All I ever wanted to be in life was a full-time wife, mother, and then grandmother. When divorce became a reality in my life, it was almost more than I could bear. I could imagine many other sorts of trials and afflictions in life that I could handle, but not this. I felt like Job when he said, “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me” (Job 3:25).
Particularly, I was concerned about my seven children, as you no doubt can imagine.
Divorce is always, always hard—even when, as President Hinckley has said, it is now and then justified (see President Gordon B. Hinckley, “What God Hath Joined Together,” April 1991 general conference). So it’s my goal to make the impact of divorce on children more understandable, from both a scholarly and a doctrinal perspective. I want to talk first about the way children might make sense of divorce—emotionally and intellectually, depending upon their age and stage.
How Children of Different Ages Are Affected by Divorce
Very young children can be the least harmed by their parents divorce. As long as they continue to have their attachment needs met—which include, warmth, nurturance, and consistency of care—they will usually be OK. Of course, the strains of family change can take their toll, especially if the primary caregiver, usually the mother, is struggling with her own pain, and therefore cannot maintain a strong emotional accessibility to the child.
Preschool age children are in a place where they don’t yet have the intellectual capacity to clearly understand abstract concepts like time, cause and effect, or the difference between fantasy and reality. They can exhibit what’s known as magical thinking, which may manifest itself in a belief that they were the cause of their parent’s divorce or that they can wish the divorce away.
Children of elementary school age are in a stage where their sense of right and wrong, cause and effect, is very black and white. For example, one first-grade girl who realized that her grandparents were divorced immediately assumed that they therefore hated each other. She could imagine no other alternative. This black and white trait could perhaps work to the child’s advantage, though. A 9-year-old-girl was watching general conference with her single mother when she heard President James E. Faust talking about the impact of divorce on children. As he described the sociological research indicating that children from divorced families are likely to experience more poverty, more crime, and more drug abuse, this young girl said out loud to the Apostle on the television set, “That’s not true for me.” Good for her!
Divorce during a child’s adolescence is tricky. Their developmental tasks at this stage include independence, intimacy, and identity. These important tasks may be hastened or delayed as a result of their parents’ divorce. Adolescents may feel—or be made to feel—more responsible for the members of their family at a time when it is more developmentally appropriate for them to be more involved with their peers. They may experience identity confusion as well as heightened or lowered attachment security with their own romantic partners.*
A child’s age and gender influence their perception. There are often differences between the reactions of girls and boys, even in the same family, and between siblings in the same age range. For example, when told their parents were getting a divorce, one 14-year-old boy said, “I don’t know why you are getting a divorce. You don’t even argue.” At the same time, his 13-year-old sister said, “I’m so glad you’re getting divorced. I can’t stand the tension in this house.”
Of course, a child’s perception of his or her parents’ divorce can change over time. Certainly the magical thinking of a younger child will become more mature and realistic as time goes on. In some cases researchers have documented a “sleeper effect,” especially in girls, which is a delayed negative reaction to a parents’ divorce as the children grow older. Fortunately, children can become more perceptive and realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of each parent as they mature.
Adults who have experienced the divorce of their parents as children can have concerns when the time comes to make their own decision to marry, and especially whether to marry in the temple. Two children from one family I know decided not to get married in the temple because of the negative example of their parents’ temple marriage ending in divorce. In addition, children whose parents were married in the temple and later divorced may experience discrimination from prospective marriage partners or prospective in-laws who are worried about their child marrying someone whose parents got a divorce.
Temple Covenants and Divorce
This is admittedly a very brief overview of a complex topic. But with this brief background, let’s now transition to the concept of temple covenants. To help children understand temple covenants after divorce, adults must first understand what happens to covenants following the divorce of a couple who has been sealed in the temple. So let’s clarify what is known.
All covenants are made with God—think of baptism and the temple endowment, for example. In the case of the sealing ordinance, however, the covenant is between a couple and God. God never breaks his covenant with us, but we may break our covenants with him, and/or with our marriage partner. The blessings pertaining to all covenants are contingent on worthiness and must be sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise to be in effect after this life.
Consider the words of President Joseph Fielding Smith:
The Holy Spirit of Promise is the Holy Ghost who places the stamp of approval upon every ordinance: baptism, confirmation, ordination, marriage. The promise is that the blessings will be received through faithfulness.
If a person violates a covenant, whether it be of baptism, ordination, marriage or anything else, the Spirit withdraws the stamp of approval, and the blessings will not be received. Every ordinance is sealed with a promise of a reward based upon faithfulness. The Holy Spirit withdraws the stamp of approval where covenants are broken” [President Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:45].
