In 2019, the CDC reported that out of 45 states, the divorce rate was 2.7 for every 1,000 population, meaning many children are left with untreated psychological wounds and repeating the cycle of brokenness. When Joey Pontarelli was 11 years old, his parents split, and left with his pain and anger, he found unhealthy ways to cope with his parent’s divorce. Later in life, he was able to heal and also help others through Restored, a ministry he started to help children of divorce find the same healing he did.
“As soon as my mom broke the news that she and my dad were getting divorced I immediately felt abandoned, unwanted and I felt like I just wasn’t enough,” Pontarelli said. “I was like, ‘whatever, Mom and Dad are going separate ways and not fighting for us.’ It was absolutely a traumatic experience.”
Pontarelli grew up struggling with relationships and psychological issues. After time, he realized that all these issues could be pinpointed from the breakdown of his parent’s marriage. Divorce was not only something that affected him; he also knew friends whose parents had divorced and who suffered from psychological issues like anxiety, depression, OCD, and even suicide attempts. When Pontarelli reflected on his life, he noticed that his own relationships suffered as his trust issues surfaced due to fear that they would end, just as his parent’s relationship did. As he started to look for a speaker or a retreat, he found very few resources that could help him. When he graduated from college, Pontarelli explains he always felt in his heart a call from God to create practical guidance for children both young and old dealing with divorce, and that’s how his ministry Restored started.
“What I saw was if you don’t heal, you end up passing the brokenness on to the other people in your life and we end up just repeating the cycle again and again,” Pontarelli explained. “So one of the things we’re trying to do through Restored is to reverse the cycle of divorce and dysfunction.”
Restored is a community that offers content on how to deal with your parents’ divorce as well as find people who are going through the same situation. Pontarelli goes to schools and churches to speak about this ever-growing issue. If a person is seeking help, they can be referred to a network of counselors and spiritual directors. They also offer a podcast called “Restored: Helping Children of Divorce” in which Pontarelli interviews experts on how to heal and cope with present or past wounds from their parents’ divorce. There is also a blog where people can post anonymously and tell stories to help others realize they are not alone in their situation and pain.
Pontarelli makes it clear that he is not a psychologist but rather a curator who knows where to point to the perfect resources to help someone going through a difficult time. He has a book coming out on Sept. 21 titled It’s Not Your Fault, which offers 33 questions and answers on the most pressing challenges faced by young adults dealing with their parents’ divorce. Pontarelli explains that the idea behind the book was to make a practical roadmap for people to start with.
“[I put] the best of psychology and different things and put it into people’s hands and then, of course, let them know that if they need additional help, they need to go to a mental health professional,” Pontarelli said.
Pontarelli seeks to find help for everyone, even those who are not religious. However, he feels that with the grace of God, the process of healing is easier.
“Human healing or healing on the human level can only go so far. You will hit a ceiling at some point. There is a lot of good stuff in psychology and in personal development that is all good and useful,” he said “I think God gave it [all] to us, but ultimately if you really want to heal on a deep level we need God’s grace, which is God’s life in our souls. He can help us to heal in ways that we can never do ourselves and that’s really what God’s good at, right? He can do things that we can’t and he can bring good out of evil.”
He explained that through God’s grace, we can avoid evil like unhealthy ways of coping, which are things like pornography, drugs, self-harm, etc. He strongly encourages that Catholics make use of the sacraments to obtain that grace. Pontarelli says that one of the biggest roadblocks of people who come from a broken family is feeling abandoned by God.
“One of the things Father Mike Schmitz said is, ‘Sometimes God’s only response to our pain is his presence,’ so what I found is to try to find him in the midst of everything that was going wrong.” he said. “Eventually, I think building that relationship with God [is necessary] even though it can be difficult because we tend to think of God as our parents. We project their image onto him and so we think, ‘Well, if Dad left and ran off with another woman then how do I know God’s not going to abandon me?’ We can go through that sort of abandonment again and so, therefore, we just have no interest in a relationship with God.”
Divorce is painful for children even if it was necessary for the couple, and that is what Pontarelli wants people to know. Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist and researcher, studied the effects of divorce on children. Pontarelli explains that she noted in her research that 70% of divorces are low conflict, which means that couples could have stayed together but chose not to. This points to the issue of the cultural depreciation of monogamous and committed relationships. Ultimately, Pontarelli wants children of divorce to know that it’s not their fault and the cycle of brokenness can end with you.
“We blame ourselves thinking, ‘well, maybe if I was a better kid or maybe if I did this or said that I could have prevented my parents from breaking apart’ and that’s not true,” Pontarelli assured. “The problems in your parent’s marriage didn’t originate with you. They were likely there well before you were even around, so it’s not your fault. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it. There’s nothing you can do to fix or heal their marriage. They have to do that themselves.”
For more information about Restored, visit restoredministry.com.