It happens to about 1 million American children every year. Their parents sit them down and deliver the news that they're divorcing. But not to worry, they say, they're parting amicably and assuming joint custody. The scene might go something like this:
"We're splitting up the week, alternating days," announces the dad.
"How are you splitting up seven days?" demands the son, reeling and confused.
"I've got Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, and every other Thursday," says Dad reassuringly. "That was your father's idea," notes Mom proudly.
"Well," the son asks anxiously, "what about the cat?" A pause. "We didn't discuss the cat," says Mom with some consternation.
This scene, as it happens, is from a new movie, "The Squid and the Whale" -- 36-year-old director Noah Baumbach's wry take on his own parents' divorce when he was a teen. But for those of us in the first generation to grow up in an era of widespread divorce, it perfectly captures the emotional havoc wrought on children when their parents convince themselves that if they can work out the details of divorce -- who goes where on what days -- without rancor, they can reduce the pain for the children and pursue their own happiness without a lot of guilt.
Before the divorce rate began its inexorable rise in the late 1960s, the common wisdom had been that, where children are concerned, divorce itself is a problem. But as it became widespread -- peaking at almost one in two first marriages in the mid-1980s -- popular thinking morphed into a new, adult-friendly idea: It's not the act of divorcing that's the problem, but simply the way that parents handle it. Experts began to assure parents that if only they conducted a "good" divorce -- if they both stayed involved with their children and minimized conflict -- the kids would be fine.
It was a soothing tonic, and it was swallowed eagerly by many angst-ridden parents. But it was also, it turns out, a myth. No matter how happy a face we put on it, the children of divorce are now saying, we've been kidding ourselves. An amicable divorce is better than a bitter one, but there is no such thing as a "good" divorce.
That's a tough sell, I know. Today, praises of the good divorce abound. Countless newspaper articles, television reports and books quote therapists and academics arguing on its behalf. A holiday article last year in Newsweek, titled "Happy Divorce," featured divorced families who put their conflicts aside to spend Christmas together. Researchers, it said, "have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself."
Many parents have bought it. In 2002, The Washington Post Magazine featured a cover story about Eli and Debbie, a handsome, smiling, divorced couple with three preteen daughters. Although their marriage was, according to Debbie, "all in all, an incredibly functional" one, they divorced when she became troubled by their "lack of connection." Three years later, Eli continues to come to Debbie's house every morning to get the girls ready for school and reassure them "that even though Mommy and Daddy aren't married, we're still your parents, we're still there for you, and we still love you." He and Debbie are confident that their "good" divorce will keep their daughters from suffering unnecessarily.
But they're most likely wrong.
Many people incorrectly assume that most marriages end only when parents are at each other's throats. But the reasons can often be far less urgent, like boredom or the midlife blahs. Research shows that two-thirds of divorces now end low-conflict marriages, where there is no abuse, violence or serious fighting. After those marriages end, the children suddenly struggle with a range of symptoms -- anxiety, depression, problems in school -- that they did not previously have. The waxing and waning cycles of adult unhappiness that characterize many marriages are often not all that obvious to children. For the children of low-conflict marriages, divorce is a massive blow that comes out of nowhere.
Of course, sometimes divorce is necessary, and when it does happen it is certainly better for children not to lose significant relationships entirely, nor to be drawn into bitter, unending fights. But when you talk to the children themselves, you find that rampant "good divorce" talk mainly reflects the wishes of adults, while silencing the voices of children. The divorce debate has long been conducted by adults, for adults, on behalf of the adult point of view, but now the grown children of divorce are telling their own, very different stories.
As a 35-year-old whose parents split up when I was 2, I know that we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to investigating how divorce shapes the inner lives and identities of children. So, along with University of Texas sociology professor Norval Glenn, I recently conducted the first nationally representative study of the grown children of divorce. We surveyed 1,500 young adults 18 to 35 years old, half from divorced families and half from intact families. I also interviewed another 71 young adults in person in four areas of the country.
We found that children of so-called "good" divorces often do worse even than children of unhappy low-conflict marriages -- they say more often, for example, that family life was stressful and that they had to grow up too soon; and they are themselves more likely to divorce -- and that they do much worse than children raised in happy marriages. In a finding that shatters the myth of the "good" divorce, they told us that divorce sowed lasting inner conflict in their lives even when their parents did not fight. No matter how "good" their parents were at it, the children of divorce were travelers between two very different worlds, negotiating often vastly different rules and roles.
Although only one-fifth told us that their parents had "a lot" of conflict after splitting up, the children of divorce said, over and over, that the breakup itself made their parents' worlds seem locked in lasting conflict. Two-thirds said their parents seemed like polar opposites in the years following the divorce, compared to just one-third of young adults with married parents. Close to half said that after the divorce they felt like a different person with each of their parents -- something only a quarter of children from intact families said. Half said their divorced parents' versions of truth were different, compared to just a fifth of those with married parents. More than twice as many children of divorce as children of intact families said that after the divorce they were asked to keep important secrets -- and many more felt the need to do so, even when their parents did not ask them to.
Children of divorce feel like divided selves, and at no time more so than when their parents get together amicably on special occasions -- as they are often urged to do by experts advocating the "good" divorce. As one friend told me: "When I was a kid it would really stress me out when my divorced parents were in the same room together . . . because I didn't know who to be." When they come of age, children of divorce struggle with being their whole, true selves around anyone. Writing in a book of essays, Gen X poet Jen Robinson recalled having to be a different person around each of her parents -- who'd had a "good" divorce -- to the point that when she left for college, she found that she made friends easily, "but always in distinct groups that seldom interacted. When they did, I felt internally pressured to please both groups and at the same time to negotiate the interaction between them." Finally, she realized that "I needed to reintegrate myself, to let myself be the whole of who I was with everyone who knew me."
Those of us who grew up in the first era of widespread divorce have a new sobriety about it. Yes, sometimes divorce is necessary, but the uncomfortable truth our culture has been hiding for too long is that often it's not, and there is definitely no such thing as a "good" divorce. If parents must divorce, it's good to get along afterward. But people in high-conflict marriages aren't usually successful at "good" divorce (divorce doesn't typically bring out great new communication and cooperation skills). Couples in low-conflict marriages may manage a so-called "good" divorce, but many of them could also manage to, well, stay married and spare themselves and their children a lot of pain.
This sobriety is emerging in movies, in studies, on blogs. I'm convinced there's more to come. Our generation's story needs to be told, because our society still strongly wants to deny just how devastating divorce really is. Too many people imagine that modern divorce is another variation on ordinary family life. Sure, there may be some discomfort, but doesn't childhood stay basically the same?
The answer is no. The evidence is piling up and the message from our generation is clear: Divorce divides and shapes children's identities well into young adulthood. It frees adults at the expense of forcing their children to grow up too soon. It has lasting consequences even when divorced parents do not fight.
Elizabeth Marquardt, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, is the author of the just-published "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce" (Crown).