Children of divorce

Between Two Worlds : The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce
by Elizabeth Marquardt
288pp | Crown | ISBN 0307237109 | 2005 | US$24.95

“Children are voiceless: they don’t write books, they don’t vote, they don’t usually get interviewed on television. We learn about their experience by sensitively observing their lives and later, when they are grown up, asking them what it was like.”

That’s what American author Elizabeth Marquardt did: she asked children what it was like to be the child of divorced parents. Looking at divorce from the child’s point of view was the central theme of a three year study, involving over 1500 interviews in a carefully controlled random survey.

The answers helped Marquardt in a very personal way. Since the age of three, when her own parents divorced, she had a puzzle in her mind, which as a child she was unable to put into words: “If your parents love you and they get along reasonably well with each other, why is then divorce so wrenching for the child?”

The answers appear in a just-published book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. The book challenges the popular idea of the “good divorce”. The author argues that while an amicable divorce is certainly better than a bitter one, even amicable divorces sow lasting inner conflict in the lives of children.

“…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.

Nationwide survey

  Some of the findings from the survey:
  • Young adults from divorced families are much more likely to say that, growing up, they felt like a different person with each of their parents.
  • They are much more likely to say their divorced parents were polar opposites, even in the majority of cases when their parents did not conflict a lot.
  • They are much more likely to say that they kept secrets for their parents, even when their parents did not ask them to.
  • They are more likely to say they feared resembling one of their parents too much, because it might alienate them from the other parent.
  • They are much more likely to say they often felt alone as a child.
  • They are more likely to say that at times they felt like an outsider in their home.
  • Marquardt, married with two children of her own, has two Masters degrees from the University of Chicago. In conjunction with Dr Norval Glenn, a sociologist and family scholar from the University of Texas, she conducted a national survey of young men and women between the ages of 18 and 35. They were randomly selected and had varying levels of educational attainment. Half of them experienced their parents’ divorce before they were fourteen years old and the other half grew up in intact families. Those from divorced families continued to see both parents in the years after the divorce.

    Earlier, she had conducted over 70 personal interviews with young adults in the same age group. These were all college graduates and so were less likely to have serious social or emotional problems. She says this was helpful in examining the effects of divorce on those who were especially resilient. These interviews helped formulate the questions for the larger survey. Marquardt says “almost all of the questions posed in this study have never before been asked of children of divorce”. The numbers involved are large. There are an estimated 15 million adults in the US, about one in four persons aged 18 to 35, whose parents divorced.

    The essential message of Marquardt’s book is that children of a divorce who stay in touch with both parents become travellers between two worlds, not simply physically, but in much deeper ways. Even if their parents have an amicable or “good” divorce, the child experiences a profound and lasting inner conflict, a conflict that shapes their moral and spiritual identities into adulthood.

    How does this happen? In a normal marriage, parents bring two sets of beliefs, values and ways of living. The differences may be large, or relatively small. The marriage requires compromises and ways to handle conflict. Parents learn to harmonise their differences and to complement one another. Although they are different individuals, they develop a unity.

    But if parents divorce, each retreats to live in their own world. Over time they grow further apart in beliefs, values and ways of living. The child who is in touch with both has the task of making sense of their often strikingly different ways of thinking and living.

    Fundamental questions

    Marquardt says that alone, and at a young age, children of divorce must determine what their own beliefs and values will be. When they ask some of the fundamental questions that everyone must confront on the road to building their own identities –Who am I? Where did I come from? What is right and wrong? – they look to two completely different models, two ways of being that they often see as fundamentally at odds with one another. When there is a high degree of conflict after a divorce, the child’s job is harder. But the task is still large for the child of an amicable divorce.

    Marquardt does not argue that no one should ever get divorced. Nor does she say that divorced parents are bad people. But she asks them to think carefully. Two thirds of divorces, she says, end a low-conflict marriage, in which the parents divorce because they are unhappy or unfulfilled, or have other problems that are not seriously threatening. For the children, the divorce marks their first exposure to a serious problem. “One day, without much warning, their world just falls apart.”

    “Most parents take the decision to divorce quite seriously, but I urge parents to think harder still. For those who wish to save and improve their marriages there are resources they may not know about.”
    “… as much as I believe we should support and understand the needs of divorced or single parents, I feel even more strongly that we should not let our concern for them prevent us from looking unflinchingly at the experience of children of divorce.”
    Marquardt believes we must be sensitive to the needs of divorced adults “but for the sake of the children – those of us who are the first generation to come of age with widespread divorce, and the current generation of young children – we need to confront the truth of their lives as well.”

    Marquardt says that the moral confusion and isolation these children experience also has an impact on their spiritual journeys as well. On the whole, children of divorce are less religious than their peers from intact families. But paradoxically, some have become much more religious as a result of the divorce.

    A striking comment came from one of her interviewees, Jennifer, who came from an intact family. She had noticed the differences in attitudes and behaviour shown by children of divorced parents. “It’s almost like coming from a different culture.”

    Gerald Mercer is editor of the Australian magazine Social Action.


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    • Gerald Mercer