BOOKS: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce
, May 12, 2007
Forced to grow up prematurelyBETWEEN TWO WORLDS:
The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce
by Elizabeth Marquardt
(New York: Three Rivers Press)
Paperback: 288 pages
Rec. price: AUD$27.95Since the 1960s, the Western world has embarked upon a novel and large-scale social experiment: the demolition of marriage and the elevation of divorce. Never before in the West have so many marriages ended in divorce, and so many children been forced to endure the pain of parental separation.
This seismic shift in marriage is as new as it is far-reaching. And because it is so recent, it has only been in the past few years that an entire generation of children who have lived through divorce have grown up and can give their version of events.
That story is uniformly damning: divorce hurts children, and it hurts them deeply and in a myriad of ways, with that hurt continuing throughout adult life. Another clear message coming from these children is that there is no such thing as a “good divorce”.Only option?
Certainly, in some cases divorce is the only option. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, divorce need not have been the option, and children of divorce desperately wished it did not happen. In truth, children of divorce “typically experience painful losses, moral confusion, spiritual suffering, strained or broken relationships, and higher rates of all kinds of social problems”. Their world, in other words, is turned upside-down.
Marquardt argues that while divorce is a way for adults to cope with their problems, it is not in the best interests of the child in most cases. Allowing for certain obvious exceptions, most difficult marriages can be remedied if the parents are willing to work at it.
Indeed, most marriages that end in divorce - two-thirds of them - are low-conflict. Children do not benefit from parental divorce. Indeed, “the best possible outcome for children is to live in one home with their mother and father”.
Marquardt has double reason to make these claims. First, she is herself the child of a divorce. Second, she has based her conclusions on a pioneering study of 1,500 young adults from both intact and divorced families. The study, conducted by her and sociologist Norval Glenn, has simply verified what most people know by common sense: divorce has numerous negative consequences for children, and many of those consequences stay with them for the rest of their lives.
This book examines in detail these findings. The actual facts and figures are there, but so too are numerous personal testimonies of those involved in the study. They put a human face on to the statistical data. And the face seen is a sad one indeed. Divorce impacts on children profoundly, and the stories told here are tragic and moving.
The three-year study made many disturbing discoveries. Meaty chapters explore the various negative outcomes for children of divorce. Consider just one area: the divided self of the child of divorce. The child is ripped out of a cohesive and unified environment (even where conflict takes place) and “suddenly inherits two distinct worlds in which to grow up”.
Says Marquardt, every marriage experiences conflict, but there is an underlying cohesion and solidarity to the marriage which is radically destroyed by divorce. In marriage two individuals “become one flesh”, but in divorce the parents are separated and become two people again. The child - quite unprepared - is forced to deal with this new reality.
Adds Marquardt: “After a divorce the task that once belonged to the parents - to make sense of their different worlds - becomes the child's. The grown-ups can no longer manage the challenge, so the child is asked to try.”
But that is an adult responsibility which young children just cannot carry, a burden they cannot - and should not - bear.
As a result, children of divorce are much more likely than children of intact families to experience “confusion, isolation, and suffering”. They are forced to become little adults. Their childhood is ripped away from them, and they are forced to grow up prematurely.
In an intact family, the children are the centre, the nucleus, and the parents work to protect them and nurture them. But after divorce, the two parents themselves become the centre, and children are left to fend for themselves.
Marquardt puts it this way: “After a divorce, newly apparent adult vulnerabilities have a way of turning the family structure inside-out. Each parent moves to the centre of his or her new world, and it's the children
who are now on the outside, keeping a wary eye on them, even trying to protect them.”
In effect, adults start acting like children while the child is forced to act like an adult. That is an intolerable weight for any child to have to carry. And on it goes for the child of divorce.
One painful chapter after another highlights the tremendous pressures and strains foisted upon the child of divorce, and the long-term wounds they cause.
Marquardt makes it clear that not every divorce is bad, and that she is not trying to argue that divorced parents are bad people. But she does insist that divorce is primarily about adults and their needs, and almost never about children and their needs. Very few have asked how divorce impacts on the children involved.
This book makes it quite clear that children are overwhelmingly losers in divorce. There is very little good at all that children receive from parental divorce. The radical restructuring of a child's world after divorce should be our main consideration. But in most cases it is not.
Our world has been transformed from being a marriage culture to a divorce culture. Perhaps it is time that we became a child-friendly culture.
As Marquardt says, “We need to make sweeping changes to our thinking about marriage.” This book is an ideal place to begin with such a rethink.