"The central hazard of divorce for the child is not his acute unhappiness, however tragic this may be, but the possibility that the family disruption will in some way discourage his progress along the developmental ladder." Wallerstein and Kelly (1980)
A 24 year year old man, a patient I have seen multiple times a week for four years, comes into my office sobbing. He explains that once again, he is being treated poorly by his mother. He says, as he has said many times before, that she prefers his two half-siblings, ages 14 and 10. My patient believes that these children are part of an intact family, whereas he is the product of her big "mistake". As such, he constantly feels that he is getting the short end of the stick. My hunch, after working with him for so many years is that he is right. What should I do? I could validate his feelings. I could be present and allow him to express himself. I could probe to try to understand more about what he is feeling on this particular day. I could consider a psychotropic medication. With the exception of prescribing, I try all of those things, but I do not feel I am making an impact.
One out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and many divorcing families include children. Parents who are getting a divorce are frequently worried about the effect the divorce will have on their children, but during this time parents may be preoccupied with their own problems. While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are invariably frightened by the threat to their security. The omnipotent thinking of children often lead them to conclude that they caused the conflict between their parents.
After about twenty minutes of crying, my patient calms down. He knows that he is jealous of his half-siblings who are growing up in an intact family. From his point of view, his mother's "new family" has the big house, the vacations and the family friends, that he never grew up with. In his fantasy life, he would not be suffering if he had the life of his siblings. He is angry and he is sad. Ultimately, I tell him that I am not sure what to say except that despite all the pain that he is describing, I have borne witness to his psychological growth and I am impressed by how he is struggling to deal with his feelings. I tell him that I by no means want to negate what he is saying, but I wanted to remind him that he has focused on his internal world and as a result his coping skills have improved enormously. He no longer avoids responsibility and he no longer hides from his friends.
To my surprise, he tells me that he knows what I am talking about. He describes to me that he feels like a piece of fruit that used to have a mushy interior, but now he is filled with fibrous connections. He is still sad and he is still angry, but simultaneously, he is also proud of himself. He feels stronger internally than he has ever felt before. I want to think that this is from our work together, but I also know that this is a remarkable young man. This is a man who had the courage to face his pain, feel his pain, and try to grow from his pain. His parents divorced when he was three. Twenty one years later he is still feeling the pain. His internal growth is impressive, but then again, so is his distress. We have more work to do.
Disclaimer: Details have been changed in order to maintain privacy. This blog is for illustrative purposes only.