Children of divorce who stay in touch with both parents must become travelers between two worlds. Even those whose parents have an amicable or “good” divorce experience a profound and lasting inner conflict, one that shapes their moral and spiritual identities into adulthood.
When parents are married it is primarily their job to make sense of their different worlds, their two sets of beliefs, values, and ways of living. This work often sparks conflict. It is important for parents to handle conflict well, but what is equally important – but has not been acknowledged – is that in a marriage the conflict between the parents’ worlds is first the parents’ job, and never the child’s alone.
By contrast, when parents divorce they each retreat to live in their own worlds. Over time their beliefs, values, and ways of living become increasingly different. Yet the conflict between their worlds does not disappear. Instead, the job of making sense of their often strikingly different ways of thinking and living now falls instead to the child alone.
Early Moral Forgers
Elizabeth Marquardt argues that this new developmental task fundamentally restructures childhood. Children of divorce are forced to become “early moral forgers.” They must confront their parents’ differing values and beliefs and determine, alone and at a young age, what their own beliefs and values will be. When they ask some of the fundamental questions that everyone must confront on the road to building their own identities – Who am I? Where did I come from? What is right and wrong? – they look to two completely different models, two ways of being that they often see as fundamentally at odds with one another.
After the divorce, a high degree of conflict between the parents does make the child’s job harder. But the key point is that a relative absence of conflict between divorced parents – or what some call an amicable or “good” divorce – does little to minimize the magnitude of this task. In an amicable divorce the adults rarely conflict with one another (usually maintaining the peace by communicating less and less over the years). Instead, the conflict between their worlds has now migrated and exists, unseen, in only one place: within the inner life of the child.
A Glimpse at the Data
The inner conflict handed to children of divorce has consequences. Among the nationally-representative findings reported in this book (with hard numbers and a control group of young people from intact families):
- Young adults from divorced families are much more likely to say that, growing up, they felt like a different person with each of their parents.
- They are much more likely to say their divorced parents were polar opposites, even in the majority of cases when their parents did not conflict a lot.
- They are much more likely to say that they kept secrets for their parents, even when their parents did not ask them to.
- They are more likely to say they feared resembling one of their parents too much, because it might alienate them from the other parent.
- They are much more likely to say they often felt alone as a child.
- They are more likely to say that at times they felt like an outsider in their home.
Impact on Spiritual Journey
The moral confusion and isolation these children experience impact their spiritual journeys as well. Very little research has been done on the religious and spiritual experience of children of divorce. New findings reported in this book show that, as a group, when they grow up, children of divorce are less religious than their peers from intact families. But some become much more religious as a result of their parents’ divorce (with more of them agreeing, for instance, that God became the father or parent they never had in real life) while some become less. Children of divorce are more likely to agree that the suffering they witness in the world and in their own lives makes them doubt the existence of a loving God. They are more likely to feel that no one really understands them and more of them feel that the hardships in their life come from God.
Most existing research on children of divorce examines outer symptoms, looking at issues such as school failure, delinquency, serious depression, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse. Some observers feel that if children of divorce don’t end up with serious, diagnosable problems like these then they – and the divorce – must be “fine.” This study is the first of its kind to show that even children of divorce who go on to graduate from college and do reasonably well, or even very well, in life, still had significant and challenging obstacles handed to them at a young age, obstacles they were often forced to overcome with little or no guidance or recognition.
About the Study
The study reported in this book was generously funded by the Lilly Endowment and includes the first-ever nationally representative survey of young adults from divorced families. The survey, fielded by SRBI Inc. in New York City, involved 1,500 randomly selected young adults from around the country between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. Half of these young people experienced their parents’ divorce before they were fourteen years old and the other half grew up in intact families. Those from divorced families continued to stay in contact with both parents after the divorce. The questions included in the national survey were inspired by seventy-one in-person interviews Marquardt conducted with young adults in the same age group in four urban areas of the country.