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October 19, 2005
Column #1,260

                                "Between Two Worlds"

One quarter of adults, aged 18-35, lived through the divorce of their parents. It is a
shattering experience according to an powerful new book, "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce" by Elizabeth Marquardt.

When Elizabeth was aged seven, climbing a jungle gym, she heard a mother say to
another, "Kids with divorced parents are kicked back and forth like a footfall." The image grabbed her because that's what her life was like after age three when her parents divorced..

When she quoted the woman to her father, he turned a purplish red and sputtered that the image did not apply to her, because both he and her mother loved her very much. She saw how sad each were to say goodbye at the airport.

But she felt like the football flying "too high, too free" belonging "neither to the place it left nor to the place it was going."

Children of divorce are three times as likely to be expelled from school or to become
pregnant as teenagers as those from intact parents and are five times as apt to live in poverty.

But what about the much larger numbers of children of divorce who seem to be "fine?"

The assumption of many therapists and parents is that if divorcing parents have a "good divorce" in which they do not battle over custody, are civil when in the same room and stick to agreements on visitation and child support that their children will do well.

"In the first ever study of the inner lives of grown children of divorce, there is no such thing as a `good divorce.' It requires children to grow up between two worlds, between parents with vastly different beliefs," asserts Ms. Marquardt.

The study compared 750 Generation X adults of divorced parents with 750 who grew up in intact homes. The differences are stark. Two-thirds of children of divorce who stay in contact with both parents (and many do not) say they felt like they grew up in two families, not one, which creates "endless and often painful complications for a child."

For example, Elizabeth's father and mother both remarried. Her mother and stepfather were hippies who moved into a rented four room tenant farmer's house without indoor plumbing and took showers with a garden hose. Her father worked by day and went to law school at night. Elizabeth flew alone to visit him from age five. Eventually both parents divorced again, and her stepfather, whom she loved, committed suicide.

Fully 44 percent of children of divorce said "I was alone a lot as a child" vs. only 14
percent of those in intact families - a three-fold difference. Melissa, one of 71 adult children of divorce interviewed, said that while in high school her mother was frequently absent - at work or on dates or spending the night with boyfriends.

When Daniel's father left his mother to move in with another woman, his mother was
devastated. Daniel learned not to go to her when he felt sad or scared, because she would become overwhelmed with guilt, call herself a bad mother, and he'd have to comfort her!

A fifth of young adult children of divorce agree that "I love my mother, but do not respect her," triple that of those from intact homes. A quarter of young adults from divorced homes disagree with the assertion, "My father clearly taught me the difference between right and wrong." That compares with just 3 percent of those from intact homes. If the study had included the many children totally abandoned by divorced dads, the ratio would have been much worse.

Because the moral guidelines from each parent conflicted, children "had to create their own values and find within themselves the courage and capacity to trust their own judgment," writes Judith Wallerstein in a Foreword. As one young man put it, "I had to become my own parent."

What are the lessons of "Between Two Worlds?"

First, two-thirds of those who divorce who are in low-conflict marriages, should work
harder to save their marriages, or at least wait until children are grown before divorcing. Only a third of the divorced said that they and ex-spouses tried to save the marriage.

Second, therapists who often recommend divorce and clergy who acquiesce in it - must become voices for the children urging parents to be more responsible.

Finally, this book is must reading for the millions of divorced parents or who are
considering it, for the judges who always grant divorce when only one person asks for it, and by state legislators who should consider replacing "No Fault Divorce" (Unilateral Divorce) with "Mutual Consent Divorce."
 

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