There's No 'Good' Divorce

Elizabeth Marquardt, Boston Globe, 11/28/2005

...many grown children of divorce say they felt divided inside. They recall having to be extremely vigilant, holding a magnifying glass up to both parents' worlds in order to figure out how to survive in them. One young woman remembered: "I knew very young how my parents were. To me it was just obvious – like, this is how mom is, this is how dad is. This is how you learn to deal with them... We lived with my mom, and we stayed with my dad the whole month of July. So you actually had a substantial amount of time to live with that person and understand their personality. What makes them tick, what makes them laugh, what makes them angry. You think all the time" ... Some marriages are brutal, and divorce is a vital safety valve. But two-thirds of divorces today end low-conflict marriages. Most marriages end not because the parents are at each other's throats but for other, less urgent reasons. Too many parents are led astray by the "good" divorce idea and think that, if only they divorce the right way, they can end their good enough marriage and their child will be unscarred. But this study found, quite the contrary, that in many ways children of "good" divorces fare worse than children of unhappy marriages – so long as those marriages are low-conflict – and they fare far worse than children of happy marriages.

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Subjects: Divorce, Marriage, Children of divorce

More by: Elizabeth Marquardt

A little boy scores a goal on the soccer field while his divorced mom and dad, sitting in the stands, cheer him on. A little girl takes a bow after the school play as her divorced mom and dad applaud wildly. At graduations, at weddings, at bar mitzvahs and confirmations, the scene is repeated – divorced parents having what some call a "good" divorce.

Many experts and parents embrace the idea, confident 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 with each other, they say, then children will be fine.

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

In a first-ever national study, the grown children of divorce tell us there's no such thing as a "good" divorce. This nationally representative telephone survey of 1,500 young adults, half from divorced families and half from intact families – supplemented with more than 70 in-person interviews conducted around the country – reveals that any kind of divorce, whether amicable or not, sows lasting inner conflict in children's lives.

Only a small minority of grown children of divorce – just one-fifth – say their parents had a lot of conflict after their divorce, but the conflict between their parents' worlds did not go away. Instead, the tough job of making sense of their parents' different beliefs, values, and ways of living became the child's job alone.

As a result, many grown children of divorce say they felt divided inside. They recall having to be extremely vigilant, holding a magnifying glass up to both parents' worlds in order to figure out how to survive in them.

One young woman remembered: "I knew very young how my parents were. To me it was just obvious – like, this is how mom is, this is how dad is. This is how you learn to deal with them... We lived with my mom, and we stayed with my dad the whole month of July. So you actually had a substantial amount of time to live with that person and understand their personality. What makes them tick, what makes them laugh, what makes them angry. You think all the time."

Many grown children of divorce told us they rose to the challenge by becoming a different person with each of their parents.

In divorced families, they told us, secrets are epidemic. The grown children of divorce are twice as likely to agree that their parents asked them to keep important secrets, but many more of them said they felt the need to keep secrets even when their parents did not ask them to. Their parents seemed enormously vulnerable after divorce, and the children quickly learned that sensitive information, perhaps about their other parent's new love interest or finances, could spark anger or hurt. They soon learned to keep much of what happened in each world to them-selves. When they grow up, there are large parts of each of their lives that the other parent knows virtually nothing about.

The grown children of divorce also report that the job of traveling between two worlds, struggling alone to make sense of them, is a lonely one. They are three times more likely to agree, "I was alone a lot as a child," and seven times more likely to strongly agree with that sentiment. Over and over, their stories made it clear that being the only link between your parents' two worlds is a lonely place for a child to be. When parents are married, the whole family gets together because, well, that's what families do. When parents are divorced, they get together only because of the child. That's a big burden for the child on the soccer field or school stage to carry.

Some marriages are brutal, and divorce is a vital safety valve. But two-thirds of divorces today end low-conflict marriages. Most marriages end not because the parents are at each other's throats but for other, less urgent reasons. Too many parents are led astray by the "good" divorce idea and think that, if only they divorce the right way, they can end their good enough marriage and their child will be unscarred. But this study found, quite the contrary, that in many ways children of "good" divorces fare worse than children of unhappy marriages – so long as those marriages are low-conflict – and they fare far worse than children of happy marriages.

Today, one-quarter of young adults are from divorced families. Their message to our society is clear: Divorce is sometimes necessary, but for children there is no such thing as a "good" divorce.

This article originally appeared here.

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