron: You know, I want to tell our listeners the reason we’re spending time talking about this is because Dave doesn’t have a unique experience. Currently, right now in the U.S., ten to twenty percent of children have a stepparent. About one-third of all kids will have a stepparent before they turn age 18. This is not a unique experience; it’s a very common experience.
One of the things we like to do is help raise the awareness of parents/of stepparents—but also friends, family, grandparents—people who love and care for somebody in a blended family situation so that you can become more aware of how to help/how to encourage someone in a stepfamily. We appreciate Dave’s willingness to talk about this.
Ann: Me, too; I’m appreciating this too. [Laughter]
Ron: Let’s just start with a story a little bit. You mentioned, I think, it was, when you were seven, your mom and dad split up.
Dave: Yes, it was interesting; you know, it’s the early ‘60s—back then, I honestly don’t remember a divorced family. I know, at my elementary school, I was the only kid in the classroom—35 kids—with not a dad at home. Different day today, but that was very unique. We lived in New Jersey at the time—I was born there. My dad was an airline pilot with Eastern Airlines. Anybody old enough in this room to remember Eastern? [Laughter]
Ron: I do remember that.
Bob: Exactly; yes.
Dave: Yes; it was interesting—at that time, even though I was very young, I didn’t appreciate it; but we were sort of a wealthy family. He actually built homes on the side in a gated community in New Jersey. I grew up sort of in a big house with two older brothers and a sister. They were actually ten to twelve to fourteen years older than me and then a little brother about a year-and-a-half younger than me. You know, at that time, you would have looked at our family—the Wilsons were like the perfect American family.
Ron: From the outside, looked really good.
Dave: Really, really good—wealthy and nice home; and again, gated community. It looked just like a perfect marriage. I actually sort of thought that, as a little kid.
It's interesting—I actually blocked a lot of this out. It’s hard, sometimes, to even remember; but I do remember fights/yelling—a lot of alcohol. I remember my brothers taking me and my sister away from the family room, upstairs, to get away from the fights between Mom and Dad.
My dad was a drinker. He wasn’t a happy drunk—he was a mean—sort of would get out of control. That’s what I remember, as a little boy.
Ron: You mentioned, from the outside, your family looked really good. I wonder—sometimes, children’s experience of their family, prior to a divorce/a break up is, “Yes; we’re really good.” You remember some hard things—some fights—but looking back, are you one of those kids?—like you just didn’t see it coming.
Dave: Oh, I did not see it coming. In fact, the night it happened was Christmas Eve. The whole family went to church. We all come back to the house—again, big house. We walk in; and while we were gone, Santa had shown up. The entire family room was just presents everywhere—more presents than I had ever seen in my life. We were told, “Open them tonight, not tomorrow; tonight.”
Of course, a little five-/six-/seven-year-old kid is just ripping things apart. Every gift I could have ever imagined—we got that year. You can imagine why; I didn’t know. The next morning, Christmas day, I woke up; Dad was gone. It was his last hurrah or sort of “See you later.” Of course, we woke up Christmas morning; and I can remember sort of asking my mom, “Where’s Dad?” That’s when she said, “Well, he’s gone.” Of course, I didn’t know forever; but eventually, I realized—and my little brother—“He’s gone.” We didn’t really know what the word, “divorce,” meant; but eventually, that’s what it ended up being: “We’re without a dad.”
Ron: Do you remember any particular emotions at that point in time? Now, I know you’re still making sense of it. You’re seven, and it’s hard sometimes to make sense of things when you’re that age; but looking back, do you remember any particular emotions that stood out?
Dave: Again, a lot of it I don’t remember. I didn’t get angry; I was discouraged. I just remember thinking, in one way: “Well, he’ll be back. He’s not gone-gone.” But I do remember, over time, he didn’t come back; he didn’t come back. When he did, it was pop in; pop out. I can remember fights again. It was not a fun moment when he would come in. I also remember he didn’t seem to pay any attention to me and Craig. He was there to talk to my mom, whatever, and go.
They were still, obviously—now, I know they’re still working through the details of what this was going to look like—but he was off, and I found out later he was off with girlfriends. He had mistresses. I didn’t know until I was probably 28. My sister told me, “I don’t know if you know this, but Dad used to take you and Craig on vacations with his girlfriends when he was still married to Mom.” I’m like, “What are you talking…” I didn’t remember any of that, but we would go on trips with Dad’s mistresses.
Ron: Just real quickly—fast forward to 28/30 years of age—you find out there’s more to the betrayal.
