Divided Loyalties: The Unintended Plight of Children of Divorce

No one marries intending to get a divorce. For the most part, when parents’ split up, they feel badly about putting their children through the emotional pain of their divorce. But what many parents don’t realize is that they can model harmonious interactions with their ex. In doing this, they pave the way for their children to preserve a healthy bond with both parents. Even if they still blame their ex for the divorce, it’s a parent’s responsibility to let go of blame game and put their child’s needs first.

The truth about divorce is that it changes the dynamic of the parent and child relationship. It calls on us, as parents, to be stronger, more compassionate people. Parents who take control of their own lives, with courage and resilience, help their children do the same. Divorce is not for wimps.  It draws on every ounce of energy from parents, forcing them to create a new kind of family.

You see, when parents’ divorce, their children are forced to give up their sense of control. Let’s face it, divorce is a decision made by parents – not by children. Children who endure their parents’ breakup are faced with making choices that decrease their sense of security. These choices can range from whose house to have their birthday party at to worrying about upsetting one parent’s feelings. When children are put in a position where they feel they have to choose between their parents they may experience divided loyalties.

As a parent, it is crucial that you help your child from feeling burdened with the anguish of being stuck in the middle between two angry parents or choosing sides. Listening to your child’s perspective   and accepting their feelings and view of their situation is crucial to promoting healthy communication with them.  Karen’s story illustrates a child of divorce’s desire to stay out of the middle between her parents’ two worlds.

Karen, an articulate thirteen-year old nailed it when she spoke about the discomfort she felt when listening to her parents’ argue after their divorce: “My parents are so different, I mean my mom is high strung and my dad is easy going.”  I requested that Claudia, Karen’s mom attend our next counseling session because I wanted to empower Karen by giving her the opportunity to express her feelings and to give Claudia the chance to learn more about her daughter’s experience.

During our session, Karen requested that her mom stop putting her dad down for being late to pick her up for visits. “It hurts me when I hear you say he must not want to see me or he doesn’t care enough to be on time. Why don’t you ask me what I think? If you did, you’d realize I don’t care if he’s running late.” Several weeks later, Karen had a parallel session with her dad wherein she was able to disclose that she was tired of being compared to her mother when he was disappointed in her.

An important lesson can be learned from Karen’s comments. First and foremost, try not to involve your child in your anger at your ex. Remember they didn’t ask for the divorce and are powerless to control many aspects of their life. The first step in becoming a responsible co-parent is to put your child’s needs before your own. However, if your ex is hostile or uncooperative, work toward acceptance and focus on your own behavior.  Keep in mind, you can only do so much to influence your ex’s behavior and could make things worse if he/she sees you as demanding or antagonistic.

You see, divorce forever pits children and even adult offspring between their parents’ two disparate worlds.  The pressure of making decisions about spending time with both parents – especially around the holidays – can cause an adult child of divorce to feel guilty or anxious. If at all possible, try to reduce expectations and suggest rotating holidays.

Even though children don’t cause their parents’ divorce, they often feel responsible for their parents’ happiness. In some cases, they might side with one parent against the other parent, which can cause alienation or even estrangement. In What About the Kids? Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer divorce researcher who passed away recently, cautions us that a serious problem exists when a child and a parent of either sex joins forces in an outright alignment against the other parent.

Many adult children of divorce I’ve interviewed describe the pressure of divided loyalties.  Melissa, a lively twenty-one year old college student speaks candidly about her struggle to cope with loyalty conflicts since age eight. She recalls: “It was really hard to interact with both of my parents after their divorce. When they were saying nasty things about each other, I just never wanted to take sides.”

Loyalty conflicts can make some kids feel as if they need to keep a secret.  Melissa continues, “I felt like I had to keep my dad’s new girlfriend a secret because my mom didn’t know about her yet. You see I didn’t think she’d approve because Shelly was a lot younger than my dad.” When my mom asked me if my dad had a girlfriend I lied but she eventually found out when she saw them together.” Melissa’s story reminds us that children should never feel burdened by their parent’s decisions. Let them enjoy their childhood and think about how you want them to remember you when they grow up.

 These strategies can prevent your child or adolescent from developing problematic loyalty conflicts:

  • Be willing to let your ex have the last word and walk away when your interaction becomes adversarial. Even if you can’t be friendly allies, being cordial and respectful is a worthy goal.

  • Avoid confiding your feelings about your ex to your child. If you do this it forces them to choose sides and can worsen loyalty conflicts.

  • Always recognize that your ex is your child’s parent and deserves respect for that reason alone.

  • Be aware that if your child hears you make negative comments about your ex it can have a detrimental impact on them.  Pay attention to where your child is when you are talking about your ex.  Don’t talk about issues they shouldn’t hear when they’re in close proximity.

