What struck me in the first paragraph: this writer is speaking about the San Fernando Valley in California, where I grew up. Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett? They lived up the hill from me while they were married. So did Steve Garvey, and Dennis Weaver was a few cul-de-sacs away. Sarah Vaughn and David Gates both had daughters in my class at Calabasas High. We were the class of 1979, though, not '82 like the article writer. And yes, equally raised on "The Brady Bunch."
Meanwhile, some of the most promising candidates for longterm happy family life in my neck-of-the-stucco-home-woods fell prey to the divorce-epidemic which did seem to start in southern California in the mid-1970s.
It's been more than a quarter century since the Grant High class of '82 donned tuxes and taffeta and danced to Styx's "Come Sail Away" at the senior prom, and nearly four decades have passed since no-fault divorce laws began spreading across the country. In our parents' generation, marriage was still the most powerful social force. In ours, it was divorce. My 44-year-old classmates and I have watched divorce morph from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life.As I read the article, it struck me that David's curiosity is also mine: what happened to those of us who come from messed up families? I've begun with myself because that's the easiest source material. If you have a similar experience, I'd love to know how it's turning out for you. Please post your "adult child of divorce" reflections in the comments section, if you are so inclined.
But while it may be a common occurrence, divorce remains a profound experience for those who've lived through it. Researchers have churned out all sorts of depressing statistics about the impact of divorce. Each year, about 1 million children watch their parents split, triple the number in the '50s. These children are twice as likely as their peers to get divorced themselves and more likely to have mental-health problems, studies show. While divorce rates have been dropping—off from their 1981 peak to just 3.6 per 1,000 people in 2006—marriage has also declined sharply, falling to 7.3 per 1,000 people in 2006 from 10.6 in 1970. Sociologists decry a growing "marriage gap" in which the well educated and better paid are staying married, while the poor are still getting divorced (people with college degrees are half as likely to be divorced or separated as their less-educated peers). And the younger you marry, the more likely you are to get divorced.
Yet all these statistics fail to show the very personal impact of divorce on the individual, or how those effects can change over a lifetime as children of divorce start families of their own. (my bold) When we were growing up, divorce loomed as the ultimate threat to innocence, but what were my peers' feelings about it now that they were adults? What I wanted to know was how divorce had affected our class president and Miss Congeniality, the stoners and the valedictorian. Did it leave them with emotional scars that never healed, or did they go on to lead "normal" lives? Did they wind up in divorce court, or did they achieve the domestic bliss their parents had sought in suburbia? I decided to open my yearbook, pick up the phone and find out. These are their stories—or at least their side of their stories, since each breakup is perceived so differently by every family member.
What a powerful discussion topic this is turning out to be.
I do know one thing: My sister and I were both so traumatized by our parents' divorce, we've made every effort to stay married for our kids... we don't want them to suffer what we went through. I wonder if growing up with divorce leads some of us to be better married partners... cautionary tale and all of that.
Despite the dire predictions, a surprising number of Grant alums wound up in solid marriages. My buddy Chris made good on his high-school promise to let me be best man at his wedding—I gave him my "Fat Albert" lunchbox as a wedding present—and 15 years later he's still happily married, and living with his wife and two daughters near Houston, where he works for a company that conducts pharmaceutical clinical trials. "My life since my parents' divorce has been shaped to a tremendous degree by the goal of avoiding divorce as an adult at all costs," says Chris, whose parents both died of cancer within months of one another in 2001.I would agree with the statement about the Reagan era's social conservatism. Many of us were reacting to what felt like the chaotic moral fall-out of the 1960's that manifested in full color in the 1970's. That's about the only explanation I have for why so many of us have become such hardened conservatives in our forties.
In many ways, the urge to stay married is stronger in my classmates' generation than the urge to get divorced was in my parents'. Perhaps this was a backlash to divorce; maybe it was the result of reaching marrying age just as President Reagan's New Conservatism was shaping the social order. Whatever the cause, my married classmates seem more clear-eyed than their '50s forebears.