Marriage is the most basic unit of social cooperation. If spousal cooperation breaks down, the available substitutes are expensive and inadequate. I’ve always talked about this as a fiscal and political issue. Now an adult child of divorced parents makes the same point from a psychological perspective. Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, tells the poignant story of kids trying to make sense of their worlds after divorce. Even when the parents are conscientious and loving, the children still struggle to resolve conflicts that are usually an adult responsibility, not a child’s.
She surveyed 1500 adult children from divorced families and conducted intensive interviews with 71 others. The questions about family rules illustrates the divided inner moral lives that many of these young adults recalled from their childhoods. Of those whose parents had a “good divorce,” only 58% agreed that their “parents household rules were the same.” By contrast, parents having the same set of rules was the norm for children of 94% of happily married parents.
One young man who had lived primarily with his father, said that in high school, “we could have drinks at my mom’s, we could get drunk if we wanted to,” while his father would have been livid if he knew this. A young woman reported that her mom was very strict about drinking but that her father would buy beer for her and her sister when they visited him.
But according to Marquardt, these extreme cases were not the most confusing. After all, even the most indulged children can figure out that the non-custodial parent has no business letting them get drunk. The bigger challenge emerges from the relatively benign situations where neither parent is doing anything wrong, but their rules and habits simply differ.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World. She blogs at jennifer-roback-morse.blogspot.com
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