Keeping your differences with your ex away from your children will have a positive impact on their well-being in the years to come. It’s also imperative that you remind them that your divorce isn’t their fault and that they should feel free to talk about their feelings with a trusted friend or therapist.  Judith Wallerstein reminds us that parents can hinder their children’s development by holding onto past grievances.  Conversely, you can help your child adjust to post-divorce life by providing loving encouragement and keeping their best interests in mind.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to hear your divorce stories and any experience you have with divided loyalties. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”


16 Responses to “Divided Loyalties: The Unintended Plight of Children of Divorce”

  1. This is such an important blog! I am divorced and know a lot of divorced people in the community. I totally understand how difficult it can be to be polite to your ex in front of your kids. there is so much anger and resentment and all these feelings and sometimes you want to just start screaming at him, or shake him and say, “What’s your problem??” That said, it is so important to not only be polite, but to be KIND to your ex because kids pick up on EVERYTHING!! I sense it in my 9 year old daughter all the time. If she sees so much as her dad and I smile at each other, she becomes giddy. Every time he picks them up and doesn’t wave to me, I see that look in her eyes too. I recently wrote a blog on this subject called “It’s at Dad’s House” and would love if you posted it! http://www.divorcedgirlsmiling.com. thanks!

    • Terry says:

      Hi Jackie, I’m glad you appreciated my article and that you embrace the concepts of effective co-parenting. You’re correct, it’s a challenge to be nice to someone who may violate trust or isn’t respectful. Thanks for your informed, insightful comments. I hope to hear more from you and plan to read your blog. Best, Terry

  2. It’s best to work toward a good balance with your ex utilizing acute pieces of advice above. Pride yourself with good, respectful communication. Always taking the high road will be win-win for everyone involved–if not seen initially, consistency will prove worthy in the long run. Having to cope with new co-parenting roles while you are just trying to get up on your own feet can get complicated and frustrating. Naturally, its best for you to find a good working balance with your ex spouse for the benefit of the kids. Needless to say, people grow tired of each other and out of love and that’s not exactly a healthy platform to start working together in a new unfamiliar venue. Heeding this very important characteristic will help in the long run–maturity and patience are your friends.

    • Terry says:

      Great points Bruce! Attempting to achieve a balance in communication with your ex is a crucial point. None of us is perfect, but we need to ask ourselves if we’re striving to have win-win interactions that show respect. Even as our children mature into adulthood, they benefit from this compassionate approach to parenting after divorce. I appreciate your insightful comments and look forward to hearing more from you. Regards, Terry

  3. Basically, loyalty conflicts occur when the parents argue and they both expect a third party( the children) to support them over the other. Children who are parented by one are more at risk. They are forced to cope with the suffering caused by the conflict which in result ignoring one parent. Co-parenting may help in this situation.

    • Terry says:

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that effective co-parenting can help ease loyalty conflicts for children. They won’t feel as torn if they know they have fairly equal access to both parents. However, I do believe they still exist to a certain degree for most children of divorce. I guess you could say it goes with the territory. I appreciate your insightful comments. Regards, Terry

  4. M says:

    My parents have been separated for a little over a year and a half now. I love with my mom and my dad lives two hours away.

    When my dad left, he left in the middle of the night when I was the only other person awake. He told ME, the 16 year old, to tell my sister what was happening and why he wasn’t coming back. I lied to her for a week because it was not my place to tell my sister that our parents were getting a divorce. Throughout that first week, he told us that he had to work late and then be at work early (which is what he did every night) and that he was staying with a “principal friend”.

    Come to find out, that “friend” was his girlfriend (that he told me about ON THE WAY TO HER HOUSE). The story goes on, but I don’t want to bore you with my miseries. I will say though that they dated on and off for about a year. I think one of the worst days for me was when we went to the US National Whitewater Center to do one of their tours. A woman that was there with her family doing the same tour turned to us to take our picture. She made a comment about my day’s girlfriend being my mom and I seriously almost had a breakdown. I’m not mad at the woman because she didn’t know, but it hit me then that others probably think she was my mom. I mean, this chick (my dad’s girlfriend) was like 15 years older than me. I have friends whose SIBLINGS are 15 years older than they are.

    So, about divide loyalties. Obviously I don’t have a great relationship with my dad. I’ve always been closer to my mom, so throughout this whole divorce process, I’ve been on her side no matter what.

    My dad is a grown man and can make his own decisions. He knows that I am on the verge of walking away from him and not looking back. He knows that I don’t approve of him dating, not to mention LIVING with, women. But I can’t control what he does. If he wants to date and keep it secret, then he can.

    My parents don’t fight as much now that they are separated, but my dad (especially in the beginning) put my mom and I in situations no one should be in. He got really mad at my mom because he was served divorce papers at work, he told her that my sister and I were old enough to choose where they wanted to live, and so on and so on. For me, the whole girlfriend deal was just about enough to make me walk away. I mean, he lived with this woman and didn’t even tell me about it until I was in the car on my way to what I thought was his place.

