I found this today, and it brought tears to my eyes. As a child of divorce, and a mom who has been left by my kids dad, I have seen and felt what this article describes.
The Children's Side Of Divorce: Some Surprising Conclusions
By MARY JO KOCHAKIAN
The Hartford Courant - September 04, 2000
People think there are two sides to a divorce - his and hers, writes researcher Judith Wallerstein.
The most shocking version of the story comes from outsiders, though: the children.
Page after page of the new, anticipated book "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce'' reveals that adults have no idea what divorce is to children.
For this report, Wallerstein interviewed people from 131 families whom she first met in the 1970s as little kids in Marin County, Calif., whose parents divorced. Wallerstein began a long-term study of the effects of divorce in 1971.
Now these people have stories to tell, and what they say rages against conventional wisdom.
"The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce'' by Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee (Hyperion, $24.95) tells us that:
If parents have an unhappy marriage, that is not necessarily a big problem for children.
While adults consider divorce a solution, children think divorce is the cause of the misery that follows. And children always place blame for a divorce, although they will not admit it to their parents.
The idea that everything will be fine if ex-spouses can avoid fighting is just so much dreaming.
Even when divorce ends a violent, abusive marriage, younger children don't get it.
For children who are not yet adolescents, which means most children of divorce, since demographers tell us that 80 percent of divorces occur by the ninth year of marriage - splitting the family to solve family problems makes no sense of at all. Few children are aware that their parents are suffering.
Even if they have seen one or both of their parents crying or yelling or hitting, they do not make the connection between the parents' behavior and the breakup of the marriage. ... such a connection is an abstract idea far beyond their ability to understand,'' the authors write.
Yet parents expect kids will understand, and that they will adjust. And why not? That's the standard line. So many kids have divorced parents now that it's not a big deal; children are really resilient; if the parents are miserable, the kids are going to be miserable.
Instead, the authors find that while divorce often improves life for at least one parent, it is at the cost of the children's happiness.
We read of one misery after another. Among them:
- Divorce diminishes the father. Typically, time is short. "Even more important, as the child gets older, the symbolic significance of the divorced father changes. He's no longer the commanding presence in his child's life - the loving, protective figure who makes sure everyone is cared for. Because he's no longer responsible for the welfare of the household, his image inevitably diminishes. Daddy may be good company or a bore, he may be loved or resented, but he has lost his big job.''
- Many of the children are angry at their fathers and report that they are unlikely to help them in old age.
- The children have fewer opportunities.
Wallerstein writes that she was horrified to find that children whose parents divorced often were not provided with financial help for a college education, even though it was within the family means. The father, providing support until age 18, felt he had met his obligation. And that was that. ("An intolerable injustice,'' Wallerstein writes. "The children will never forgive their parents for this betrayal, nor should they.'')
Unhappy as the children were while young, the worst was yet to come. "It's in adulthood that children of divorce suffer the most. The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy and commitment. Their lack of inner images of a man and a woman in a stable relationship and their memories of their parents' failure to sustain the marriage badly hobbles their search, leading them to heartbreak and even despair.''
Some of her subjects manage to get it right, after long struggles.
"Larry,'' who as a teenager attacked his mother, eventually realizes his abusive father is a creep - and works like a dog to not be like the old man.
"Karen,'' who as a girl was caretaker to her mother and siblings, decides she's done enough, furthers her career and cannot really believe it when she ends up with a kind husband and a baby girl. If there is a quarrel, she panics that her husband will abandon her.
Certainly there is a lot of marital misery among couples who decide to stick it out. Are their kids any better off than the kids whose parents split up?
For her 25-year follow-up, Wallerstein interviewed a comparison group of adults - people who grew up alongside the children in her study but whose parents stayed together.
Children from the somewhat unhappy marriages had escape hatches. They could spend their time with friends, in school activities or playing sports. Kids in joint-custody arrangements often didn't have that freedom.
If the parents kept the marriage afloat, the kids had a support system. The children were fed regularly, they were looked after and were able to spend time with their parents.
Children whose parents divorced often were lonely, left to care for themselves and suffered a drastic loss in nurturing when mothers became overwhelmed single parents.
Children whose parents stayed together at least had some idea of what marriage requires - work, commitment, patience. They also viewed their parents as a couple.
This is precisely what made young adulthood so tough for people whose parents divorced. They lacked that example. The conclusion: Even if their parents' marriages were pretty unhappy, those kids did better - as long as parents continued to take care of them.
The book has an answer to the question that dogs so many people: Should I get divorced? "This finding speaks directly to parents who are thinking about divorce. Are your children doing well despite your unhappiness?''
What a difference this is from the gotta-be-me ethos of the '70s.