Between Two Worlds. The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce
I recently read a book about children of divorce written by a “grown-up” child of divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt. The book, published in 2005, describes the findings of a survey of 1,500 young adults from both divorced and intact families, as well as in-depth interviews with more than seventy young adults in the age-range of 18 to 35. The book points out the difficulties inherent in the lives of children whose parents have divorced, even when the parents had a “good divorce” and the children are apparently functioning well. The dominant message is that divorce has an impact on children that follows them into adulthood and sets them apart from children who grew up in intact families, regardless of the quality of the parental marriages. In other words, divorce is not to be taken lightly, as if “everything will be OK” if the divorcing parents are respectful and cooperative and the children will have an ongoing relationship with both parents.
There are many reasons, apart from the well-being of the children, for making the effort to maintain and improve the quality of one’s marriage. Nevertheless, for those who decide to divorce, the information provided in the book may help parents understand what their children experience in having to live in two worlds. For grown-up children of divorce, the book may help them understand the impact their parents’ divorce had on them.
Marquardt points out the many ramifications of life in two homes. Regardless of the parenting arrangements, children do a lot of moving from one home to another. The transitions may be easier when both homes are in the same city, but that may also mean more frequent transitions for the child. Children find themselves longing for the missing parent regardless of which home they are in at any given time. There are usually many differences between the two worlds that evolve over time and children need to adapt to each home in order to fit in. This chameleon-like adaptation impacts on the child’s sense of self, as if he is two divided selves, one for each parent. Identifying with a parent, resembling a parent in appearance or behavior, becomes a complex issue in the home of the other parent. A major problem for children is in having to keep “secrets” all the time, in remembering what they can share with each parent about their lives in the home of the other parent. The secrets may have to do with relationships, with finances or with any other sensitive issue. Unfortunately, some parents tend to cross-examine the child about the other parent’s life, putting the child in a difficult situation.
Remarriage or long-term cohabitation of a parent presents new difficulties for the child, particularly when the new partner has children from a previous marriage and when the new couple has a child of their own. In spite of the difficulties, there may be genuine bonding to the parent’s new partner which will compound the sense of loss if the new relationship comes to an end (which it often does).
Another impact of divorce is that children often “grow up” ahead of time, as they are often left alone to take care of themselves and often feel responsible for the well-being and happiness of their parents.
Undoubtedly, growing up in a stable home with both parents together provides children with a stronger sense of security, belonging and self-identity. In her concluding chapter, Marquardt is quite emphatic in her recommendation that divorce should be a last resort when there are problems in a marriage. When there are serious problems in the marriage, couples should get help to improve their marriage so they can remain with the person they fell in love with. She strongly believes that for children, even a “good divorce” is far worse than a “good enough” marriage. The book is worth reading, both for professionals who deal with divorce, persons who are considering divorce or have already divorced, and for those who experienced divorce in their childhood.