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November 18, 2000
Column #1003
(Second of a two-part series)

''THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE'' - II - ANSWERS

     Children of divorce suffer at every stage of life. Two-thirds of those followed for 25 years by Dr. Judith Wallerstein grew up in families ''where they experienced multiple divorces and remarriages of one or both parents'' plus ''many cohabitations and brief love affairs,'' she writes in her landmark book, ''The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.''

     Children sadly concluded that ties between men and women ''can break capriciously, without warning,'' which gives them no confidence in building relationships with the opposite sex. Consequently, they are terrified of conflict and tend to explode or run away. 

     What has not been recognized until this book was published is that from the viewpoint of children, ''divorce is a cumulative experience. Its impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood'' affecting ''the personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships and ability to cope with change.'' Only 60 percent married; many of them divorced.

     The legal system compounds these staggering problems in two damaging ways. Visitation plans treat the child ''like a rag doll that quietly sits wherever it is placed.'' Kids are locked into inflexible court-ordered visitation that is not adjusted as children get older. Though its aim to allow the child to get to know and love the absent parent, what grows is resentment at being taken away from their own friends and activities. As adults they no longer want to see the absent parent.

     The legal system also allows child support to stop at age 18. ''Many young people consider the cutoff at age 18 the worst hit of their parents' divorce. They tell me bitterly, 'I paid for my folks's divorce,''' Wallerstein writes. Only 29 percent received full or consistent partial support for college compared to 89 percent of their friends living in intact families. Divorced parents offer no explanation or apology for their failure to help. Further, children of divorce are often denied scholarship aid because their father's income is too high!

     What can be done about these problems of divorce? 

     It is time to change laws. Court-ordered visitation plans should be reviewed every five years, with the child given a larger voice as he/she grows older. Child support should also be mandated to continue if the student is enrolled in full-time study, until age 22.

     Alas, neither change is likely since Legislative Judiciary Committees are run by lawyers who make money from divorce cases. Their conflict of interest needs to be exposed.

     Without support from the law, sadly, children of divorce must fend for themselves.  

     During high school, they must ask their fathers for financial support for college. One college student heard Dr. Wallerstein lecture that while divorced children with wealthy dads cannot expect help to attend college even cab drivers in intact homes help their children, The girl said, ''You have just given what to me is the most important lecture of my life. I never thought I had the right to even ask my dad for support.'' 

     The girl's father was grumpy, saying he was no longer legally obligated to help. However, he finally agreed to provide the financial aid she needed.

     What about the emotional trauma of being a child of divorce? Wallerstein asks, ''Suppose we gave as much time, energy and resources to protecting children as we give to protecting the environment? I would begin with an effort to strengthen marriage.'' She suggests more flexible work schedules, social security and tax benefits for parents who stays home with children and classes for adolescents on how to make relationships work by schools and churches.

     Since such changes are unlikely in the short run, she urges the children to take the initiative to sit down and talk candidly with parents about why they divorced. ''My next advice is to delay marriage or commitment until you have learned more about yourself. You should consider individual or group therapy to learn to resolve conflict without becoming terrified.''

     I would add that when the person is considering marriage, do not test the relationship by living with a partner. St. Paul writes, ''Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil.'' Cohabitation embraces evil. It also doesn't work. Marriages built on cohabitation fail at a 50 percent higher rate. Rather, test the relationship by going to a church that offers a premarital inventory which can predict with 80 percent accuracy who will divorce.

     Sadly, only 15 percent of churches give premarital inventories. Even fewer offer young couples an opportunity to talk through their issues with an older couple in a vital marriage. That step would provide surrogate role models missing in many homes. 

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus. 

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