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Between Two Worlds



From the Introduction…

What Is Not Known About Our Generation

I am seven years old and climbing the jungle gym outside my school when I overhear two mothers, standing nearby. One says, “Kids with divorced parents are kicked back and forth like a football.” The image grabs me. In this small, rural community, I had never heard anyone talk about divorce, even though my own parents had separated when I was two years old and divorced a year later. The divorce was a silent fact of my life, unnoticed by other kids, mentioned by adults only when they asked me how my father was doing when I came back from visiting him.

Kicked back and forth like a football. Even a seven-year-old could sense that this was bad; no one likes to be kicked. But it sounded playful as well. I could see me — the football — flying end over end against a blue sky. It was the kick and the thud on the other end that imparted a vague sense of threat.

Sometime later, while visiting my father, I tried out the idea, mentioning lightly that I was kicked back and forth like a football between him and my mother. His face turned a deep purplish red, his lips tightened, he sputtered. He looked the same way whenever he was angry — this time at the person who had said such a thing to me. He sought to regain control and assured me, sternly, that this image did not apply to me. He and my mother loved me, he said. That saying about the football was about kids whose parents didn’t love them.

I had to admit, at the time and over the years, that I didn’t feel as if my parents were trying to pass me off to each other. I never felt a rough kick at the airport or at the beginning of a long car ride. On the contrary, my parents were always sad to see me go, and we hugged excitedly when I ran to one of them after a long separation.

Still, there was something about that football. I could see it spinning in its arc, flying freely, even beautifully, from the one who launched it to the one who caught it. it seemed almost too high, too free; it belonged neither to the place it had left nor to the place where it was going. Maybe it belonged in that space between. And what a conditional space that was.

I am still thinking about the football and about the deeper implications of that metaphor. This book seeks to answer the question that as a child I was unable to put into words: If your parents love you and they get along reasonably well with each other, why is their divorce still so wrenching for the child?

A New Survey of Young Adults from Divorced Families

It was that question that led me to undertake the Project on the Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce, a three-year study I directed with the help of an advisory committee of senior family scholars, and with the funding of the Lilly Endowment.

As part of the study, I co-directed with Dr. Norval Glenn, a sociologist and leading family scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, the first nationally representative survey of young men and women from around the country between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years old. Half of them 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 see both parents in the years after the divorce.

The questions were inspired by seventy-one in-person interviews I conducted with young adults in the same age group. Again, half experienced their parents’ divorce before they were fourteen years old and the other half grew up in intact families. Like the fifteen hundred young adults we surveyed by telephone, the young people I met with in person did not lose touch with a parent after the divorce. The only difference was that while the national survey included young adults with varying levels of educational attainment, the seventy-one young people I met with in person were all college graduates. The fact that they had completed college made it less likely that they were struggling with serious social or emotional problems, which allowed us to see the effects of divorce on those who had proven especially resilient. This indicator was important because I had always felt it was too simple to say that divorce “ruined” children’s lives; I was more interested in the long-term difficulties it caused even for those who seemed to have weathered it well.

Almost all of the questions posed in this study have never before been asked of children of divorce. The new questions were fueled not only by the comments of those I interviewed in person but also by a lifetime of experience as a child of divorce.

Because I too am a child of divorce, I decided to write this book in the first person (“I” and “we”), but this book is not a memoir. It includes statistics (all drawn from the study unless otherwise noted) as well as substantial stories and quotations from the many young adults I interviewed in person. Their stories give faces and voices to the numbers and, together with the nationally representative survey data, allow me to speak with confidence for my generation.

What This Book Is Not About

There are a couple of things this book is not about. First, this book does not argue that no one should ever get divorced. Divorce is a vital option for ending very bad marriages. In homes where there is abuse, violence, serial infidelity, chronic addiction, or other serious problems, the best way to protect members of the family, especially the children, may be to end those marriages.

One major national study has turned up an important finding that helps clarify the question of when divorce is necessary. 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.

Most parents take the decision to divorce quite seriously, but I urge parents to think harder still. For those who wish to save and improve their marriages there are resources they may not know about. But in the end it is not my place to tell any particular couple whether or not they should divorce; only they can look at all the evidence, get the help they need, and decide for themselves whether divorce is warranted.

Second, this book does not argue that divorced parents are bad people. Many people who mean the world to me are divorced, including my own parents. I firmly believe that no one besides the couple knows the full extent of what goes on in someone else’s marriage and that some marriages have failed miserably long before the couple begins to think of divorce. It is also the case that most marriages with children are ended by only one of the parents, leaving the other parent to cope with a fate that he or she did not want or imagine.

Yet as much as I believe we should support and understand the needs of divorced or 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. We learn about their experience by sensitively observing their lives and later, when they are grown up, asking them what it was like. For too long the debate about divorce in this country has been dominated by the adult perspective on divorce, with some adults charging that divorce is unjustifiably rampant and others retorting that divorce is a right that no one can question.

We have begun to look at divorce from the child’s point of view, but it is only that — just a beginning. We must be sensitive to the experience of divorced adults, but 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.

Growing Up in a Different Culture

Among the people I met while writing this book was Jennifer, a thirty-one-year-old scientist whose parents have been married for thirty-five years. She is currently dating a guy she loves who happens to be from a divorced family. He wants to get married and Jennifer does too, but she is afraid. Jennifer wants a long, happy marriage like her parents had, and she fears that maybe she and her boyfriend are just too different to make it work.

Jennifer told me that when she was growing up, “a lot of children from divorced families that I knew were really independent. They did a lot of things on their own that I would never have dreamed of doing, because they didn’t grow up with this protective net around them. They had Mom’s house and they had Dad’s house and they were kind of in between, taking care of themselves.” Her boyfriend being a child of divorce, she said, “makes me a little nervous, quite honestly. It’s almost like coming from a different culture.”

I hope the fact that her boyfriend’s parents divorced will not dissuade Jennifer from marrying him if they really love each other. But Jennifer is right — children of divorce often do seem to float between their mother’s and father’s homes, having to take care of themselves at a much earlier age than other children do. Growing up in a divorced family is like growing up in a different culture.

There is something unique going on with children of divorce, something Jennifer and many others have difficulty putting their finger on. That inexplicable “something” is what this book is about.