Young People Ask . . .
How Do I Deal With My Parent Who Left Home?
“On days when Dad had promised to come and pick us up for a visit, Mom would get my sister and me all dressed up. And then we would sit and wait for him. And wait. Hour after hour would go by. Finally, Mom would say, ‘It’s time for bed.’ We would start crying and saying, ‘He’s going to come, he’s going to come!’ Even the next morning, we would be waiting for him but still, no Father. Sometimes it seemed that was the story of our life.”—Anne.*
IF, LIKE Anne, you have seen your parents split up, you can probably understand why Jehovah, the Designer of marriage, so strongly discourages divorce. (Compare Malachi 2:16.) Divorce hurts everyone it touches—even when a wronged parent has the Scriptural right to divorce the other.*
But when parents finally break up, perhaps by a legal divorce, that does not necessarily end all the problems that their discord can bring on you. In fact, you may now face a tough challenge: deciding whether to maintain some kind of relationship with the parent who has left home. Meg recalls just how hard that can be: “I was so numbed that I just shut down emotionally. So for a while, I had no feelings. It was as if my father had died.” And Mike remembers: “I began to hate my father, and that feeling lasted a long time. When I’d think about how he left a woman with four kids, giving her the least support he could get away with—well, it made me mad.”
Build Bridges, Don’t Burn Them
In the chaos and tumult of this period in your life, it is all too easy to slam shut the door of your affections on one of your parents and let anger and bitterness fill you. But nurturing that kind of resentment can poison your outlook on life. Such anger can lead you to burn your bridges, damaging your ties to a parent until they are well-nigh impossible to reestablish.
The Bible does not give us license to dishonor our parents. (Compare Luke 18:20.) Experts agree that in most cases you should try to maintain a relationship with both parents after they split up. Professor of psychiatry Dr. Robert E. Gould wrote in Seventeen magazine that seeing both parents regularly may even ease your adjustment to the divorce. Researchers Wallerstein and Kelly likewise found that the youths who came through their parents’ divorce successfully generally had a close relationship with both parents. But how can you be close to a parent who has moved out of your home or one who has betrayed a trust?*
Insight—The Key to Peace
Your natural anger may get in the way at first. But if you make it your goal to understand your parent better, the resulting insight may help to defuse your anger. As Proverbs 19:11 says: “The insight of a man certainly slows down his anger, and it is beauty on his part to pass over transgression.” This is certainly easier when some sorrow or repentance has been shown by the guilty party. Remember, gaining insight into an estranged parent’s point of view, personality, and human frailties does not necessarily mean that you are excusing the guilty parent or taking that parent’s side in the divorce dispute; nor does it mean that you are betraying the parent with whom you live. It simply means developing a more realistic view of your parent.
For example, many youths assume that a parent who has left the home must hate them—otherwise why would the parent leave? But really, the breakup was due to marital problems, not you. The departing parent probably did not mean to reject you by leaving—even though you may feel that way. As Dr. Gould put it: “In all likelihood, parents who loved you before the divorce will love you just as much after.”
‘Then how come he hardly visits?’ you may ask. When a parent repeatedly fails to show up for scheduled visits, or he contacts you only sporadically, it can indeed seem as if he doesn’t want to see you. But that may not be the case at all. Sometimes a parent knows that his conduct before the breakup has left the family deeply offended. If you have ever hurt a friend’s feelings, you know how hard it can be to face him afterward! As Proverbs 18:19 says: “An offended brother is worse than a fortified city.”—The Interlinear Hebrew-Aramaic Old Testament.
Because of feelings of guilt, your parent may likewise dread facing the family. Pride may also be a factor. It may even be that the estranged parent simply cannot face the former marriage mate, particularly if there has been a remarriage; what used to be “home” may now seem strange. These and other factors may make it hard for your parent to visit you. What can you do to make things easier? At Romans 12:18 we read: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (New International Version) How can you do that?
For one thing, you may have to lower your expectations a bit. Expecting more of your parent’s time and attention than you are getting right now is only going to frustrate and disappoint you. Try instead to enjoy the limited time you do have together.
‘But what do we talk about?’ you might wonder. True, these visits may be awkward at first. But there is likely a great deal your parent wants to know—about your friends, your progress in school, and your interests outside of school. And there is much you could ask about. The divorce has doubtless left a gaping void in your parent’s life, as it did in yours. So be like “the man of discernment,” spoken of at Proverbs 20:5, who ‘draws up’ the ‘deep waters’ of counsel in another. Ask questions. Learn about your parent’s new home or job, or interests in hobbies, sports, and friends. And if you can’t get over the pain your parent has caused you, maybe in time you can find a way to talk it out peacefully.
Keeping Your Balance
There is a danger, though, of idealizing an estranged parent. Randy’s father, an alcoholic and a womanizer, left the family repeatedly and finally divorced Randy’s mother. And yet, Randy recalls: “For some reason, I really almost worshiped the man.”
Such misguided adoration is not unusual. In the United States, some 90 percent of the children of divorced parents live with the mother and visit the father. Thus, the mother is often responsible for the day-to-day care of her children—including discipline. And in spite of support payments, the mother’s economic status usually goes way down after the divorce; the father’s may even rise. The result: A visit with Dad means getting gifts and having fun! Life with Mom means pinching pennies and being told what to do and what not to do. Sad to say, some youths have even left a Christian parent in order to live with a wealthier and more permissive unbelieving parent.—Compare Proverbs 19:4.
If you are tempted to make such a choice, check your values. Remember that your Creator values most what you really need—moral guidance and discipline. Nothing else a parent can offer will so deeply affect your character and the quality of your life. Discipline is a sign of real love.—See Proverbs 4:13; 13:24.
Remember, too, that your Creator has only one standard of right and wrong, regardless of what a parent allows you to do. Tom says: “My mom never discouraged us from seeing my dad. But every Friday when we went to visit him, she would say, ‘Just remember that you’re a Christian and that Jehovah sees what you’re doing.’ That helped me to stand by my beliefs when visiting my dad.”
Try as you may, however, you can’t always win a parent’s approval. The suggestions in this article may help you to bridge the gulf between you and your parent. But even if all your efforts fail, do not give up hope. People do change. And at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing that ‘as far as it depends on you,’ peace has been maintained. Better yet, you will still be able to bask in the warmth of a parental smile of approval. As Jehovah says at Proverbs 27:11: “Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, that I may make a reply to him that is taunting me.” When you obediently stick to God’s standards and work to show merciful insight in your relationships with your parents, he is pleased. And he is a Friend and a Parent from whom you need never be estranged.
Some of the names have been changed.
See the chapter “Why Did Dad and Mom Split Up?” in the book Questions Young People Ask—Answers That Work, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
We are not speaking here of parents who are guilty of sexual or severe physical abuse of their children. In such cases, a close parent-child relationship may be neither possible nor advisable.
[Picture on page 23]
Sometimes it is a test to leave one parent to spend time with the other