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Kurt Cobain and Divorcing Parents: Careful!  The Kids May NOT Be Fine

April 5th was the 18th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Yahoo! Music marked the event by lamenting the divorce of Cobain’s parents.  By all accounts Kurt was a happy and very creative child, both musically and artistically, prior to his mom and dad divorcing.  When his mom ran off with a longshoreman, his problems began.

I have the unique position of hearing people tell me their rationalizations for divorce. The whole mess is a case in delusion.  I call it “The Zone.”  The Zone is when a person is locked into a position where they insist on doing a thing that is hurtful and deny that it is hurtful to them or their loved ones.  People can be in a zone about pornography, alcohol, drugs, an affair, divorce or suicide.  If people actually go to therapy while in the Zone there is a chance they can be snapped out if it, but I wouldn’t claim to be all that successful.  The idea of therapy is helping people deal with reality, to helpfully face “what is” and, if people come to therapy, there’s a chance there’s a chink in the armor and I can break through with a ray of light.


Parents who divorce willingly and freely (I have no shame for people whose spouses dumped them.  If your spouse is bound and determined to dump you, there’s not much you can do.  Although you could come and see me and read Divorce Busting), are usually totally unaware of the devastating effect divorce will have on their family, let alone the effect of divorce on the person who willingly divorces.  These parents tell me “We have really good kids.  No, I mean, really good kids.  The kids will be fine.”

I have the unique position of hearing hundreds of stories of people whose parents divorced.  Nearly all tell me about it with a feeling of mourning and heaviness and that it was the one negative event that sent their world into a dim orbit.  Kids of divorce doubt themselves and have been taught there is no forgiveness or reconciliation and things and people you depend on can rip your heart out so you need to withdraw and protect yourself or get mad and project yourself inappropriately.  Those are the two extremes.  And it ain’t pretty.

Listen to the transformation in Kurt Cobain’s life:

Kurt’s youth is like a before-and-after picture with a very clear point of division. “I had a really good childhood, up until I was 9,” he told Spin magazine a couple of years before his death.

It was at that age that his parents divorced. And his is such a textbook case of what can go wrong with a family after an unexpected split that Cobain’s life story ought to be be required reading for divorcing couples before they sign the final paperwork.

Then his sense of security came to an end when Wendy told Don she wanted a divorce and took off in the car, leaving her quiet-type husband to explain to the kids what was happening. Don remained in denial about the reality of the split for months or even years to come, which helped keep Kurt stuck in the same position. Apparently no one in the family except Wendy had seen it coming, even though there’d been increasing fights over money problems….

Cross* describes this moment in Kurt’s life as an all-defining “emotional holocaust.”

…He wrote on his bedroom wall: “I hate Mom, I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom, Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you want to be so sad.”

Cobain’s mother taught him by her leaving her family that if you get in the Zone, there’s nothing you can do.  She got into a Zone about her own divorce.  He got into a Zone about suicide.  You teach your children to give up when you divorce, to give up just like you did.  You teach your children by what you do, not by what you say.  A much better approach is to overcome whatever Zone you end up in and show your family (spouse and children) that the demons you fight can be conquered, so they learn to fight the ones in their lives.

Look, I know that not everyone whose parents divorce becomes a suicidal, cynical rock star.  But can we just put to rest this idea that because you think you need to divorce to be happy that everyone in your sphere is going to jump for joy because of your happiness.  Quite frankly, they won’t be happy and, I can tell you, you won’t be happy either.  You don’t get happiness by seeking to save your own life.  For Cobain, his parents’ divorce began his dark, downward spiral that never let up.  Sure, he’s responsible for the choices he made on his own descent.  Nevertheless, why would a parent want to be the cause of THE precipitating negative event in a child’s life?

*Charles R. Cross in Heavier Than Heaven


See also Brandon’s Blog: Families Without Fathers and The Effects of Divorce on Children and Parents.  See also Dr. Bing’s Blog Famous Words Before Divorce: My Children Are My Number One Priority. and We’ll Have a Nice Divorce! and Divorce Will Be Fine.


Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.


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