Magazine article The Christian Century

No Good Divorce

Magazine article The Christian Century

No Good Divorce

Article excerpt

IN HER BOOK Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (reviewed on page 21), Elizabeth Marquardt examines the impact of divorce on children. Her book is based on a survey of 1,500 young adults which allowed her to compare the experiences of children of divorced parents with the experiences of children of married parents. Marquardt, a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a researcher with the Institute for American Values, calls the study the most comprehensive ever undertaken on the subject. We talked to her about her findings and about the impact of divorce on children's moral and spiritual lives.

The title of your book suggests one of its major themes: that in divorce a child is caught between two worlds. Why did you choose this metaphor and why is it so important a theme?

One of the big challenges for any marriage is to bring together two worlds--two people with different backgrounds and often different values. The rubbing together of these two worlds is often not neat or pretty, but some kind of unity is established.

After a divorce, the job of making sense of the two worlds and the conflicts that arise between them doesn't go away--it gets handed from the adults to the child. The child has to negotiate by himself or herself the different beliefs and values and ways of living that the child finds in each world. And these two worlds often become more different as each year goes by and the divorced parents develop new relationships, new jobs, new interests.

You refer to children of divorce as "early moral forgers." What do you mean by that?

Children who grow up traveling between two worlds feel early on the need to confront alone--the big moral questions: What's right and wrong? What do I believe? Where do I belong? Is there a God? What is true? They feel the need to confront these questions because they see dramatically contrasting answers in each parent's world. In fact, they're much more likely to see their parents as polar opposites even when they don't fight. Any answer they glean from one world can be undermined by looking at the other.

Many people have noticed that children of divorce often seem independent. They tend to help around the house or travel between parents' homes alone or take care of their younger siblings by themselves. They also have to become independent moral thinkers. Some people might say: Well, this need to be independent is a good thing. But while some children certainly can rise to the occasion, they lose their childhoods, and I think that that's something that we should mourn, not celebrate.

And some children cannot rise to the task. This helps explain why children of divorce are two to three times more likely than other children to end up with very serious social and emotional problems. The ones who cannot handle the difficulty of making sense of two worlds might be the ones who numb their pain with addictions or early sexual activity, or who suffer from depression.

How has your own experience as a child of divorce shaped your investigation?

I'm now 35. My parents split up when I was two years old. When I was in divinity school in the mid-1990s I went looking for resources on the moral and spiritual impact of divorce on children. I found there were none. That was remarkable, given that the divorce rate had been quite high for quite some time. It seemed to me, as a child of divorce who was struggling with questions of faith, that there is a huge connection between one's family experience and one's approach to questions of faith, including the images and stories of the Christian faith.

A lot of the questions we asked in the national survey were ones that came from my experience. They were questions no one had asked these young people before--questions like: Did you feel like a different person with each of your parents? Did you see your parents as polar opposites? …

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