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Retreat fosters healing for adult children of divorce

Couple infidelity. Credit: nd3000 Shutterstock CNA

WASHINGTON, DC – According to the Pew Research Center, only 46 percent of Americans under the age of 18 live in a traditional family with two parents in their first marriage.

For those who are now adults and grew up in a divorced family, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC is seeking to help heal wounds that remain after parents divorce.

Many suffer silently from their parents’ divorce, according to Daniel Meola, who leads the ‘Recovering Origins” healing retreats for the shrine.

“Regardless of the amount of individual love our parents give us, what we’ve lost is the love of our parents together,” Meola explained to CNA, drawing on his own experience of his parents’ divorce. “We have to recognize that we have something to grieve.”

“Children of divorce are not, as a rule, asked how they feel about their parents’ divorce — not as a child and not in the decades that follow,” Catholic writer, Leila Miller, wrote in her 2017 book, “Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak.”

“Our society says that the kids should be alright. There should be no problem. There’s a lot of happy divorce talk … so that can kind of silence us,” explained Meola.

Although many children of divorce learn to silence their feelings, their wounds really begin to show themselves in young adulthood and in the ability to form and maintain relationships, according to Meola.

There can be “this deeper anxiety that many of us have that any good thing can turn bad at the drop of the hat or always expecting the piano to fall,” said Meola, who added that trust issues, anger, and depression are other common struggles.

Many participants in past retreats have expressed fear of repeating their parents’ mistakes. The key to addressing this concern is practising the Church’s teaching of merciful love, Meola said.

“The form of marriage is merciful love … I think that if we can forgive our parents or even just start to forgive them that we will be starting a really good foundation for our own love and our own marriages,” he commented.

“You can love your parents and still hate the divorce,” explained Meola. “We have this beautiful distinction in the Church, at least I found very comforting, between the person and his acts. I found this very comforting actually for grieving that ‘Ok, I can hate this act my parents did, but I can still love this person deeply and profoundly.’”

“I’ve always found it really beautiful and fascinating that Christ’s strongest words on marriage in Matthew 19, saying it is indissoluble, are preceded by his strongest words on forgiveness in Matthew 18 where he tells people to forgive 77 times 7 times,” he continued. “I think that what the Scripture is suggesting there is that the form of indissolubility is merciful love.”

The Church’s teaching on self-giving love in marriage can also seem counterintuitive to adult children of divorce. “I think that one of the temptations when you are wounded is you just want to self-protect rather than give, even though giving is what is key for happiness, especially in love,” explained Meola. “Another sign of self-protecting is leaving at the first sign of problems and not addressing conflicts.”

“Cohabitation can also be a form of self-protecting,” he added.

The goal of the retreats is for the participants to bring these wounds and anxieties to Christ’s healing love. “As John Paul II said in Salvifici Doloris, if we have eyes of faith and we encounter Christ in the wound, then it can awaken love. That is the deepest level of healing that we are looking for.”

At the heart of each retreat is a detailed meditation on the Our Father. Small group discussions focus on more practical aspects of navigating healthy boundaries with one’s parents and in relationships after divorce.

“When your parents divorce, they are in survival mode and so are you, and what often happens is that you feel like you need to be the parent to the parent, rather than the child. And what I mean by that is that they often turn to you as their emotional confidant because they do not have their spouse any longer, so what happens is you don’t feel the permission to share your feelings with them because they are dumping so much on you and you feel the need to help them figure out their emotional life. But in a healthy marriage, it is flipped — the child is supposed to be getting direction about their emotional life from the parent … when you are married, you need to be each other’s emotional confidant… We do have to draw a boundary,” explained Meola.

“We tend to think of boundaries as pushing the other person away, but they are actually at the service of reconciliation and having a good relationship. Because what is going to push you away is if you have an unhealthy relationship. You are going to collapse and get really angry. Boundaries are actually at the service of a good relationship with your parents,” he continued.

“Verbal abuse can be very prolific. Because we are a child of both parents, when one parent bashes the other parent, that really hurts us, because we are a fruit of that, we have qualities of that parent that they might be bashing,” continued Meola who said that the retreat can empower young people to speak up when this occurs.

“Each parent is half of who the child is. When the parents reject each other, they are rejecting half of the child. They may tell the child, ‘We still love you; we just don’t love each other.’ The child cannot make sense of this impossible contradiction. In my opinion, this is the underlying reason for the well-documented psychological, physiological, and spiritual risks that children of divorce face,” wrote Dr Jennifer Roback Morse, the founder and president of the Ruth Institute, in the introduction to Miller’s book on adult children of divorce.

The “Recovering Origins” healing retreat was born out of an earlier symposium hosted by the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in 2012 that brought together scholars who have studied the impact divorce has had on children, including Elizabeth Marquardt, whose groundbreaking book, “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce,” was one of the first studies on the impact of divorce on young people.

Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, saw how fruitful the symposium was, and decided that the Church should offer more opportunities for healing. The Knights of Columbus and the John Paul II Institute developed the retreat, which was first held in 2016.

Each retreat is usually capped at 25 participants to encourage discussion. Speakers at the last retreat at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine on March 23-25 included Fr Jim McCormick MIC and Dr. Jill Verschaetse, both of whom are adult children of divorce.

The next retreat is scheduled for September 7-9 in Arlington, Virginia. – Courtney Grogan, CNA, 2 Apr 2018

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