Divided they fall

Posted: Oct 17, 2005 12:05 AM

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.

 Small children going between two households have to devote energy and ingenuity trying to figure out what to do. One parent is penny-pinching and saves even small amounts of leftovers, while the other parent thinks nothing of scraping half a plate of food down the garbage disposal. In one household, people ignore the phone during dinner, while the other parent places a priority on jumping up to respond. Children Between Two Worlds have to ask themselves, “How do we do things around here?” in a way that children in intact families seldom do. As Marquardt puts it, “When parents are married they have to find some way of merging contrasting values such as these, and some may never firmly sort it out. But no matter how they handle it, the disagreement about whether to answer the phone during dinner is their responsibility, not their child’s.”

 Keeping secrets is something that all experts warn against, and most divorced parents make every effort to spare their children from secrets. Yet, according to Marquardt, “there are new structural conditions (in divorce) that override the parents’ good intentions, making secrets almost inevitable.”  Two subjects are particularly sensitive: finances and the parents’ new romances. One young woman recalled, “I was not suppose to tell my father anything about finances. That was a no-no topic because it could tip the boat and somebody might get the idea not to pay child support.”  Sometimes children knew about a parent’s new love interest, and had to agonize over whether to tell the other parent. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with conflicts like these.

 It would be a mistake to dismiss these reports as unrepresentative of the divorce experience. If anything, Marquardt made an effort to choose people who were doing reasonably well: all were college graduates. Their parents had made noble efforts to shield them from the worst effects of divorce: all of them maintained contact with both parents throughout their childhoods. Even so, these sad results were endemic.

 In my own work as a foster parent, I have seen children of divorce from the opposite extreme. All foster kids are in tough situations. Yet I can honestly say, the most troubled kids and the most difficult situations were the ones that involved divorce.

 Take the problem with rules. We have to run a pretty tight ship, and we have lots of little tricks for helping kids follow the rules and learn self-control. Often, the birth parents are upset with us because their kids are upset with us.  We eventually convince them we aren’t taking away toys to be mean, or charging their kids fines because we need the money. Most birth parents come to understand and support our efforts.

 But divorce creates a whole constellation of adults circling around the child.  Besides the parents, there are stepparents or new girlfriends or new boyfriends. Often, there are grandparents in the picture, sometimes more than one set. It is tough to get two quarreling parents to work with us: it is almost impossible to get all these adults on the same page. The child can always find someone who will intervene on behalf of their Precious Little Darling Who Has Never Done Anything Wrong in His Whole Life.

 Even worse, some of them become skilled at deliberately dividing the adults against one another.  I had one little boy ask me while I was making my bed, “why doesn’t Mr. Morse ever make the bed?”  I had to suppress a laugh at this transparent attempt at manipulation. I just grinned as I told him that when Mr. Morse left for work, I was usually still in the bed. Stirring up conflict among adults was a skill this child had mastered.

 Somewhere between the very high-functioning families Elizabeth Marquardt interviewed, and the very troubled families I’ve seen, there is a mean level of suffering, and it is pretty high. Please don’t dismiss this author’s findings, even if you are divorced and want to believe that everything is okay with your kids. Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce will help you understand the inner struggles children of divorce face. And we’ll all be better off with the more realistic picture of the impact of divorce on children that Elizabeth Marquardt gives us.

Dr. Morse is Research Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-up World