Dave: Oh, found out a lot more.
Ann: Well, it’s interesting, Ron, too—that I think is one of the pieces that Dave didn’t mention—was something that happened to his brother very soon after the divorce.
Dave: Yes; well, the short story was my mom now is a single mom.
Dave: She’s like, “How am I going to rebuild my life?” My two brothers and older sister were off to college and beyond—they were that much older. It was really Mom and myself and Craig. We moved to Ohio. Why Ohio?—that’s where her parents lived. We moved to get help and start a new life. That’s traumatic. I had a dog I loved—a German shepherd named Sarge—somehow, he didn’t make it to Ohio.
Again, I lose my dad/lose the marriage and then probably—I don’t know exact timeline—three to four months later, we find out Craig has leukemia. Within six weeks, he dies. There’s no bone marrow transplants back then. It was very quick and, obviously, traumatic as I walked through the divorce; the move; and now; my best friend/my little brother is gone.
Ron: Okay; so let me just recap what I’m hearing.
By the way, Bob, I’ll just mention that we have a resource at FamilyLife® called “Life in a Blender.” It’s written for children who are living in a stepfamily to help them make sense of their life and some of the things that they experience. One of the things that we talk about are the big five emotions—loss and sadness are two of those.
Let’s just recap this story that we have so far. Life was one thing prior to Dad leaving; but once he left and the divorce took place, it was a cascade of loss for you—a different home; different family income level; mom and dad are not together; when dad’s back, he’s not really tuning into you—you’ve lost him even when he’s there. There’s confusion and discouragement: move to a new place, lose your dog in the process, and then a huge loss for the family is the loss of your younger brother.
I’m just sitting here, taking that in from your vantage point. I’m listening to all the transition and the pain that goes along with that and how heavy that is. I’m also aware that your mother, whom is the primary care giver for you at that point in time, has gone through tremendous, tremendous loss herself. I have lost a child; so I know what that is to be in her shoes, losing her child. To have that on top of the loss of her marriage; loss of her family; loss of position, friends, place of work—all the stuff that’s wrapped into that—I can’t imagine how your mom functioned.
Let’s go inside that a little for you. What was parenting like at that point in your life? What was your relationship with your mom? How did that morph and change? How did you guys survive all of this together?
Dave: You know, my mom was everything—clung to her. We only had each other at that point after Craigy was gone—yes; loved her dearly. She—I always felt loved by her. She was my biggest cheerleader my whole life.
But I can remember—even as I hit ten, and twelve, and thirteen—just watching the sadness. She was very lonely. I wanted to be there for her/wanted to help her. I remember, constantly, she would say, “You’re the man of the house.”
Dave: I’m twelve, and—
Dave: —I’m like, “I don’t want to be the man of the house!”—you know?—but I had to be.
Ron: What do you mean: “…had to be”? Unpack that for me.
Dave: I mean—there was nobody else there; there was no other man. She dated a little bit, but nobody really walked into our life.
Ron: So there’s a strong sense of obligation and responsibility in you?
Ron: Not necessarily something you really chose or would have chosen; but yet, you knew if you didn’t to it—
Ron: Let’s paint that scenario for a second; because sometimes, that’s helpful to even understand how you end up making some of the choices you made, as a kid—like, “What if I don’t do this for Mom?”—what would have happened?
Dave: I really felt like she needed me to be strong—again, 13/12.
Ron: Yes; yes.
Dave: As I went into middle school and high school, I felt like: “She’s stable but [unstable],”—
Dave: —and “I can’t be [unstable].” This really is a counselling session. [Laughter]
Bob: Do you think your relationship with her ever got unhealthy? Was she ever codependent? Was there ever a situation where she was counting on you for more than a mom ought to be counting on a 12-year-old for?
Dave: I’m wondering what my wife’s thinking right now. [Laughter]
Bob: She just moved up to the microphone. I think she’s got an answer for us.
Dave: I didn’t even look over there—you noticed that? I didn’t even want to see what she’s going to say. [Laughter] I think I know what she’s going to say.
Ann: Yes; I think the answer to that would be, “Yes.” I think she was so broken—so lonely/so hurting. I remember Dave’s stepmom telling me—this is interesting; just a side note—that Dave went on the honeymoon of his dad and stepmom.
Dave: —to Europe.
Ann: She said he couldn’t sleep by himself. She realized that Dave had been sleeping with his mom. He was—what 12?
