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WorldWatch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card November 13, 2005

The Children of Divorce

How do you measure happiness?

Many years ago, my wife was in a meeting with several women from church. In conversation before the meeting began, one of them was quite distressed about the terrible problem she was having, choosing the right set of furniture for her dining room. It was making her very unhappy; she could think of nothing else until the problem was solved.

But as my wife surveyed the other women, she knew of others in that room with far more serious problems: marriages in turmoil, near-desperate financial worries, children making terrible decisions with their lives. Yet most of those other women were making the best of things, dealing with their problems with humor, still able to reach out and help other people.

And it occurred to her that people who know how to be happy will find happiness in the midst of turmoil; and people who are intent on being miserable can find misery in the midst of peace and plenty.

Surely, though, no one would say that those with terrible problems would not be greatly relieved -- no, let's say it, happier -- if those burdens were lifted from them in some gentle way. They were certainly struggling to deal with their problems and resolve them. It's as if the emotion of happiness were not necessarily connected with the state of happiness.

How would a scientist measure happiness? A questionnaire? "Are you happy?" All you'd get is a report on the current emotional state, which means that fundamentally cheerful people would always report happiness in the midst of misery; it would be no useful measure at all.

I remember when the book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff came out. I hated the existence of it, without ever opening it (I still haven't). Nothing wrong with the title -- it was the subtitle that made me bitter: And It's All Small Stuff. The book came out at the time that my wife and I had a child who lived only a few hours.

Hey, buddy, I wanted to say. It's not all small stuff.

But the title's point carried a grain of truth -- that even people who are grieving can be, in a crucial way, happy in spite of it.

In fact, our lives were basically happy even in the midst of grieving. I did not know of anyone I would have traded lives with. Do you? Would you give up everything in your own life in order to take on everything in someone else's? I doubt it. The burdens you already know you can bear are usually preferable to losing the parts of your life you value most.

So in my opinion, at least, happiness is objectively unmeasurable. There is no scientific tool that can possibly report on the general state of real happiness of any portion of the population. Some who report being happy were simply in a good mood that day. Some who report unhappiness are, in fact, content, and merely grumpy or worried.

Yet there are serious questions for which systematic answers are needed. Some measurement has to be made in order to make good decisions.

The Question of Divorce

We live in a society that decided, beginning in the 1950s and with increasing frequency through the decades that followed, to regard divorce as acceptable and even desirable.

The previous attitude -- that couples with children should stay together "for the sake of the children," that it was selfish of parents to get a divorce if it could be avoided -- was gradually discredited.

I think no small portion of the change in attitude was owed to Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, which contained these lines:

Reverend Wiley advised me not to divorce him

For the sake of the children,

And Judge Somers advised him the same.

So we stuck to the end of the path.

The poem ("88. Mrs. Charles Bliss") goes on to talk about how the children were forced to take sides between their parents and how they became "tortured in soul because they could not admire / Equally him and me."

American schoolchildren of my generation were almost all forced to read this poem in school, and many of us regarded this unrefuted statement as true, or at least truish. It was better to divorce and spare the children having to take sides ... the poet said so, and it sounded right when we read it.

But the core question remained: In cases where the children's actual lives or health are not in danger (i.e., where there's no abuse or neglect), is it better for children to remain in an unhappy but intact marriage, or to have the conflicted family broken up?

How, though, would a scientist measure which choice led to a "better" outcome?

The standard test for many years has been to compare children of divorce to children of intact marriages (i.e., being raised to adulthood by the original pair of parents) by objective measures -- e.g., criminal record, income level, stability of relationships, mental health -- or by subjective ones -- i.e., self-reporting on questionnaires.

And by these measures, children of divorce seemed to do well enough. When you eliminated the effects of poverty, then the objective measures showed little significant difference -- so it seemed that the problem was not divorce itself, but income disparity after divorce. (Never mind that it is obvious that no matter how you divide the pie, there is always going to be less money after a divorce, when the same income must maintain two households.)

And the subjective measures showed little difference in happiness between children of divorce and children of intact marriages -- though, again, this is not surprising, because people's self-reports are going to reflect their basic outlook on life far more than their specific circumstances.

So there arose the myth of the "good divorce" -- the belief that if parents remain calm and polite, and handle the juggling of the children between two households in a civilized, organized way, divorce will have no ill effects on the children.

The parents, in other words, can pursue their own marital -- or nonmarital -- happiness without concern, because their children, by all the scientific measures, will turn out just fine.

