Friday, May 02, 2008

The Divorce Generation Grows Up

I found this Newsweek article about adult children of divorce through a backtracking link to my Forgiveness post.

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.

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.
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.

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.

Another excerpt:
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.

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.
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.


H said...

What a great post, Julie - even for a hardened conservative ;-)

Divorce is very hard on children. Unfortunately, so staying together for the sake of the children, sometimes, can be worse. Both require very thoughtful consideration, and if divorce is the necessary route, a collaborative divorce can make the transition go more smoothly with parents becoming closer and worker better as partners in their children's lives.

The Modern Woman's Divorce Guide

dan h. said...

Hi Julie,
I'm a new reader as a result of your forgiveness post. Another fine one here.

I am not divorced, but as a pastor, I've done a good bit of pre-marital counseling. It does seem interesting that many say not only do they not want to get divorced like their parents, but they want their MARRIAGE to be different. Like, it's not enough to just not get divorced, but I want to love and respect my spouse in a way that my parents didn't seem to.

Just my 2 cents. I hope you don't mind my barging into your blog. :)


julieunplugged said...

Please barge in Dan! I really love new commenters.

I agree with you that marriage itself has to be on different terms after you've experience divorce as a child. My husband and I went to counseling in year three of our marriage, that's how important it was to me that we not get into patterns and habits that would later come back to nail us.

And Helene, I am no longer a hardened conservative. :) Ditched that gig when I saw how dysfunctional it made me.

Sandie said...

Interesting article.....
I can say without a doubt that my parents' divorce was a huge part of my decision to marry for life. They divorced when I was 18 and I was married very shortly after turning 19. And I also think many of the decisions I have made, have been a reaction to the decisions they as to not repeat their mistakes, in parenting and marriage.

julieunplugged said...

Sandie, that is exactly true for me. I am only now aware of how completely I jerked the wheel of my vehicle (me) away from the dangers I saw with my parents. It's meant that some of those choices/decisions were not healthy for me at all, even while my aims have been noble: longterm, faithful marriage, stable intact family.

jo(e) said...

My parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary -- and I'm about to celebrate my 24th. So I'm not in the category you're talking about.

But it interests me. I have lots of thirty-something friends who are the children of divorced parents.

Some cling rigidly to the idea that "I am never going to get divorced! It's not an option." That kind of black-and-white thinking seems, however, to doom the marriage, often preventing one spouse or the other from being assertive or raising concerns or getting involved in the messy issues that come up in a marriage. Just saying, "Well, my parents were divorced and I refuse to think about getting divorced" never seems to be enough. Those people end up getting divorced ....

But I've got other friends who came from single-parent households who felt more empowered to try to change patterns -- often with the help of 12-step programs, therapists, close friends, spiritual counseling, etc. Many of those have worked hard and are in stable marriages.

brian said...


I'm not a child of divorce. But, I have a general comment on patterns set for us by parents. I think when parents divorce or drink too much or are emotionally distant or whatever, we have a choice. Many people actually mindlessly follow those patterns, never realizing what they are doing. Many struggle against them but fall right into them anyway. Then, there are those who make a concerted effort to do things differently and succeed in breaking those patterns.

I was surprised to learn that people who are divorced have a lesser chance of having a second marriage succeed. I though the opposite would be true because people would learn from the first marriage and use that experience to do better the second time around. But, it doesn't always work out that way. I wonder if the children of divorce are more or less likely to have "successful" marriages. My guess would be less likely. I think you are probably the exception in the way you've examined your past and learned from it.


Monica said...

I am an adult child of several divorces, and the effects are woven into a part of my core that I can't even explain half of the time. But I have learned to live with them and skills to combat them to be able to have a functional marriage of my own. I am also driven to provide resources through a non-profit
( even wrote my own children's book for some insight into the dual-personality that can occur from having two homes. (
So, hopefully, one would say I am part of the generation that actually "grew up." Regards, Monica