Dave: I guess 12. You know—sort of funny—I didn’t know my dad’s on a honeymoon with his new wife. I just thought, “We’re going on a trip.” I found out, years later, because Beata—that’s my stepmother—she was like, “Do you realize that, on our honeymoon night, you came walking in our hotel room?” I had a hotel room across the hall. Of course, we’re in Europe; and I’m scared anyway.
Ann: Any kid would be.
Dave: I go knocking on the door—say, “Can I sleep in here?”
Dave: You know, it’s sort of funny now; but that gives you an idea where I was/where they were. Yes; I mean, I grew up—
Ann: There wasn’t anything inappropriate that happened, sleeping with his mom.
Ron: But it just represented: “That’s what you were used to at that point in time.”
Ron: My comment about your mom is—of course, there was this strong, deeply connected reliance on her son. I don’t know how you survived that sort of loss—that Mt. Kilimanjaro of loss—without finding something you hold on to. Of course, that was the nature of your relationship. And of course, you felt a great sense of responsibility and obligation to her.
I think, sometimes, it’s easy for us to step outside people’s lives and just judge that: “What? You were sleeping…” “Somehow, you were overly connected.” That’s a little bit of God’s grace for people, sometimes, when you get behind it and you understand how much loss is in this story—nobody wants more loss.
That’s one of the things we know about kids in blended families is—they don’t want more loss. Yet, it seems that, sometimes, every little turn/every little twist becomes a little bit more loss. You go with your dad and you find out that was him investing in somebody else—not really investing in me—like, “I’m there, but we’re not connected.” That’s an ongoing narrative that gets in the way.
I’m curious about that—your relationship with your dad through your adolescent years—what was that like?
Dave: You know, it was pretty non-existent. He would fly up to Ohio—and I don’t know the exact timeline—but I saw him maybe once or twice a year for a day. It would usually get ugly—he would drink; it would get loud. I’d go hide in the bedroom—wait until it was over—until the storm cleared. That was my experience with my dad. I remember that in middle school; then high school.
Then, I hated this—right after the divorce—seven, eight, nine years old—I, for whatever reason, had to go see my dad at Christmas—I would fly to Miami, Florida. Now, he’s in Miami—flying out, on Christmas morning, by myself. Back then, nobody flew on Christmas Day. The flight attendants—I could tell they felt sorry for me. They’d let me sit in First Class—nobody on the plane. They would be assigned to me—to take care of this little boy, getting him to his dad’s.
I can remember getting in his car—nice car—rich—you know, living the life, and looking at these palm trees, going: “What am I doing here? I don’t want to be here. I want to be home; I want to be in Ohio. I want to be at my home at Christmas, and I have to go see my dad for three or four days.” It was a trip or two and, then, Christmas every other year.
Ron: I’m hearing some of those other big five emotions: confusion—like, “Here I am; I have to do this, but I don’t want to do this.” Then, “When I get here, I realize how much he has financially, etcetera; and I’m aware.”
Ann: And you had nothing, back with your mom.
Ron: Right; mom and I got nothing—what a contrast. You know, again, it’s because “He left us.” There had to be some real anger or hurt towards him.
Dave: Yes; one of the reasons I blocked having a relationship. I really think he wanted one, and he was doing what he could to do that. I mean, he wasn’t there a lot; but when we were together, I could tell—I really did have a sense: “He loves me. He really does love me. He want’s good for me,”—almost a sense—“I think he feels bad about what happened.” But we never talked about it. You know, through high school, through college, until we got married, never once was there a conversation with Dad about the divorce/about any of that.
There were many with my mom. She wasn’t a mean, bitter, “Your dad’s an idiot,”-type mom—she honored him—but I was confused. I never really understood.
Bob: And no trust. You couldn’t have trusted your dad; that’s the reason there’s no relationship. He left when you were seven.
Bob: What are you going to trust him with?—with trying to have a relationship? No; that doesn’t make any sense; right?
Ron: I’m also wondering about, yes, loyalty to mom. I mean, how would you have felt if you had drawn close to your dad? Like, “Mom needs me. Mom’s relying on me,”—like that would be, in a way, putting her in jeopardy.
Bob: Treasonous; yes.
Dave: I also felt that when Dad got remarried. I felt like, “I can’t like her, because that’s a—
Dave: —“betrayal to my mom.”
Ron: —to your mom.
Dave: My mom would ask, when I would come home, “How’s Beata?” I’d be like. “She’s okay.”
Ron: Isn’t that interesting? All she had to do was ask—what could be a very neutral question on the surface—but it very much isn’t neutral in your heart. Even if she’s not really saying, “Do you love her?” You felt like she was saying, “Do you love her?” You’re in this love conflict that’s: “Mom needs me. She’s got nothing but me, so I’m definitely favoring here.”