A New Approach

Into this situation stepped Elizabeth Marquardt, herself a child of divorce. She knew from her own experience that this rosy picture was wrong -- that her parents divorces, though civilized by any standard, had made her desperately unhappy and had complicated her life in ways that continue even today.

Was she the only one? A statistical anomaly in the midst of general contentment with "good" divorces?

What was needed, she thought, was a serious study that attempted to get behind the artifacts. The objective studies didn't work because they could only measure truly crippling effects; the subjective ones, because they measured only what people report when asked superficial questions.

What was needed was a study that combined statistical measures based on better-designed questions with stories -- with in-depth interviews with children of divorced parents and children of intact marriages.

The result was a significant national study of the consequences of divorce in the lives of children, reported to the general public in the book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.

As Norval Glenn, the co-director of the project, puts it in a Foreword, "Marquardt does not challenge the statement, made by Mavis Hetherington among others, that most children of divorce develop into well-adjusted, successful adults. (Marquardt is a child of divorce who turned out very well indeed.)

"She does, however, object when the fact that a majority of the children of divorce are clinically normal is used to downplay the seriousness of parental divorces.

"Quite aside from the fact that the proportion of emotionally troubled adults is around three times as great among those whose parents divorced as among those from intact families, no amount of success in adulthood can compensate for an unhappy childhood or erase the memory of the pain and confusion of the divided world of the child of divorce" (p. xx.)

Methodology

The study began with 71 in-person interviews Marquardt conducted with young adults. "Half experienced their parents' divorce before they were fourteen years old and the other half grew up in intact families" (p. 2).

She then created a questionnaire based on what she learned from these interviews -- questions that were far more specific (yet still scientifically neutral, allowing for a full range of responses) about the issues that mattered in the lives of children of divorce.

The questionnaire was given to 1500 "randomly selected young men and women from around the country between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years old." In order to keep within the bounds of "good" divorces, the participants from divorced families were limited to those who "continued to see both parents in the years after the divorce" (p. 2).

As Marquardt herself says, "Almost all of the questions posed in this study have never before been asked of children of divorce" (p. 3). The statistical study meets all the norms of good science; the in-depth interviews result in the kind of stories that give a human face to the statistics.

Who Needs This Book?

As a result, Between Two Worlds is not just an important book, it is a highly readable one. And, to put it plainly, I believe that anyone who has children and is contemplating a divorce should regard it as a solemn duty to read this book first, and take its findings into consideration.

This is not because either Marquardt or I assert that all divorce is bad. In marriages where the physical and/or sexual safety of the children or of either parent is at risk, or where addiction or other misbehavior is constantly disruptive, divorce is obviously (by every measure) a necessary remedy and an improvement in the lives of the children.

What is in question are optional divorces -- one spouse is unhappy or bored, or falls in love with someone else, or is frustrated with the mate's failure to change in desired ways, or wants to make a lifestyle change that the spouse resists, or has changed priorities and wants to move on.

Like my wife's acquaintance for whom the choice of furniture caused real misery, they become consumed with their own unhappiness and, since everyone is telling them that a "good" divorce won't hurt their kids, why not break things up and move on? (I've known many who have divorced over precisely these issues.)

Or there is a lot of disagreement and conflict over core issues in the family, and cruel things are said, so that emotions often run high and there are many quarrels. Here especially a parent may think that the quarrels are so disruptive to the children that it must surely be better to have a "good" divorce than to keep them in such a high-conflict household.

(Never mind that if a couple can't stop fighting when they live together, there is no particular reason to think they'll stop fighting when they are trying to manage their children's lives while living separately. "Good" divorce in such a case is unlikely; but divorce itself may be unavoidable.)

I do not presume to judge individual choices. All I recommend is that Between Two Worlds be required reading for couples with children, before they can proceed with a divorce.

As Marquardt says, reporting on another study, "The researchers found that one-third of divorces end high-conflict marriages, in which the parents report physical abuse or serious and frequent quarreling. Not surprisingly, the children do better after these high-conflict marriages end.

"However, two-thirds of divorces end low-conflict marriages, in which the parents divorce because they are unhappy or unfulfilled, or have other problems that are not seriously threatening.

"The children of low-conflict couples fare worse after divorce because the divorce marks their first exposure to a serious problem. One day, without much warning, their world just falls apart" (p. 4).

Marquardt goes on to say, "As much as I believe we should support and understand the needs of divorced and single parents, I feel even more strongly that we should not let our concern for them prevent us from looking unflinchingly at the experience of children of divorce.

