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Issue 3 - divorce harmful

Issue 3 - divorce harmful - ESSUE 3 Does Divorce Create...

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Unformatted text preview: ESSUE 3 Does Divorce Create Long—Term Negative Effects for Children? YES: Elizabeth Marquardt, from “The Bad Divorce, ” First Things (February 2005) N0: Constance Altrons, from We’re Stiff Farrel}: What GF‘GWT’I Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce (Harper Collins, 2004) ISSUE SUMMARY YES: In reviewing Constance Ahrons’ book, We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents” Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the institute for American Vaiues, argues that the manner in which Ahrons’s questions were asked in her study yielded comments from participants in which they minimized the negative effects that their parents’ divorce had on them. Through a combination of her own personal experience as a child of divorce and her work in the field, she maintains that divorce is a “tragedy” that dramatically and negatively impacts children for the rest of their lives. N0: Constance Ahrons, author of What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce and founding co-chair of the Council on Con-temporary Families, found in her research findings that the ideas that children of divorced families end up much more trou— bled and unable to form adult relationships themseives are myths, that many adults Whose parents divorced emerged from the expe- rience stionger, Wiser, and with closer reiationships with their tathers, remaining connected to their families of origin even when the parent with whorn they lived created a new stepfamily. Interestingly enough, divorce rates among heterosexual married couples in the United States, which skyrocketed during the t9?05, started to decrease Shortly thereafter. More recently, we are seeing an increase, Some people may have heard the oftquoted statistic that the divorce rate in the United States between heterosexual married couples is around 50 percent, meaning 1 out of 2 marriages wiil end in divorce. According to writer Dan Hurley, the rate is 49 a bit lower than that, at around 41 percent {from “Divorce Rate: it’s Not as High as You Think,” The New York Times, April 19, 2005). Other researchers, however, stand by the calculations that yielded the 50 percent number. The statistics aside, an ongoing concern of estranged couples is how their relationship challenges may affect their child or children, especially if the cou- ple chooses to separate or divorce. Aside from the logistical considerationsww custody, visitation, decision making for the child—couple and youth protes— sionais alike are concerned about the effects that being a child of divorced parents or caregivers can have on a child’s ongoing development, as well as the child’s perspective on iove arid committed relationships. Historically, professionals have maintained that divorce has long—standing, deleterious effects on a child’s seliuimage, ability to reiate to others, and much more. While many professionals maintain these views, many others are much more centrist, arguing that, even though divorce can have negative effects on chil- dren, these effects can be mitigated by the manner in which the divorce is handled by the parents. Many other professionals are at the other end of the argument, citing research that demonstrates how children of divorce actually ended up with higher self-esteem and a great feeling of independence than children of parents who stayed in unhealthy or unsatisfying relationships. As you read the following viewpoints, consider the people in your own lifew—do you have friends or contemporaries whose parents divorced or are divorcing? What aboot your own parents or family members? How do your personal experiences iibe with or contradict the arguments stated by the authors? in the foilowing selections, Elizabeth M cism of the conclusions Constance Ahrons draws from the data she collected and reported on in her book, We’re Still Family. . . . Also an author of a book about the effects of divorce and the adult child of divorced parents, Marquarcit asserts that even amicable divorces have negative effects on children. Constance Ahrons, however, maintains that the arguments of Marquardt and others who disagree with her findings can actually be grouped into several categories of misconceptions, to which she responds individually. Divorce, she says, is complicatedhso the blanketed labeling of divorce as always problematic to children is as oversimplified as it is inaccurate. arquardt offers extensive critiw Elizabeth Marquardt W The Bad Divorce It is often said that those who are concerned about the social and personal effects of divorce are nostalgic for the 19505, yearning for a mythical time when men worked, women happily stayed home baking cookies for the kids, and marriages never dissolved. Yet often the same people who make the charge of mythology are caught in a bit. of nostalgia of their own, pining for the sexual. liberationism of the 19?03, when many experts began to embrace unfettered divorce, confident that children, no less than adults, wouid thrive once “unhappy” marriages were brought to a speedy end. Constance Ahrons, who coined the term “the good divorce” in the title of an influential 1992 book that examined ninety~eight divorcing couples, is very much a member of the latter camp. In her new book, We’re Still Family.