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Issue Date:  March 24, 2006

By Elizabeth Marquardt
Crown Publishers, 255 pages, $24.95
How the 'good divorce' affects children

Study reveals anxiety, loneliness, responsibility imposed at young age

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

Divorce is not the anticipated outcome of any normal marriage, yet divorce rates have soared over the past decades and at least a third of all children born today experience the fallout, as do parents who go their separate ways.

Many of us parents with children caught in this unseemly web have for some time taken comfort in the “good divorce” gospel. Researchers like Constance Ahrons, author of the 1994 book The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart, have been consoling in their view that divorce need not inevitably leave emotionally troubled children in its wake. Ms. Ahrons has helped us to move beyond the guilt and confusion of losing our nuclear families by encouraging us to rebuild binuclear ones. Ms. Ahrons says these new families can span two households to meet the needs of the children.

“Not so,” says Elizabeth Marquardt, herself the child of a broken family. In her new book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, the author considers “good divorce” an oxymoron. There may be a necessary divorce, she says, but there is no such thing as a good divorce. The good divorce idea may make some parents feel better, but it does little for children. Ms. Marquardt also claims that the term “blended family” is a euphemism that may satisfy the heads of reconstituted entities but it is scant comfort to their offspring.

Presented here for the first time are the results of the Project on the Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce. In the past, other significant studies on the moral and spiritual lives of children have been conducted by such well-known authorities as Erik Erikson, Robert Coles and James Fowler. None of these, however, have attended specifically to children in families that have experienced divorce. The study questions were developed through interviews with 71 progeny from both intact and divorced families (50 percent of each). The resulting questionnaire was completed by 1,500 children who similarly grew up within nuclear and nonnuclear families. We are offered some new and provocative perspectives. Children of families that divorced tended to be less secure; they felt lonelier and were more convinced that they had to define their own values and find their way in life without the support of trusted parents than youth who grew up in an intact family.

The author has made peace with her own divorced parents. While she is not opposed to divorce under certain circumstances, Ms. Marquardt maintains that parental happiness must defer to the emotional needs of children to avoid their developing a divided worldview. We have focused on the moral/spiritual needs of divorcing parents, she says, while ignoring the same needs in our children.

Divorce does matter, says the author, because it profoundly affects the children of divorced parents like her. “The love I felt from both parents was treasured, but it was not enough,” she says.

Ms. Marquardt learned that much of what seemed to create intolerable relational problems for parents did not much affect the children. For the latter, the family they had was the only one they knew and they accepted it as normal.

Through her work, Ms. Marquardt continues her quest for the meaning and belonging she did not find in her own family of origin. The author found she was not unique in her experience of stress, confusion, forced independence and imposed responsibility at a young age.

“Writing this book has been a spiritual practice: an exercise in deep questioning, a search for meaning, a discovery of connection with others, [and] an affirmation that I am not alone. ... I concluded that my parents’ divorce does not define me.” She adds, “[We are] much too complex to be explained by any one event in our lives.”

As a divorced parent, this reviewer has learned from Ms. Marquardt that divorce irrevocably split my children’s view of the world and left them feeling terribly anxious, alone and responsible -- no matter how they may have appeared to me. The sad fact was that they inherited two -- rather than one -- sets of values and were left, in many ways, to their own devices. The long-term moral and spiritual impact of divorce on our children cannot be discounted.

This is a unique report from the perspective of the children who have experienced divorce and not the parents who initiated it. The author is no longer angry with her parents. But she is indignant at a culture that continues to ignore and rationalize the negative realities she has experienced.

Sadly, according to one study, only one-third of those who divorce claim they did all they could to save their marriages. Ms. Marquardt discovered that many of her companions want to work hard on their relationships in order to create secure families for their children. They want everyone to recognize the truth about divorce and its harmful effects. They want their divorced parents to be happy with new partners but not blasé about the importance of formative families.

A summary lesson: Tend to the good enough -- if not perfect -- families you have.

Wayne A. Holst facilitates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006

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