"Children are voiceless: they don't write books, they don't vote, they don't usually get interviewed on television....

"For too long the debate about divorce in this country has been dominated by the adult perspective on divorce....

"For the sake of the children -- those of us who are the first generation to come of age with widespread divorce, and the current generation of young children -- we need to confront the truth of their lives as well" (pp. 4-5).

Not Planning a Divorce?

But why should I care? My wife and I are not getting a divorce. We don't always agree, but our marriage is definitely low on conflict. We have created a good working team and plan to remain together throughout our lives.

And while our children are not stupid -- they are certainly aware of the fundamental personality differences between my wife and me -- they also have grown up with absolute trust in the unity of our family. Surely we don't need this book.

The thing is, ours isn't the only family our children know. Many of their friends are dealing with the back-and-forth of custody; many of them see one parent or the other only rarely, and have to deal with step-parents, or parents who are dating.

And in helping our children understand the concerns, the feelings, the behavior of their friends, it would help if we had some idea of what they have gone through because of divorce.

Divorce is an ever-present possibility in the world all of our children live in, no matter the condition of our own marriage. Thus every divorce makes ever child at least a little less certain of the permanence of their own home.

And let's be realistic: In many of the divorces that take place in low-conflict marriages, one spouse had no clue that a divorce was even possible, let alone imminent.

Everybody who has children or might have children or who cares about children or who is thinking of marrying an adult child of divorce needs this book.

Have I left anybody out? Well, you should read it, too.

The Divided World

And because you're going to get this book and read it, there's no need for me to try to report every idea and finding and story in it.

But the core concept is worth stating here:

In an intact marriage, it is the responsibility of the adults -- the parents -- to reconcile and unify the world of the children. The parents are different from each other, but that's a good thing, as long as the parents create ways for the children to appreciate, even celebrate the different strengths of their parents.

Families consist of individuals who are not alike; when a family is working well, all the members of the family learn to resolve or tolerate disagreement in order to live at peace with each other and help each other succeed at the ventures that matter in life.

Reconciliation, in other words, is the business of the adults; the children grow up in a pre-reconciled world.

But when the parents divorce, the entire burden of reconciliation is thrust upon the children. Because they love both parents, they learn to walk the tightrope of not causing either parent any kind of hurt. They learn to conceal information from one parent about the other parent's life; when one half-family has a cool new boat, you don't talk to the other parent about how fun it is, because it will cause hurt or resentment or anger or despair ... or all of the above.

And the myth that children of divorce have "two homes" is the opposite of the truth. Many of these children report feeling as if they have no home -- because they don't really belong anywhere, especially if step-siblings and half-siblings are involved. When you migrate between households where there are children who do not migrate, then the child who is in permanent residence is always at home, while the child who migrates -- the child of divorce -- is always a visitor.

Plus, in many cases, the child takes on the emotional burden of being a caretaker -- helping look out for other siblings or even for an emotionally damaged parent, whose world has been torn apart by divorce and who is simply not in a state to be a reliable parent to a child.

We have a generation where a vast number of children are migratory -- in some senses, homeless. There are adults who care for them, but they are generally adults who have already proven their inability or unwillingness to make the sacrifices and compromises required to maintain an intact family. Instead, the children are required to make those compromises and sacrifices, often without the slightest comprehension by any of the adults in their lives of just how miserable and frustrated and frightened and lonely they are.

They often feel they can't show their sadness and loneliness and frustration, because all the adults in their lives are so busy putting on the "glad act" that is at the core of a "good" divorce. "See? You have your own room here at Daddy's house, too!"

Lifestyle Choice

When the divorce involved truly important lifestyle differences -- one parent religious, the other not; one parent monogamous or celibate, the other promiscuous; one parent involved in countercultural behavior, the other a rulekeeper -- it is almost impossible for children to navigate between them.

Even if the child believes that the religious parent is right, it can still feel to the child as if complete compliance with the religious life of the one parent is a mark of disloyalty to the other, as if the child were judging and condemning the non-religious parent.

The result is that children often feel as if it is almost a duty to go back and forth, not just between the houses, but also the lifestyles of their parents. This is even the case when the noncompliant parent tries to encourage the children to live by the other parent's rules. It's not likely to stick.

The Vast Experiment with Temporary Marriage

It was not a good thing when marriages were nearly impossible to break up -- abusive parents had a permanent set of victims who could be protected only by the death or imprisonment of the abuser; or by running away, with its own set of dangers.

It is essential in a decent society that divorce be possible, when it is truly needed.

