Divorce affects kids in a profound way.
I have just finished reading what could be my biography. Elizabeth Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce had me highlighting and underlining and starring sentences on almost every page.
Here’s just a mundane example of something that made me laugh because I identified so much. When children from intact families are asked about birthdays from their childhood, they typically mention their own: their parties, their gifts, their cakes. Children of divorce recall their parents’ birthdays. As a child, I made my mother gifts, I bought her hideous earrings, I wrote her poems and stories. In intact families, the other parent usually helps the child remember a birthday, so the episode doesn’t register much. But for children of divorce, it is a big deal because we have to train ourselves to remember. We played the adult role.
Even today, I think more about my mother’s presents than I do about my husband’s. Keith barely remembers his own mother’s, and I scold him about this every year, even while I feel guilty for forgetting it myself (sorry, Cheryl). But I remember my mom’s.
Right now a couple close to me is contemplating divorce. The one instigating the break said to me, “you did fine, and my kids will, too”. And it is true. Most kids of divorce grow into well-functioning adults. But just because we have overcome hardship and heartache doesn’t mean that that heartache didn’t matter.
Since the early 1970s, when divorce became widespread, there has been this mistaken idea that children do best when their parents are happy. Marquardt, Judith Wallerstein, and others completing long-term studies of kids of divorce, though, show that contrary to popular belief, a child from an intact but unhappy family with only low-level conflict tends to grow up happier and more secure than a child from a divorced family, even if that divorce was a “good” one. Children, you see, don’t worry so much about their parents’ happiness as they do about their own security. And divorce ends that abruptly, no matter how “amicable” that divorce is supposed to be.
When parents divorce, a child’s world comes crashing down. It doesn’t matter if both parents still love you; the simple fact is that, to a child, at least one did not love you enough. They thought of their own needs before they thought of yours. Emotional security has disappeared. As a consequence, Marquardt found the biggest difference between children of divorce and children of intact families is that kids of divorce felt old even when they were very young.
And there’s a reason for that. When parents divorce, kids spend long amounts of time away from each parent, so nobody actually shares the child’s whole life anymore. The only person who knows the child fully is the child him or herself. And so the child walks through life alone.
It’s interesting that in almost every other avenue of parenthood we try to spare our children pain. But when it comes to divorce, we ask three-year-old kids to be separated from their mothers for weekends, and from their dads for weeks at a time, or vice versa. We ask small children to sleep in strange bedrooms, to move much more than usual, to change schools, to get used to intruders in the house you’re supposed to call step-siblings or step-parents, and to undergo all these changes without complaint.
Today one third of divorces are inevitable, because one parent is abusive, addicted, or unfaithful. Marquardt is not addressing parents who flee these types of relationships. And I have written on why we need to divorce when there is abuse. But two thirds of divorces are simply because one or both spouses would prefer to leave. In these cases, as Marquardt shows, there are no good divorces. Of course, many parents, like my mother, had little choice about the disintegration of the marriage. Their spouses left, and they tried to build a solid home for the children also left behind. Those parents deserve our praise and admiration. But other adults think their personal happiness is worth their children’s agony. If those parents could listen to the voices in this book, maybe they’d realize the children do not agree.