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Children of Divorce

10/16/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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New Study Explores the Nasty Effects

CHICAGO, OCT. 16, 2005 (Zenit) - A quarter of U.S. adults ages 18 to 35 have grown up in divorced families. The impact of divorce on them is the subject of a new book, "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce" (Crown Publishers).

Author Elizabeth Marquardt surveyed 1,500 young adults from both divorced and intact families, and conducted in-depth interviews with more than 70 of them. Her conclusion: "While divorce is sometimes necessary, there is no such thing as a good divorce."

Marquardt acknowledges that children in high-conflict marriages, or in situations where there is violence, benefit from divorce. Such cases, however, involve only around one-third of divorces, and the children of the other low-conflict marriages fare worse after divorce. And, while noting that most parents take seriously the decision to divorce, Marquardt urges them to try even harder to preserve their marriages, given the costs involved for their children.

Even if a divorce is amicable, and the couple maintains a good relationship after separating, and even if they continue to love and care for the children, this does not eliminate "the radical restructuring of the child's universe," the author contends.

The moment when parents split is only the start of this restructuring. Around two-thirds of the children of divorce surveyed by Marquardt say they felt they grew up in two families, not one. Growing up in two worlds creates a whole series of problems, starting with the fact that both parents are no longer "insiders," or a part of the family.

Parallel worlds

In marriage, Marquardt explains, parents often have differences, but they work together to bridge them and they manage to give family life a unity. But a divorce often encourages the former spouses to define themselves in opposition to each other. Hence the beliefs and values of the two parents, instead of achieving an equilibrium, exist in parallel, creating contrasts and conflicts, rather than unity, for the children.

After the split, the conflict between former spouses may no longer be open, but the conflict between their two worlds is still very much alive, Marquardt observes. A child in a united family, by contrast, does not have to spend so much time and effort in reconciling the differences between parents, and can concentrate on enjoying daily life.

Thus, children of divorced couples are forced to enter into an adult world of responsibilities and worries at a young age. Marquardt's survey revealed that even among those children whose parents had managed their divorce well (in terms of reducing the impact on the kids) around half agreed that they always felt like an adult, even when they were young. This proportion reached two-thirds among children whose parents' divorces were more problematic.

Following a divorce, many of the children felt they had a responsibility to protect their mothers, and a substantial number had to take on greater duties in caring for their siblings. This also happens in families where a parent dies or is seriously ill; the difference with divorce is that the children know it comes about as a result of a voluntary choice on the part of at least one parent.

The way in which a divorce comes about also often wounds children, recounts Marquardt. In an ideal situation, the parents would gather the children together and carefully explain everything, and reassure them about the future. Yet, the breakup of a marriage is often messy and chaotic, making it difficult for the parents to organize well the initial announcement to their children, the author reports.

Moreover, the adults are often vulnerable and in grief or shock. It can be hard for children to see their parents in this situation. And it also means that just when the children are in need of comfort they are less able to turn to their parents for support.

Further problems arise in the post-divorce period, when children have to deal with the conflicts and criticisms between the former spouses. The young adults who grew up in divorced families told Marquardt how they felt obliged to be careful what they said to each parent about the other. Such information could lead to hurt feelings or trigger criticisms about the other parent.

Forging values

Notably, Marquardt's book focuses on the impact of divorce on the moral lives of children. The children feel conflict as they experience different values and ways of life in each parent's separate household. The result is that the children now have to forge their own values and beliefs, the author contends.

Normally, children absorb their parents' values in a natural and gradual process, without having to make a conscious effort. Clearly, there are often differences between parents, but on the whole the children see their ...

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