One very important point of clarification is that when a couple that had been sealed in the temple subsequently gets a civil divorce, they have, by definition, broken the sealing covenant. President Faust stated:
What . . . might be “just cause” for breaking the covenants of marriage? . . . I have struggled to understand what might be considered “just cause” for breaking of covenants. . . . Only the parties to the marriage can determine this. They must bear the responsibility for the train of consequences which inevitably follow if these covenants are not honored [President James E. Faust, “Father, Come Home,” April 1993 General Conference].
Three times in this paragraph he refers to divorce as breaking of covenants. One or both of the parties to the marriage can be responsible for the broken covenants. In some cases one party is more at fault, and therefore it is he or she who breaks the sealing covenant.
It is very important to note that in the sealing ordinance in the temple there are many blessings pronounced on the couple besides the sealing itself. I was recently in a sealing session, and I silently counted the number of blessings pronounced in addition to the sealing itself—there were about a dozen separate additional blessings. For this reason, as a general rule, a woman’s temple sealing is not canceled after a civil divorce for the express purpose that the remainder of the blessings may stay intact until a women is preparing to be imminently sealed to another marriage partner.
I know women who believe they are stilled “sealed” to their former spouses because their temple sealing has not been canceled. In fact, those who believe this may understandably be quite angry at a plan that keeps them sealed to someone they divorced in this life. If you know someone who thinks this, please teach them that their sealing to their former spouse is no longer in effect, but the many other blessings promised in the sealing ordinance may remain intact if she remains worthy. Isn’t that a beautiful, comforting and merciful thought?
What about sealing of parents to children after the divorce of temple-married parents? This was explained by Elder Christofferson in a local bishops’ training with these words: “Sealing of parents to children is never disturbed.” Elder Cullimore, an Assistant to the Twelve, elaborated on this:
It is understood that in the case of a cancellation of the sealing of the woman to the man, this does not cancel the sealing of the children to the parents. . . . [I]f a child remains worthy in this life of celestial blessings, regardless of the actions of his parents, he is . . . guaranteed eternal parentage [Elder James A. Cullimore, Questions and Answers, Ensign, December 1975].
This may seem a bit confusing, or even disturbing to some who think their former spouse unworthy to be sealed to their children. But remember that sealing to children, like all other ordinances, must be ratified by the Holy Spirit of Promise. And this ratification is contingent upon worthiness. Thankfully, God is the judge, and He is able to do His work” (see 2 Nephi 27:20).
Perhaps a statement from the former Church Handbook of Instructions under the heading “Sealing” can give some reassurance:
Members who have concerns about the eternal nature of [sealing] relationships can find peace in the knowledge that Heavenly Father is loving and just. He will ensure that eternal family relationships will be fair and right for all who keep their covenants. [“Sealing,” Church Handbook of Instructions]
Repeat: for all who keep their covenants. For the adults in this group wondering about temple covenants following divorce, please know that what matters is that we, ourselves, as individuals, are faithfully keeping our own covenants. In which case, the promise is that “our family relations will continue for eternity” (see lds.org).
Talking to Children about Covenants after Divorce
Now let’s take up the prickly subject of helping children understand covenants following divorce. I decided to tackle this subject as a social scientist might—I began a small personal research survey. I asked children of divorce (including my own) if they were concerned about their parents’ temple covenants or sealing. To my surprise, most of my admittedly limited sample said it never crossed their mind. In fact, those were the most common words that were used in response to my question: “It never crossed my mind.” Honestly, this came as a surprise to me.
Like a good social scientist, I needed to come up with a theory to explain this finding. My theory is that most children of divorce are too busy navigating their post-divorce world of two homes, changes in living arrangements, and relationships, and perhaps even schools, trying to making sense of their own life and get their needs met, while at the same time, their parents might be moving out into employment or dating or even remarrying. I remember one woman writing about her divorce and telling how one of her children asking plaintively, “How will we eat?” Indeed.
However, I also discovered that, as noted above, concerns about sealing of parents following divorce, or sealing of parents to children, came mostly in adolescence. Intellectually, adolescents are now able to look at more than one side of an issue and even develop hypotheses of their own. One young teenage girl tearfully asked her older brother what would happen to their family in the next life. But she didn’t talk to her mother about it until many years later. So it may be that there are concerns that exist but that are not voiced in childhood. Or it may be that when a child asks about the parents’ sealing, it’s too hard for the parent to give a full and complete answer without perhaps implicating the other parent in a negative way, so a less than satisfactory answer may be given.
Certainly there are some children who have questions about the sealing covenants. How will you handle these? Let me answer that question with another question: How do you answer your children’s tough questions on any topic? Let me suggest that you begin by really listening to their question. Ask them what generated their question before you launch into a lecture or explanation. You may end up answering a question they didn’t actually ask! Ask them about their feelings or thoughts on the subject, or what concerns them, or why it is coming up now. If you begin this way, you may find your own answer about how to approach it.