But it is just as essential that divorce be relatively rare. It is the job of adults to choose mates who will be good parents; to provide the genuine necessities of life; to make the compromises and sacrifices necessary to allow children to grow up in an intact and reconciled home; and to control their own tempers and language so that children do not have the experience of a high-conflict household.

Divorce always means that either one or both of the parents has failed to live up to these eminently reasonable standards of adult behavior.

But we live today in a society that doesn't seriously ask parents to live up to these standards. You can hardly be said to have failed at something nobody expected you to attempt.

Given that our whole society seems to believe the myth of romantic love -- that hormonal yearnings should trump rational commitments -- it's hardly a surprise that many perfectly good marriages break up over matters that should have been left behind in adolescence. Bad enough the heartbreak such misbehavior causes among the formerly married. But when children are involved, the selfishness and callousness of the behavior of some supposed adults should earn the disapproval of all civilized people.

But we are all so nice, so nonjudgmental, that we have to assure everyone that we aren't condemning anybody, that "it's your life."

When parents are involved, though, it is not just their life, it's the lives of their children. And, ultimately, the lives of all our children, who grow up, despite their parents' own intact marriage, with the expectation that marriage is, in fact, only a temporary commitment, easy to discard without any social consequences should that seem desirable at some later date.

Social disapproval is the single strongest tool for social change. People will often engage in forbidden behavior in spite of criminal penalties, but abandon it the moment it is clear that their friends will turn away from them in disgust when they behave that way.

In fact, it was precisely social disapproval that removed the social sanctions (and, later, the legal ones) against divorce. We started to express disapproval of any outward sign of disapproval of divorce; we made it impossible to impose anti-divorce social sanctions. You couldn't shun a person who broke up his marriage; in order to be acceptable yourself, you had to show you were tolerant and accepting.

And let's face it, it's a lot easier and nicer and more pleasant just to pretend that divorce is the business of the couple themselves.

We Are All Part of This

But it isn't. It's everybody's business. Marriage is a contract, not just between the couple, but between the couple, society at large, and any children they might bear or adopt. And divorce is a disruption, not just of the marriage, but of the children's home and of the contract with society at large.

There is no no-fault divorce, whatever the law says, and no such thing as no-damage divorce, either. Temporary marriage is not doing the job that marriage is needed for in the first place -- especially where children are involved.

When the behavior of one spouse is barbaric or uncontrolled, then for safety the marriage must be dissolved, and society must embrace the victims of the marriage-breaker (i.e., the abuser, not the former spouse who rescued self and children from the abuser).

That is precisely why the person who caused the divorce must be identified; if there truly was no fault on either side, then it is shameful for there to be a divorce at all, at least when children are involved. If we were honest, we would recognize that there are either one-at-fault or both-at-fault divorces, and no other kind.

The original marriage might have been a mistake, but there are many mistakes in this life whose consequences we must live with and make the best of. It is arguable that all marriages require that both individuals stifle this or that desire and leave it unfulfilled; in fact, every choice we make usually means giving up other possible choices.

Marrying one person means -- or should mean -- that we are deciding to marry no others, however desirable they may seem at some later point. My decision to become a writer meant giving up my desire to be a musician or an actor, at least as a profession; so what? What life does not have its compromises?

Why should marriage be the one area where you can infinitely change your mind and expect others to bear the consequences of your inability to stick with a commitment?

After all, we have no problem accepting the unpleasant fact that if your spouse has decided to make your marriage unlivable, or simply to nullify it, you will have no choice but to live with the consequences of his or her decision.

Yet we shudder at the thought that the person who actually made those nullifying choices should face any consequences. It is as if the only person who can bear no penalty is the person who caused everyone else to suffer -- because that person's penalties would be socially imposed instead of unavoidable, natural consequences.

Maybe, by being so tolerant and nice and accepting of the person whose fault the divorce is, we make ourselves conspirators after the fact; maybe we should, because of our very niceness, recognize our general complicity in creating misery for the victims of needlessly broken marriages.

Maybe its time that we, as a society, took back the adult responsibility of actively affirming marriage and disapproving of the breakup of families, openly expressing our contempt for behavior that wrecks marriages and exposes children and more-innocent spouses to the misery that results.

Meanwhile, we can do our best to learn about the problems that the children of divorce are going through, both during childhood and as they attempt to create marriages and families of their own, as adults. Ultimately, we are all victims of the insane prevalence of divorce in our society today; and if there is to be any repair of this damage, we must all see the wounds and do our best to heal them.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.


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