- Wlmt Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents" Divorce, Ahrons returns to those ninety—eight couples to survey their nowwgrown children. The result is a study based on telephone interviews with 173 young adults from eightyw nine families that tries to advance the idea it is not divorce itself that burdens children but rather the way in which parents divorce. As in'her earlier book, Ahrons argues that the vocabulary we use to discuss divorce and remarriage is negative; she would prefer that we regard divorced families as “changed” or “rearranged” rather than broken, damaged, or destroyed. She claims that upbeat language will, above all, help children feel less stigmatized by divorce. Both of her books offer many new terms, such as “binuclear” and “tribe,” to describe divorced families. The specific novelty of the new book is Ahrons’ claim that her interviewees view their parents’ divorces in a positive light. it is with delight, then, that Ahrons shares surprising new findings from her ongoing study. According to Ahron-s, over three quarters of the young people from divorced families who she interviewed do not wish their parents were still together. A similar proportion feel their parents’ decision to divorce was a good one, that their parents are better off today, and that they them~ divorce. To general readers ldren of divorce in recent ike big neWs. But there are problems. According to Ahrons, over three-quarters of the young peopie whom she interviewed do not wish that their parents Were stiii together. A similar pro— portion feel that their parents’ decision to divorce was a good one, that their Ftorn Hrs? Things, February 2065. Copyright © 2005 by Institute on Religion and l’obiic Life. Reprinted by permission. 51 52 1333123 f Does Divorce Create Long—Term Negative {Effects . . . '3‘ parents are better off today, and that they themselves either better off because of the divorce or late not been affected by it. Statistically, that sounds ovez‘whehuiugly convincing. But ah answer to a stovey question tells us very little unless we have a context for interpreting it and some grasp of the actan experiences that gave rise to it. like those whom Ahroos interviewed, I grew up in a divorced family, my parents having split when l was two years old. like Ahrons, I am a researcher to the fieid, having led, with NorvaE Glei‘m, a study of young adults from both divorced and intact families that included a oationaliy representative tele- phone survey of some 1,500 people. As someone who studies children of divorce and who is herseif a grown child of divorce, I have noticed that the kinds of questions that get asked in. such studies and the way the answers are interpreted often depend on whether the questioner views divorce from the standpoint of the child or the parent. Take, to; example, Ahrons’ finding that the malority of people raised its divorced families do not wish that their parents were together. Ahrons did not ask whether as children these young people had hoped their parents would reunite. instead, she asked if they wish today their parents were still together. She presents their negative answers as gratifying evidence that divorce is affirmed by children. But is that really the right conclusion to draw? Imagine the foilowing scenario. One day when you are a child your par" ents come to you and teil you they are splitting up. Your life suddenly changes in lots of ways. Dad leaves, or maybe Mom does. You may move or change schools or lose friendships, or all of the above. Money is suddenly very tight and stays that way for a long time. You may not see one set of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins nearly as much as you used to. Then, Mom starts dating, or maybe Dad does. A boyfriend or girlfriend moves in, perhaps bringing along his or her own kids. You may see one or both of your parents marry again; you may see one or both of them get divorced a second time. You deal with the losses. You adiust as best you can. You grow up and try to figure out this “relationship” thing for yourself. Then, some interviewer on the telen phone asks if you wish your parents were still together today. A lifetime of pain and auger and adjustment flashes before your eyes. Any memory of your parents together as a couplewif you can remember them together at all-is bur» ied deep under ail those feelings. Your divorced parents have always seemed like polar opposites to you. No one could he more different from your mother than your father, and vice versa. “No,” you reply to the interviewer, “I don’t wish my parents were stiil together.” Of course, one cannot automatically attribute such a train of thought to all of Ahrons’ interview suhgecis. Still, it is piausible, and it might explain at least some of the responses. But Ahrons does not even consider it. Ahroos tells L25 that the vast majority of young people in her study feel that they are either better off or not affected by their parents' divorce. For a child oi divorce there could hardly be a more loaded question than this one. The generation that Altruns is interviewing grew up in a time of massive changes in family life, with experts assuring parents that if they became happier after divorce, their children would as well. There wasn’t a. iot of patience for petitiie ""‘ 333.