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The children left behind

A pioneering study finds that loneliness and inner conflict are part of the legacy of divorce, no matter how amicable the split.

November 15, 2005|Elizabeth Marquardt | ELIZABETH MARQUARDT, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, is the author of "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce" (Crown).

MANY EXPERTS and parents embrace the idea of the "good" divorce -- the reassuring concept that it's not divorce itself that harms children but simply the way that parents divorce. If divorced parents stay involved with their child and don't fight, they say, then children will be fine.

There's only one problem. It's not true.

In a first-ever national study, which I conducted with sociologist Norval Glenn at the University of Texas at Austin, the grown children of divorce say there's no such thing as a "good" divorce. This telephone survey of 1,500 young adults, half from divorced families and half from intact families -- supplemented with more than 70 in-person interviews across the country -- reveals that any kind of divorce, whether amicable or not, sows lasting inner conflict.

And loneliness turns out to be one of the abiding legacies of divorce. The frequent absence of their parents -- who were living in another household, working or dating -- made the grown children of divorce seven times more likely to agree with the statement "I was alone a lot as a child." Many remember no one reaching out to them when their parents split up. Stephen, whose parents divorced when he was 12, recalled his best friend saying, "If you need to talk about anything, you can talk to me." But, Stephen said, he was the only one.

Even at church, the losses and fears of the children of divorce very often went unnoticed. Of those who were actively involved in a church at the time of their parents' divorce, two-thirds say no one from the clergy or congregation reached out to them during the most dramatic upheaval of their lives.

Having to grow up too soon is also a recurring theme. Only a small minority of parents incur a lot of conflict after they divorce. But even when the parents don't fight, the children have to take on the stressful new job of making sense of their parents' different beliefs, values and lifestyles -- even as their parents are freed to start new lives.

As a result, many grown children of divorce say they felt divided inside. As children they feared resembling either parent too much, because looking or acting too much like one parent could make them an outsider, rejected in the other parent's world. As children they felt much less safe. Just 44% of the grown children of divorce strongly agreed that they generally felt emotionally safe as children, compared with 79% of those with married parents.

The children were rocked by divorce no matter how old they were when it occurred. Daniel, who was 7 at the time, said that after the divorce, "I had problems sleeping. I would wake up feeling very alone or afraid. Like I had this fear of fires, of wars.... I always felt like things were lurking around the corners." Steve said that after his parents' divorce, "I think deep down I was always afraid of something happening to me. What that was, I'm not quite sure."

Many also recall feeling that they had to protect their parents and felt far less able to go to them for comfort. Katy, whose parents divorced when she was 3, said she was always "on my best behavior" when visiting her father and stepmother. "I didn't want there to be a reason for anyone to look down upon my mother or say anything against her because of me."

More than half of grown children of divorce said they felt the need to protect their mother emotionally, compared with just one-third of those with married parents. Many said the same thing about their father. And in an astounding finding, just one-third of young adults from divorced families say that when they were young and needed comfort they went to one or both of their parents, compared with two-thirds of those with married parents. The grown children of divorce were more likely to say they went to siblings or friends or just tried to deal with their problems alone. They felt their parents were busy working or starting new families, or were preoccupied nursing wounds of their own.

Experts often insist that if divorced parents only minimize their conflict after divorce, then the children will be fine. But we found that only one-fifth of grown children of divorce recall "a lot" of parental conflict after the divorce. Yet they still struggled alone to figure out the big questions in life -- what is true, what is right and wrong, whether there is a God. The often dramatic contrasts in their parents' beliefs and values, and the silence about the divorce, seemed to leave them little choice.

There's a new generation speaking up about divorce now -- the quarter of all young adults who grew up in divorced families. Their stories make one thing clear: A "good" divorce is better than a "bad" divorce, but it's never good. Abusive marriages are bad for children, and divorce is a critical safety valve for kids and parents alike. But most people are not aware that two-thirds of divorces today end low-conflict marriages. For the children's sake, we need to save and strengthen these marriages whenever possible. And if parents must divorce, we should no longer overlook the lonely, divided children left in the wake.

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