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The Not So Good Divorce

January 21, 2011

Love and marriage. Overall today fewer of us opt to get hitched, but most of my gay friends desperately want that option. Marriage now has precious little to do with having children, let alone sanctioning sex.

But even in these crazy times of social retooling, divorce remains exquisitely painful for everybody involved. In Mad Men times, divorce was so shameful those living in the wrong state fled to Reno or Guadalajara, because the laws of many states made divorce nearly impossible. Forget about the humiliation of the religious fall-out for my Catholic and Orthodox Jewish friends, breaking up is still hard to do.

But when kids aren’t part of it, divorce is just two adults recognizing a very bad situation, and either having a fight or skulking away. But when there are children involved, things get “complicated”.

In the full flower of Boomer Me Generation rationalization Constance Ahrons wrote the book “The Good Divorce” in 1994 – stating that splitting up parents had no cause for guilt – children, after all are “so resilient”.

Then five years ago Elizabeth Marquardt blew that argument up, writing “Between Two Worlds” a book stating every divorce scars every child, regardless of age, state of the marriage or socio-economic group. Of course drug addicted child abusers should not be in charge of any children, especially in a family situation.  People have to get out of abusive relationships – divorce has to be an option.

But when parents simply “grow apart”, does the happiness of the separated adults trump, or actually allow for, the happiness of their children? “The Good Divorce” asserts that unless Mommy and Daddy are happy, ain’t no children being happy…so in that view, divorce means a happier outcome than unhappy parents “staying married for the sake of the children”.

Ms. Marquardt says the opposite. She says that children are the opposite of resilient – they are exquisitely fragile. Her study examined 1,500 grown children – half from divorced families, half from intact families. No matter what the age or circumstance of the divorce, as compared to children from intact families the children from divorced parents felt permanently damaged by that divorce, some deeply so.

My parents were of the Mad Men era, were very unhappy together, remained married, and I spent my first dating decade of my life being attracted to happy families versus finding the right love match. Many of my friends come from divorced families – none was mortally wounded, but all of them feel the impact of that divorce even after their parents have passed away.

But like all of us, I have known many families before, during, and  after divorce. Anecdotally the parents almost universally find relief when the marriage ends, and, also from my experience, all of the children are wounded. Some greatly, others subtly, even though all these break-ups easily fit Ms. Ahrons’ definition of “Good Divorces”.

We all deserve to be happy, but none of us chose our parents or asked to be born. For me, a child’s heart is what Linda Ronstadt sang about all those years ago – its like a wheel, – “when you bend it, you can’t mend it”. And divorce can do a pretty good job crashing into a childhood.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alexandra permalink
    January 21, 2011 11:12 am

    I’m not sure which would have been better – having the divorce trauma sooner or skipping the 15 years of psychological trauma.

  2. February 28, 2011 2:53 pm

    I like your writings…always did. I don’t know if you remember me from when I was the director of the CT Trust for Historic Preservation…way back in the last century or if you know what I’m doing now. But just in case you don’t, I’ll introduce myself: I’m now commissioning site specific public art for New Haven with a small private non-profit named Site Projects. If you haven’t seen our 2010 artwork by Felice Varini in Temple Plaza, I’d like to give you a tour.

    Architects, landscape architects, urban planners and graphic designers tend to really admire this artwork: a 110 ft tall anamorphic wall mural, the 1st of Varini’s signature ‘urban interventions’ in the United States. It opened in June of 2010 and will, we hope, remain in place for at least another year. The Parking Authority seems to have warmed to it. Paul Goldberger, Cesar Pelli, Jon Pickard, Paul Bailey, Diana Balmori are a few of the people who’ve toured the artworks and enjoyed the tricks of distortion and perception that are at play.

    Varini did a 2nd indoor piece in the main hall of the New Haven Free Public Library. The main impetus for my contacting you is that the Library installation will be de-installed in the next month so that there is a rare opportunity in New Haven to see Varini’s work both outdoors and in for a short period of time.

    Please let me know if someone on our board can give you a tour.

    Regards, Laura Clarke, 203.376.8668.

  3. duo permalink
    July 4, 2011 6:16 pm

    what a cad I am, saw this SIX months ago and spaced – if the offer is still open, I’d love to see what there is to see – (in the meantime I have ascended to the NHPT Board)

  4. samantha pie permalink
    July 15, 2012 2:38 am

    Like all things in life – crap happens – divorce happens. To universally say all divorce has a negative impact is unrealistic just as saying staying in a bad marriage has a positive impact on kids. It’s always what we do when crap happens, what parents do post divorce to make a positive impact on the kids. It would take parents to grow up and put aside their own petty and hurt feelings to take care of their kids. That’s usually the gordian knot.

  5. July 15, 2012 3:52 am

    With kids in their 20’s with me in my 50’s every other relationship has more objectivity in it than parent-child. The rational “get over it” applies to just about every other eventuality, except, for almost all child/parent disasters.

    I wish I could take my own rational understanding of my parents and apply it to how I feel about them, long dead as they are, but it eludes me, things still make me wince 50 years after the fact. Which, objectively valid or not, is a fact.


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