“."4 Yrs 5 {Elizabeth Marquardt 53 who felt otherwise—especiallly when those people were. children, with their aggw ravating preference for conventional married life over the adsentures of divorce, and their tendency to look askance at their parents’ new love interests. i'lowever. a child soon learns the natural lesson that cornpiaining about a parent’s choices is a surefire way to be ignored or worse, and. that what parents want above at? is praise for those choices. Few things inspire as ranch admira- tion among divorced parents and their friends as the words of a child reassur— ing thern that the divorce was no big deal-~or even better, that it gave the child something beneficial, like early independence, or a new brother or sister. Par- ents are proud of a resilient child. 'l‘hey are embarrassed and frustrated by a child who claims to be a victim, And who arnong us wants to be a victim? Who would not rather be a hero, or at least a well—acttusted and agreeable per- son? When the interviewer calls on the telephone, what will the young adult be rnore likely to say? Something like “I’m damaged goods”? 0: “Yes, it was rough at times but I survived it, and I‘m stronger for it today. ” It is the second reply that children of divorce have all their lives been encouraged to give; and the fact that they are willing to give it yet again is hardly, as Ahrons would have it, news. Thus, Ahrons’ statistics on their own hardly constitute three cheers for divorce. Far more meaningful and revealing are the extended quotations from interview subjects with which the book is liberally studded. She writes, for instance, that Andy, now thirtyutwo, sees “value” in his parents’ divorce. Why? Because: "I learned a lot. i grew up a lot more quickly than a lot of my friends. Not that that’s a good thing or a bad thing. People were always thinking i was older than I was because of the way I carried myself.” Treating a. sad, unfortunate experience (like being forced to grow up more quickly than one’s peers) as something neutral or even positive is rnerety one example of what can happen when a person attempts to conform to a culture that insists that divorce is no big deal. To take such an ambivalent response as clear evidence that divorce does no damage, as Ahrons does is inexcusable. Aluons cheerfully reports other “good” results of divorce. Here for example is Brian, whose parents split when he was five: “in general, I think [the divorce} has had very positive effects. I see what hap- pens in divorces, and I have promised myself that I would do anything to not get a divorce. 1 don’t want my kids to go through what I went through.” Tracy, whose parents divorced when she was twelve, sees a similar upside to divorce: “I saw some of the things my parents did and know not to do that in my marriage and see the way they treated each other and know not to do that to my spouse and my children. l know [the divorce} has made me more committed to my husband and my children.” . 54 ISSUE, 3 f Does Divorce Create LongvTerm Negative Effects . . . 2’ ’i‘hese are ringing endorsements of divorce as a positive life event? like the testimony of a child who's iearned a painfui but useiui iesson about the dangers of piaying with fire, such accounts indicate that the primary benefit of divorce is to encourage young people to avoid it in their own Elves if at aii possible. Then there are the significant problems with the structure of Ahrons’ study itself. Whiie the original families were recruited using a randomized method, the study iacks any controi group. in other words, Ahrons inter— viewed plenty of young people from divorced families but spoke to no one of Similar ages from intact families. 