The Reality of Divorce (and Day Care)

I've just finished reading Elizabeth Marquardt's Between Two Worlds, a study of what it's really like when children bounce back and forth between two homes with two parents. It's also something of a follow-up to Judith Wallerstein's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, the groundbreaking 25-year study of children of divorce. Though there are many conclusions to be made about the effects of divorce, what makes Wallerstein's book unique is her argument about its "legacy," which she described in a 2000 interview this way:

"The legacy-- and it's a very surprising legacy to me, but I think it's one that has really hit a chord throughout this country-- is that the major impact of divorce is not, as we thought, at the time of the breakup, although that's very hard, but the major impact of divorce happens when they enter young adulthood and they... when the man/woman situation, man/woman relationship moves center stage, and that's when the ghosts of the parent's divorce rise from the basement."

My husband has given me permission to vouch for Wallerstein's assertion. A product of divorce, my husband could easily be classified -- as so often happens with adult children of divorce -- as a child who came out of this situation relatively unscathed. He has a Master's degree and a good job; he is -- and has always been -- so well liked that he has not one enemy; and he has a lovely wife (had to get that in there) and two healthy children. By all accounts, he is a success.

But he doesn't always feel successful. He feels blessed, to be sure; but he struggles in ways that only he and I know about. As Wallerstein notes, the effects of divorce come to a head when the children of divorce get married themselves. That's when they face a whole host of demons.

I know my husband okayed my blogging this because he feels very strongly about the hidden costs of divorce. He and I have both felt its effects first-hand (not via my parents but my own divorce), though in very different ways. Consequently, our views on family life -- how to raise children, how to cultivate a happy marriage -- are almost 100% in sync.

This is not to say we have a perfect marriage. On the contrary, we work at it every day -- and I suspect we fail miserably at times. But unlike my first marriage, where I distinctly recall thinking "we could always get divorced if it doesn't work out" (a red flag if there ever was one), my husband and I don't consider divorce an option. Of course we know technically that it is, but it's not even on our radar screen.

The general consensus of these two books is this: Of course divorce is sometimes necessary, and no one's suggesting it shouldn't be an option. But the main reasons for divorce should ideally involve physical or emotional abuse, addiction, or serial adultery. Any environment that's clearly harmful to children is a slam-dunk.

The problem is determining the slam-dunk status. The no-fault divorce laws of 1970s, which began in California and quickly spread throughout the rest of the country, opened up a can of worms. While clearly there are other reasons people cannot manage to stay together outside of abuse, addiction, and adultery, the no-fault option left so much wiggle room that those who should probably stay together get lumped together with those who understandably need to split. It's a complicated mess.

But two conclusions of Marquardt's and Wallerstein's studies were fascinating. (1) Children of divorce have much in common with children who come from high-conflict marriages of intact families. (2) Re the issue of whether or not parents should "stay together for the sake of the children," the study showed it is best not to stay together ONLY if the marriage is a high-conflict one. In other words, there are millions of marriages in which both people aren't necessarily happy but they're not abusive or conflict-ridden. This would describe my husband's parents' marriage. In those cases, the consensus seems to be that it's best for the parents to stay together. But there's a caveat: Where getting divorced seems like the obvious solution to a high-conflict marriage, the problems that ensue as a result are sometimes just as bad.

Good grief!

What interests me most about all this is the "legacy" of divorce that Wallerstein describes -- not just because my husband and I live with it every day but because it's really the same argument I make in 7 Myths about day care: Its effects are so far-reaching on a personal level that we cannot defend the prevalence of day care (or divorce) by proving people "turn out fine." Every time someone makes this argument they refer to whether or not someone graduated from college or not; whether they're married or not; whether they have a good job or not; and whether they are "successful" in the traditional way we define success. But these are not the defining factors of a person's mental health and well-being. They tell us nothing about a person's level of confidence, ability to persevere and take criticism, self-esteem, and overall happiness. These are the markers of a successful life.

Indeed, children of day care suffer much in the same way children of divorce do. We just don't have a 25-year study in process that follows these children into adulthood. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps someday we will.

2 Responses to “The Reality of Divorce (and Day Care)”:

  1. Blasé says:

    Divorce basically sucks!

    But, being with someone who you shouldn't be with sucks even greater.

  2. cj-123 says:

    The bulk of research indicates that as a group, children of divorced parents fare worse than those raised by both parents. Time Magazine in its July 13 cover story details some of the research. Specifically in drug abuse rates, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, and criminal behavior and incarceration rates, children of a divorce are worse off than their peers raised in 2 parent families. That is not to say, as noted in the above blog, that some survive and survive pretty well. Some do. But shouldn't the goal be for kids to thrive, rather than just survive? If so, the slam dunk is that 2 parent families do it better.