Split Loyalty: What Damages Children Most in Divorce

By Brynn Cicippio

We all know or have heard how bad divorces can be harmful to children.  divorce split loyalty resized 600

Outcomes for children of divorce can include:
  • confusion
  • mistrust
  • loss of security
  • being the go-between  

But there are also deeper, longer lasting impacts of parental conflict than that, and the consequences can be life altering for everyone.

Suicide as an Outcome of Divorce?

Have you ever considered suicide as an outcome for your children of a messy divorce?  How about suicide as a result of staying in an unhealthy marriage?  It's serious and it's real.  And now that I have your attention let me explain how we got there.

In the field of contextual therapy, there are several primary themes that guide us in having healthy relationships, one of these being loyalty.

Loyalty is a very important aspect of relationships, as it helps align our priorities.  By nature, familial relationships often come first.  A parent who leaves work early to attend a child’s sporting event, for example, is demonstrating appropriate loyalty.  In turn, children will hold their parents as a priority over all other relationships.

When there is competition for the same loyalty position (i.e. parent vs. parent), a child can often experience what's referred to as 'split loyalty.'  This is where things get very messy.

By definition, split loyalty is when “an individual is required to show loyalty to one deserving relationship at the cost of betraying or being disloyal to another deserving relationship.”

Things Parents Say that Lead to Split Loyalty 

Imagine the following being told to a child by a parent: 

  • “Your mom is irresponsible and selfish; no wonder you don’t have fun at her house.”
  • “I don’t understand your father; he always goes against me, everything is his fault.”
  • “I should really just leave your mother; we would all be happier.”
  • “Ugh, you’re just like your father!” (yelling)
  • “Have fun with your mother.” (in a sarcastic tone)
  • “This is why I divorced your dad!”

And the list goes on and on.

Children are Damaged Most in Divorce from Split Loyalty

What’s happening for these kids every time they hear these comments?  They are being placed in a position of split loyalty.  Inherently, these parents are asking their children to reject half of themselves, as all kids are essentially half parent A and half parent B.  This division, as you can imagine, results in internal conflict and turmoil.  And the comments coming from either parent, day after day, year after year, only makes the divided trench deeper and deeper.  

Take a piece of printing paper, clean, white, no markings on it.  Imagine this is your child’s soul, pure as the day they were born.  You can’t see what half comes from parent A or parent B, right?  Next, rip the paper in half, right down the middle.  This is split loyalty at its finest, tearing your child in half.

So how can you avoid split loyalties, and how can we mend the damage already done?

Many cannot live with this pain and this is why you will find at the root of most suicides, a history of split loyalty.

Here are 11 ways you, as a parent, can help your children avoid feeling split loyalty: 

    • Have another adult to confide in/vent.
    • Make your child’s happiness the priority.
    • Recognize that your child is half parent A and half parent B.
    • Tell your child that the other parent is important to you, because it wasn’t for their other parent, your child would not be here.
    • Share with your child what positive attributes and qualities they get from their other parent.
    • Encourage your child to have fun and spend time with their other parent.
    • Don’t let your child dictate when they will see the other parent (it's too much responsibility).
    • Be genuinely interested in what your child does with their other parent, just like you would be interested in their school events.
    • Don’t threaten your child with the other parent as punishment (“If you don’t behave, I’m sending you to your dad’s...”)
    • Allow your child to take their belongings to either home.
    • If arguments ensue, always be the bigger person and remember, it's for your child's well-being.

You can also mend damage already done by engaging in these exact activities.  It's never too late to change - and your child’s life may depend on it.

About the Author

Brynn Cicippio

Picture of Brynn Cicippio Brynn Cicippio is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Wayne, PA. She specializes in treating addicted clients as well as divorced and blended families. She is listed as a professional with the National Stepfamily Resource Center. In addition, Brynn is an adjunct professor at LaSalle University in the graduate Counseling and Family Therapy program. www.TherapywithBrynn.com. 610-203-9409

Find out what you can do to help your children when preparing for divorce:

Learn about Parenting through Divorce

Topics: Mindful Divorcing Parent