80 she really can’t teli us anything at ail about how these young people might differ from their peers. Rather than acknowledging that her lack of a control group is a serious limitation, Ahrons sidesteps the issuer in several places she compares her suh~ jects to generaiized “sociai trends“ or “their contemporaries” and decides, not surprisingly, that they are not ali that different. Thus, Ahrons notes that many ,7 of the young people from divorced families toid her they frequently struggled with issues of “commitment, trust, and dealing with conflict," but on this 11 finding she comments, “These issues are precisely the ones that most adults in this stage of their deveiopment grapple with, whether they grow up in a nuclear family or not.” Never mind that she has not intervieWed any of those other young people, or cited any studies to back up her contention, or acknowledged the possibility that, while all young people do have to deai with these kinds of interpersonal issues, some have a much harder time doing it than others. Ahrons instead wholly dismisses the pain expressed by the chil— dren of divorce and assures us that they are simply passing through a normal development phase. When it comes to her conclusions, Ahrons claims that “if. you had a devi~ taiized or high~conflict marriage, you can take heart that the decision to divorce may have been the very best thing you could have done for your chilw dren." Whiletfifisarch does show that children, on average, do better after a high—conflict marriageends (the same research,'by Paul Amato and Aian Erase}; also Shows” that only Onothird of divorces end high-conflict marriages), no one~AhrOns inciudedimhas shown that children do better when an adult ends a marriage he or she perceives as “devitalized.” Chiidren don’t much care whether their parents have a “vital” marriage. They care whether their mother and father livs with them, take care of them, and don’t fight a lot. . . . ’ Ahrons’ also remains preoccupied with the concept of stigma. She writes, for instance, that we are seeing "progress" because a high divorce rate has the effect of reducing the stigma experienced by chiioren of divorce. That’s all well and good, but one wonders why Anions gives stigma so much attention while saying nothing about a far more damaging social problem for children of divorcemnamely, silence. Consider my own experience. The type of family in which I grew up was radically different from the intact family mode-2. Yet no one around me, not even therapists, ever once acknowledged that fact. Never mind that my beioved father lived hours away, or that the. mother I adored was often stressed as she tried to earn a living white also acting as a singie parent. i was left to assume, like many children of divorce, that whatever problems l was begs-3“? Monte.wvrrwirfl cflnw'nnn"caveman/w a‘«"v;v.—:v,v.v.“.vm‘ «.i ~ IN,»‘fl'-I'¢ awa-‘c'vg-gemv35,“ r“ Elizabeth Marquardt 55 struggled with were no one’s fault but my own. The demand that children or divorce keep quiet and get with the program puts them in the position of protecting adults from. guilt and further stresswet‘fectiveiy reversing the natural order of tarniiy Elie in which the aduits are the protectors of children. Al'rrons is remarkably unsympathetic to the children on whom this bur— den is laid. What do children of divorce longfor? According to Ahrons, they nurture unrealistic hope‘s‘for “tidy,” “perfect” tarniiiesf She uses these words to frequentlyfwthe firsti’errn appears at least six times in the hook and the sec- ond at'le'aSt four times—that she sometimes appears to be portraying children of divorce asuweird Obsessives. Speaking directly to children of divorce, Ahrons offers the following advice: "You may not have the idyllic family you dreamed of . . . [but] often the oniy thing within our control is how we perceive or interpret an event.” "For example, you can choose to see your famiiy as rear— ranged, or you can choose to see it as broken." indeed, the curative powers of social constructivism are nothing short of miraculous. Encouraging readers to stop using the descriptive term "adult child of divorce," she asserts that “it’s a stigmatizing iabei that presumes you are deficient or traumatized. . . . if you have fallen prey to using it to explain something about yourself, ask yourself if it is keeping you from making changes that might bring you more satisfao tion in your life.” Apparently, coming to grips with one’s family history and the deepest sources of one’s sadness and loneliness is the worst thing a child can do. . . . Ahrons sureiy knows more about the tragedies of divorce than her thesis aliows her to admit. She has studied divorced families for years. She has worked with them as a clinician. She hasbeeri throu_gi_1diyorce herseif. Yet she inevitably follows up heartbreaking observations of interviewees with the con fident assertion that everyone involved would be so much happier if oniy they talked themseives out ofwand even waiked away frommtheir anguish. As she writes in one {unintentionally haunting) passage, “Over the years I have lis- tened to many divorcing parents in my clinical practice talk about how much they iook forward to the day when their children. will be grown and they won’t have to have anything more to do with their axes? “is ithSSrihleeto image} sadder or more desperate desire than this onewthe longing for onefschildren to grow up faster so that relations with one’s err-spouse can be more effecn tit/’er severed'fmin such passages it become...
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