“To Forgive My Father” Children of Divorce and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Frank Weathers has a tremendously powerful post on his blog about how he came to forgive his father for the affair that ended his parents’ marriage when he was five years old.  It is a truly inspirational story of the power of grace and the fruit of forgiveness.

In reading Frank’s reflection, I was reminded of Elizabeth Marquardt’s important research on the spiritual lives of children of divorce.  One aspect of that research is that she found that adult children of divorce often have a very different understanding of some basic stories or teachings of the faith.  A specific example that emerged from her research is the paradoxical understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) that many adult children of divorce related to her.

The Prodigal Son:  The Story

As most of you recall, the parable tells the story of a son who demands his share of his inheritance while his father is still alive.  Upon receiving the money, the son retreats to a far-off land where he squanders the money on all sorts of immoral pursuits.  Running out of money, the son is forced to work as a pig farmer until he decides that it would be better to be his father’s servant than to continue where he is.  He returns home expecting to have to beg to be allowed to be an employee in his father’s household but his father sees him on the road, runs to him, forgives him, and reaffirms their relationship as father and son even to the point of throwing a party for the son who was lost and has returned.

Most people who hear that story cast themselves in the role of the prodigal son.  We imagine ourselves as the ones who left our father and who are in need of forgiveness.  We experience the story as a powerful witness of God’s mercy and love and we rejoice in knowing that nothing we could ever do could separate us from the love of our Heavenly Father.

Marquardt’s research shows that many children of divorce do not see the story this way.

How Divorce Twists the Story:

Rather, children of divorce tend to cast themselves in the role of the abandoned father.  They see their parent as the prodigal son who leaves the family because of some sin.  Children of divorce tend to hear this parable not so much as a comforting story of the abundance of God’s forgiveness and love, but as a command to forgive the prodigal parent.  As a result, children of divorce often struggle with faith because they are either not ready to forgive that parent or perhaps feel that their faith is commanding them to do something that is not safe (as in the case of an abusive parent).

It’s an eye-opening finding.

I’m glad Frank found the strength to forgive his dad and I’m glad that he also experienced the blessings that come with forgiveness.  His story is truly inspiring.  But I hope that we can do more to help children of divorce step out of the caretaking role and experience that love and forgiveness that comes without cost.

Or, better yet, perhaps we parents can work on our marriages a little harder and stop putting our kids in the role of being our emotional/spiritual caretakers.


Pope Francis says many children are, “Orphans within the family.”
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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Amy Ziettlow

    In the Between Two Worlds documentary http://www.centerformarriageandfamilies.org/shape-of-families/ based on Marquardt’s book there is an intensely powerful moment about halfway through when one of the interviewee recites a poem he wrote titled, “Prodigal Dad.” I’ve used the documentary with several study groups and there is never a dry eye, myself included.

    • gpopcak

      Hi Amy, Thanks for visiting. It’s nice to see you here. I miss Family Scholars Blog although, by the end, I’m afraid it was more of an occasion of sin for me than anything else. Regardless, I appreciate the link. I agree it’s a terrific resource. Glad you stopped by. God Bless, G.

  • C.M.

    Love your last comment Dr. P!