Bob: We’ve touched on these five emotions you talk about. Just list them for us. What are the five?
Ron: They’re loss—and the sadness that goes along with that loss—right? Those are related.
Fear—and we’ve heard that; we haven’t talked about it yet—but it’s the fear of more loss. The fear of, in this case: “The fear of hurting mom if I enjoy my step mom,” “Fear of hurting mom if I enjoy my dad and draw close to him.”
Guilt—this sense of responsibility that you had toward your mom is one example of, “Boy, I feel guilty if I don’t fulfill that responsibility.” It’s going to change who I am, and how I act, and how I live my life.
Then the confusion piece of: “How do I deal with all this? What does it mean? Why did Dad leave?” “What does this mean for me and the future of our family and relationships?” It’s a lot of confusion.
Bob: The booklet—it’s really a small book—
Ron: It is.
Bob: —that’s written for kids—helps them unpack these emotions and put names to these emotions—so they can go: “Oh, I’m not abnormal because of these things I’m feeling,” and “Maybe even I can understand what it is I’m feeling and put some categories to it, rather than just feeling it.”
Ann: As a parent, Ron, is that our responsibility?—to ask those questions? Is this a counseling situation?
Ron: I’m so glad you brought that up, because there’s a secondary purpose in this booklet. We actually have a parent discussion guide with it, so that parents are moving towards the heart of their child/the experience of their child. We want to give the kids words to help them go, “Yes; that is what I’m feeling.”
We also want to help the parents say: “Is that what you’re feeling? Is this your experience?” We give them a few questions—the parents—to ask their child after they read it so that you can move toward their heart. What we’re doing here, today, with Dave is what we would love to see happen—thousands of times around the world—one parent towards their own child.
Dave: Oh, if this would have been around when I was ten years old. Oh, my gosh; there was nothing like this!
Bob: Yes; and I’m thinking of—and again, this would need to be appropriate—but youth pastors, who could engage with kids in their youth group, or children’s ministers, who would recognize this in their church. I’m thinking of aunts or uncles or grandparents, who go: “That family dynamic is so dysfunctional. I don’t know that that conversation could be had between parent and child in a healthy way.”
Ann: The parents can be so—they’re hurting so much that, sometimes, they can’t even get beyond today.
Bob: Yes; to have somebody else, who’s a friend or family member, step in and say, “Could I just get together and pick your son up for ice cream?” Get a book like this and start to go through it with that young man/that young woman. We’ve got the “Life in a Blender” book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, to get a copy. The website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
And then, keep in mind the event that is coming up next month. It’s the Blended and Blessed one-day live event. It’s going to be live in Minneapolis on Saturday, April 27th. It’s going to be livestreamed all around the world. You can tune in and be a part of this as a couple, as a church/with your small group. All the information’s available, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, the date is Saturday, April 27th. Speakers will include Dave and Ann Wilson; Ron Deal; Shaunti Feldhahn’s going to be joining us; Chris Brooks is going to be with us as well. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for all the information.
Call us if you have any questions; or if you’d like to get the “Life in a Blender” book, call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com. The number to call for resources or information about Blended and Blessed is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Let me just add a quick word of thanks here for those of you who make programs like today’s program possible. It’s those of you who partner with us—as either monthly Legacy Partners or who will, from time to time, make a donation to support the work of this ministry. When you donate, you’re helping cover the cost of producing and syndicating this program so it can be heard in hundreds of communities across the country and via the internet all around the world. Thank you for your partnership on behalf of all of the people who are benefiting from listening to these kinds of conversations. We appreciate you.
Now, before we wrap things up here today, we’ve got some thoughts on our conversation from the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins. David—
David: Well, first of all, I just want to thank Dave Wilson for inviting us into his story, and telling his story, and sharing it with us; because it just declares how God makes beauty out of ashes. He is a God who’s in the business of redemption. The Bible is a book about redemption. God, not only takes broken things in our lives and mends them, but He actually restores them into greater beauty—
Bob: —better than new.
David: —better than new.
Whatever circumstance you find yourself going through in life—specifically, today, some of us are probably walking through some hard things—God is at work in the midst of it. Let’s turn to Him.
Bob: Yes; thank you.
Well, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the impact of growing up in a home where mom and dad get a divorce—how that impacts a marriage, moving forward. We’ll talk more with Dave and Ann Wilson about that tomorrow. Ron Deal will be with us again. I hope you can join us back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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