Take into account the child’s developmental level, as discussed at the beginning of this article. Remember the younger child may have fears or guilt or magical or black-and-white thoughts that needs to be addressed. Remember that your older child may be angry or confused or scared or feeling undue pressure to take on an early adult role.
Sister Linda K. Burton, former Relief Society General President, taught us that faithful parents are entitled to know how to best teach to meet the needs of their children. “As parents seek and act on personal revelation, … they will have power to strengthen and protect their families. Other family members (such as grandparents) can also help” (Sister Linda K. Burton, “The Power, Joy, and Love of Covenant Keeping,” October 2013 general conference).
Single parents, as well as children of divorced parents, may feel “less than.” Sister Linda S. Reeves, of the Relief Society general presidency, compassionately acknowledged this:
We may sometimes feel that we need to be part of a "perfect LDS family" in order to be accepted by the Lord. We often feel . . . like misfits in the kingdom. . . . [W]hen all is said and done, what will matter to our Father in Heaven will be how well we have kept our covenants and how much we have tried to follow the example of our Savior [Sister Linda S. Reeves, “Claim the Blessings of Your Covenants,” October 2013 General Conference].
Perhaps the best way, and frankly, in the end, the only way a parent or other relative can help a child understand covenants following divorce is to worthily live up to his or her own covenants.
Remember all your covenants. Divorce need not disrupt the baptismal covenant, the temple ordinances, and even parts of the sealing blessings, as explained earlier. Elder Talmage reminds us what some of the temple covenants are: to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant, and pure; … maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and … seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King (Elder James E. Talmage, House of the Lord, 84).
Or as President Boyd K. Packer simply put it, “We covenant to do good” (Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple (1980), 170).
Promises and Blessings
We can do these things—and we can teach our children to do them. And when we do, we are in the covenant path. This is where we want to be because, as Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught us, “In the covenant path, we find a steady supply of gifts and help” (Elder D. Todd Christofferson, “The Power of Covenants,” April 2009 general conference). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland enumerated some of these gifts when he taught that if we make and keep covenants with confidence, we can be assured of “God’s power over … troubles of every kind.” In fact, Elder Holland promises that if we will keep our covenants, we will “see the clouds of darkness lift(ed) … by the hand of a Father who is eternally committed to our happiness” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Patricia T. Holland in Green and Anderson, To Rejoice as Women, 99–100). These promises and blessings belong to all of us, single or married, divorced or remarried.
There are some circumstances worse than divorce. I know this because Elder Oaks said so. But he also acknowledged that “(a)ll who have been through divorce know the pain and need the healing power and hope that come from the Atonement. That healing power and that hope are there for them and also for their children” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Divorce,” April 2007 general conference).
Even though the thing which I feared most came upon me, I have since been granted what Elder Richard G. Scott refered to as “compensatory blessings” that come when we have been deprived of something we want very much (see “Finding Joy,” Elder Richard G. Scott, April 1996 general conference).
These compensatory blessings can come when we do as Elder Oaks counseled us: “Don’t treasure up past wrongs, reprocessing them again and again. … Festering is destructive; forgiving is divine (Oaks, “Divorce”).
Many of you who have been touched by the pain of divorce, whether as a spouse, a child, or even an extended family member, may find it difficult to believe that you can forgive a person when there seems so clearly to be a victim and a perpetrator—a person in the right and a person in the wrong. Even when this is the case, forgiveness is still called for. You may think that forgiving a perpetrator is the same as excusing his or her behavior. This is not true. Forgiving is divine.
Elder Oaks continues his counsel:
We cannot control and we are not responsible for the choices of others, even when they impact us so painfully . . . . Whatever the outcome and no matter how difficult your experiences, you have the promise that you will not be denied the blessings of eternal family relationships if you love the Lord, keep His commandments, and just do the best you can (Oaks, “Divorce”).
In fact, by forgiving someone, we may participate in the Atonement with the Savior.
This is how President Packer taught this astonishing doctrine:
In one sense we ourselves may participate in an atonement. When we are willing to restore to others that which we have not taken, or heal wounds that we did not inflict, or pay a debt that we did not incur, we are emulating His part in the Atonement [Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” October 1995 General Conference].
I believe this is what Isaiah means when he talks about being the repairer of the breach and the maker of paths to walk in: "And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in’” (Isaiah 58:12).
I want with all my heart to build up the old waste places of relationships. I want to raise up the foundations of many generations and ultimately be a repairer of the beach and a restorer of paths to dwell in. I believe with all my heart that through keeping of covenants and participating fully in the Atonement, this can be possible for me and for my family. In the end, I believe with all my heart that God knows how to do his work.
Editor’s note: This article is based on a talk given at BYU Women's Conference. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.