Children of Divorce

New Study Explores the Nasty Effects

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CHICAGO, OCT. 15, 2005 (Zenit.org).- A quarter of U.S. adults ages 18 to 35 have grown up in divorced families. The impact of divorce on them is the subject of a new book, "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce" (Crown Publishers).



Author Elizabeth Marquardt surveyed 1,500 young adults from both divorced and intact families, and conducted in-depth interviews with more than 70 of them. Her conclusion: "While divorce is sometimes necessary, there is no such thing as a good divorce."

Marquardt acknowledges that children in high-conflict marriages, or in situations where there is violence, benefit from divorce. Such cases, however, involve only around one-third of divorces, and the children of the other low-conflict marriages fare worse after divorce. And, while noting that most parents take seriously the decision to divorce, Marquardt urges them to try even harder to preserve their marriages, given the costs involved for their children.

Even if a divorce is amicable, and the couple maintains a good relationship after separating, and even if they continue to love and care for the children, this does not eliminate "the radical restructuring of the child's universe," the author contends.

The moment when parents split is only the start of this restructuring. Around two-thirds of the children of divorce surveyed by Marquardt say they felt they grew up in two families, not one. Growing up in two worlds creates a whole series of problems, starting with the fact that both parents are no longer "insiders," or a part of the family.

Parallel worlds

In marriage, Marquardt explains, parents often have differences, but they work together to bridge them and they manage to give family life a unity. But a divorce often encourages the former spouses to define themselves in opposition to each other. Hence the beliefs and values of the two parents, instead of achieving an equilibrium, exist in parallel, creating contrasts and conflicts, rather than unity, for the children.

After the split, the conflict between former spouses may no longer be open, but the conflict between their two worlds is still very much alive, Marquardt observes. A child in a united family, by contrast, does not have to spend so much time and effort in reconciling the differences between parents, and can concentrate on enjoying daily life.

Thus, children of divorced couples are forced to enter into an adult world of responsibilities and worries at a young age. Marquardt's survey revealed that even among those children whose parents had managed their divorce well (in terms of reducing the impact on the kids) around half agreed that they always felt like an adult, even when they were young. This proportion reached two-thirds among children whose parents' divorces were more problematic.

Following a divorce, many of the children felt they had a responsibility to protect their mothers, and a substantial number had to take on greater duties in caring for their siblings. This also happens in families where a parent dies or is seriously ill; the difference with divorce is that the children know it comes about as a result of a voluntary choice on the part of at least one parent.

The way in which a divorce comes about also often wounds children, recounts Marquardt. In an ideal situation, the parents would gather the children together and carefully explain everything, and reassure them about the future. Yet, the breakup of a marriage is often messy and chaotic, making it difficult for the parents to organize well the initial announcement to their children, the author reports.

Moreover, the adults are often vulnerable and in grief or shock. It can be hard for children to see their parents in this situation. And it also means that just when the children are in need of comfort they are less able to turn to their parents for support.

Further problems arise in the post-divorce period, when children have to deal with the conflicts and criticisms between the former spouses. The young adults who grew up in divorced families told Marquardt how they felt obliged to be careful what they said to each parent about the other. Such information could lead to hurt feelings or trigger criticisms about the other parent.

Forging values

Notably, Marquardt's book focuses on the impact of divorce on the moral lives of children. The children feel conflict as they experience different values and ways of life in each parent's separate household. The result is that the children now have to forge their own values and beliefs, the author contends.

Normally, children absorb their parents' values in a natural and gradual process, without having to make a conscious effort. Clearly, there are often differences between parents, but on the whole the children see their parents' values as complementary. And the parents normally work together, backing up each other's authority.

But the young adults studied by Marquardt rarely thought of their parents' values as unified. Differences on small matters such as household routines or disciplinary norms, or more important subjects such as moral values and ambitions for their children, grow wider after divorce. This leaves the children confused, and faced with the task of having to construct their own values in the midst of this conflict.

The differences between the two households means more that just an uncomfortable social situation, where we don't want to offend someone, Marquardt comments. The conflicts are between the two most important people in a child's life -- and these crossed signals go to the heart of a child's identity.

One consequence is that of the children interviewed, 24% of those from divorced families say they do not share the similar moral values with their fathers. And 17% felt the same about their mothers. This compares with children from intact families, where only 6% say they do not share similar values with their parents.

Asked about where they got their sense of right and wrong, children of divorce will name mothers, but rarely fathers. Requiring such children to forge their own values, Marquardt concludes, might help to explain why they have higher rates of problems such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy and delinquency.

Another finding of the study is that today's young adult children of divorce are less religious overall than their peers from intact families. Sometimes the suffering caused by their parents' divorce leads them to question their belief in God. Others are motivated to seek answers to their doubts in religious faith, but the process can be a struggle.

Overall, the young adults from divorced families are less likely to feel religious or to practice their faith as those from intact families. They are also more likely to doubt the sincerity of their parents' faith.

Marquardt concludes by observing that children require strong, lasting marriages in order to have the secure home they need while growing up. They are not like property that can be divided, but need love, stability and moral guidance. This means making changes to our thinking about marriages. Parents, she pleads, must not just love their children but must also love and forgive each other, to sustain families that last a lifetime.