Most of us from divorced families do not see ourselves as “damaged goods.” But neither are we willing to be held up as convenient proof that kids don’t need both parents. None-the-less, children are deeply shaped by divorce.
For years, our national debate about divorce has focused on badly damaged children. Most studies show that children of divorce are two to three times more likely to end up with lasting social and emotional problems. These are things like addiction, mental illness, an arrest record, or a teen pregnancy. But the majority are not scarred in this way. For parents considering divorce, the take-home message has been clear: Divorce might hurt your kids, but most likely they’ll be just fine.
But now the debate —and the questions —are changing.
Children Deeply Shaped by Divorce
Today, one-quarter of young adults between the age of 18 and 35 are grown children of divorce. These 15 million young people across America have a very different take on divorce. Most of them are relatively successful. They don’t see themselves as victims or damaged goods. Most have graduated from high school, and maybe gone to college or beyond. They have gotten jobs, gotten married, and had kids. When they hear the debate about damaged children of divorce, they cringe. “That’s not me,” they say.
But in a first-ever national study of grown children of divorce, which I conducted with professor Norval Glenn at the University of Texas-Austin, these young people told us that, even if they were not forever damaged by their parents’ divorce, they were still deeply shaped by it in ways that should make parents think yet again before divorcing.
It turns out that any kind of divorce, whether or not it’s amicable, gives children an entirely new and burdensome job. After a divorce, the parents no longer have to confront their different worlds. They don’t have to confront their different values, beliefs and lifestyles. In fact, their inability to handle that challenge may have led to the divorce. But the big job of making sense of the parents’ two different worlds does not go away once the divorce papers are signed. Instead, this job gets handed to the child alone.
Negotiating Two Separate Worlds
Many grown children of divorce told us they had to grow up negotiating two wholly separate worlds. They rose to the challenge by becoming a different person with each of their parents. They had a mom-self and a dad-self inside them. And they pulled out the one they needed depending on where they were that day. They had to grow up fast and often felt much less emotionally safe than their peers with married parents. They are even compared with some whose parents were unhappily married.
Being the lonely link between two different worlds made the grown children of divorce more often feel they had to figure out the big questions in life. What is right and wrong? Where do I belong? Is there a God? —alone.
But doesn’t it matter how the parents divorce? If divorced parents don’t fight, doesn’t that help? Sure, to a point. An amicable divorce is better for kids than a bitter one. But it turns out that only one-fifth of the grown children of divorce say their parents had a lot of conflict after the divorce. Instead, the grown children of divorce told us that the divorce itself made their parents’ worlds seem forever locked in conflict, even when their parents did not fight.
The Child’s Identity
This silent conflict between two worlds went to the heart of the child’s identity. The children of divorce come to feel like divided selves. When they grow up, some wonder whether they can be their whole, true self around anyone.
There’s a new debate about divorce emerging, with the grown children of divorce leading the way. I’m one of them. My parents split up when I was 2 years old. At 35, I’m speaking for my generation when I say this: Most of us from divorced families do not see ourselves as “damaged goods.” But neither are we willing to be held up as convenient proof that kids don’t need both parents. We needed our parents, living together, married to each other, and preferably getting along well.
And if our parents could not stay together —and some cannot —we needed to grow up in a culture that didn’t focus on only the most tragic outcomes and dismiss the rest of the kids as being just fine.
We may not have been broken by divorce, but our identities were deeply shaped by it. In the national debate about the impact of divorce, our stories matter, too.
This article was originally titled: CHILDREN OF DIVORCE: We’re Not Damaged Goods, But We’re Still Deeply Shaped by Divorce. It was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer December 11, 2005 and is written by Elizabeth Marquardt.
— ALSO —
A related article, written by Tricia Goyer, posted on the Family Life web site, would be beneficial to read:
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