Even though adult children of divorce often appear well-adjusted and successful, their childhoods were profoundly scarred by their parents’ breakup, a study finds.
The “untold story” of divorce is that it forces children into a strange new childhood that is filled with stress, secrets and fears about safety, says Elizabeth Marquardt, author of “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.”
Many researchers say that if children “don’t end up drug addicts in the street,” it means they are just fine and the divorce wasn’t a problem for them, says Mrs. Marquardt, who is one of roughly 15 million Generation Xers — or one in four persons ages 18 to 35 — whose parents divorced.
“But just because you’ve managed to survive something and come through it OK doesn’t mean at all that the experience was no big deal. … As a society, we still have not grasped just how radical divorce really is,” says Mrs. Marquardt, a scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York.
Her advice to parents is to fight harder to save their marriages instead of opting for a “good divorce.”
“While a good divorce is better than a bad divorce, it is still not good,” she says.
Mrs. Marquardt’s views collide with those of the booming divorce industry, which maintains that “the way” parents divorce is more important than the divorce itself.
“Ending a marriage is a painful, wrenching process that shakes up the family’s foundation, but it doesn’t follow that the family itself is broken,” sociology professor Constance Ahrons wrote in her 2004 book, “We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce.”
In her study of 173 adult children of divorce, Ms. Ahrons found that most of the children had blossomed into effective adults who were connected to their families. Three-quarters thought they and their parents were better off because of the divorce.
“How you rearrange the ingredients — how two new households are built from the original foundation — is the key to the family’s future,” concluded Ms. Ahrons, a divorcee who coined the phrase “The Good Divorce” in her 1994 book of that title.
Divorce rates have been edging down nationally. In 2004, there were 3.7 divorces per 1,000 persons, compared with 3.8 divorces per 1,000 in 2003 and 3.9 divorces per 1,000 in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
In 2004, this translated into about 800,000 divorces, far fewer than the 1 million-plus a year recorded for much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
But 800,000 divorces a year is still a formidable number, which is why most academics and counselors accept widespread divorce as inevitable and focus on helping couples create amicable or “good” divorces.
“I think divorce looms large for all children, but I don’t think it’s a huge handicap,” says Vicki Lansky, author of many divorce-related books, including “Divorce Book for Parents: Helping Your Children Cope with Divorce and Its Aftermath” and “It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear.”
“Most people understand that divorce is problematic for their children, but studies have also shown that an unhappy family or a family with a lot of yelling or anger is as much, if not more, detrimental to a child … than divorce,” says Ms. Lansky, who divorced many years ago.
She prescribes divorce education so parents won’t keep fighting after the breakup, and arrangements that give both parents access to their children.
It would also help if the nation would stop hyping the “whole nuclear-family fantasy” and how children deserve “perfect lives,” Ms. Lansky adds.
“I don’t think anybody has perfect lives,” she says. “Family configurations are so different today, and I think it’s wonderful. I think we need more family, not less. … The more, the merrier.”
Mrs. Marquardt says her study is unique because it captures the inchoate impact of divorce — the dismay, longing, discomfort, anger and worry that children experience, but often can’t put into words.
With help from University of Texas at Austin professor Norval Glenn, she surveyed or interviewed more than 1,500 adults, ages 18-35, half from divorced families and half from intact families.
Her research shows that children of divorce learn to:
Worry about child abuse, sexual abuse and parental kidnapping.
Worry about their “stuff,” because it is often lost in the constant traveling.
Wonder about religion and God, owing to the mixed messages they receive from their parents.
Become “chameleons,” because they must figure out how to function in their parents’ often starkly different worlds.
Become vigilant about parental moods.
Become a keeper of secrets, especially those of their parents.
Handle a parent’s subsequent remarriage and/or divorce.
For most children, the most dramatic change is going from being a member of one, intact family to being a part of two or more families with ever-changing rosters of parental lovers, relatives, stepparents and stepsiblings, says Mrs. Marquardt.
Any sense of “belonging” is lost because “as children of divorce, we became insiders and outsiders in each of our parents’ worlds,” she said.
Mrs. Marquardt, who is married and a mother, says she is not calling for an end to divorce or trying to make divorced parents, including her own, feel bad. Her message is that two-thirds of divorces occur to couples who have unhappy but low-conflict marriages.
“I urge parents to think harder still” about ending those marriages, she says. “A lot of people in an unhappy marriage can get happier in their marriage.”
Speaking for herself and other members of “the first generation” of Americans to grow up in a society where divorce is prevalent, Mrs. Marquardt adds: “This is what we want: a home, strong marriages, wholeness, understanding of our true experience and a secure world for our children — one world.”