    My parents have never asked me to take sides, but I will always choose my mother. The relationship I have with my dad is too broken, and even though we are at good place right now, with the choices he’s made, I will never look at him the same for as long as I live.

    • Terry says:

      Dear M, I appreciate your situation and have interviewed and counseled many girls and women who have dealt with infidelity and trust wounds stemming from their father leaving suddenly. Rather than send you a lengthy message on my website, I will send you an email and encourage you to read more and to participate in my study if you are open to that. Thank you so much for your vulnerability and courage to tell your story. Regards, Terry

  5. Heddie says:

    Dear Terry,
    If you’re still there, we could really use your advice. My wife’s mother and father divorced when my wife was 16 year old. From that point forward, her mother continuously told her that she had been “abused” in the marriage, that her father did not love her and never had, and that her father’s extended family had never accepted either of them (wife or daughter). She convinced my wife that any positive memories she had of her father were wrong and that her father was a total monster. As a result, my wife cut ties with her father for over two decades. About a year ago, a relative on his side contacted my wife and convinced her to meet with him, saying he had suffered long enough and all he wanted was a chance to talk to her and tell her how much he has always loved her. So my wife and I took our two young children to meet with him and the extended family, and long story short, he is a wonderful man with a very different side of the story. He has never said one negative thing about my wife’s mother–all he and his current wife do are tell us how much they love us and how happy they are to be included in our lives (which amounts to about two visits per year since we live far apart). The problem is that my wife’s mother found out that she has invited him into our lives, and she is furious. She sends emails to my wife telling her how disappointed she is, saying she thought my wife was on her “side” and that now she has ruined her happiness. It feels very controlling and manipulative. My wife has repeatedly told her it has nothing to do with her, that she never chose to divorce her father, that her feelings have changed over the past two decades, that now that she’s 40 years old and he’s in his 70s she wants a chance to know him before it’s too late…basically that it’s her right to have her father in her/our lives, no matter what happened in their marriage, simply because he is her father. And since her mother moved about a mile from us just before finding out about the renewed relationship, now she says she never would have moved here to be close to us and our children if she had known we wanted to have him in our lives. She wants my wife to sever ties immediately, apologize to her for contacting him, and never speak his name again. And the worst part is–she just earned her master’s degree in counseling, but she doesn’t think her position is wrong. We would love validation that my 40-year-old wife has the right to know her father and have his family in our lives, no matter what happened in the marriage that ended over 20 years ago. Everything we read in books and online deals with children of divorce, so we feel alone. Thank you.

    • Terry says:


      Your situation is very tricky and I recommend that your wife seek counseling. I do agree that she has the right to a relationship with her father. However, the nuances of how to preserve her relationship with her mother are delicate and I can’t give that level of detail to someone who I have not met with face-to-face. The issues that adult children of divorce deal with have never been addressed much by experts and that is why I wrote my book “Daughters of Divorce” which is being published in 2015. Please check out my resource page on my website for a few title of books on this topic.Thanks for writing.


  6. Shaun says:

    As a parent educator, one of my personal goals is to take the word “ex” out of our vocabulary when speaking about children’s parents. What I see is due to the tone of voice it is said, it is not said in a respectful manner. I encourage parents to either call them “my children’s father/mother” or use the child’s name followed by mother/father. Respecting our children’s parents is vitally important to their respecting themselves and their partners when they begin dating and decide to marry. Some of the largest changes in life, can be made in small changes.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Shaun,

      This is a great point. It is a challenge to implement but a worthy goal to help the child avoid excessive divided loyalties.


  7. Yasmin says:

    My parents divorced years ago when I was a toddler, but it is only now (Im 27) that I find my Mum trying to make me choose sides. Im struggling to find advice online for adults regarding how to deal with parental loyalties so if anyone has any advice please share!

  8. Matt says:


    I am having a challenge trying to keep my kids respecting their mother. At times i feel like i am “covering” for her choices that negatively affect the children. Many of her choices i do not agree with and I dont want my children to believe that i am Ok with her decisions. Its a battle for me whether or not to demystify their reality regarding their mother sometimes. any adivce?

    • Terry says:

      Hi Matt,

      It’s not a good idea to give them negative information about their mom unless you need to warn them about substance abuse or safety concerns. They will find out more about their mom’s behavior as they mature and come to their own conclusions. If parents bad-moth each other, they only put their kids in a position where they have to choose sides. This can harm them emotionally over many years. I recommend you read this blog I wrote for this site and seek counseling if you desire more information:
      Co-Parenting with Someone who is Narcissistic or Challenging
      Regards, Terry

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