Tuesday, October 25, 2005

An Important Title on Divorce and Children

Christianity Today has just published a review of an important new book looking at the impact of divorce on children. Click here to read it and related materials. Here's a taste.

Dissecting Divorce
A new book by Elizabeth Marquardt offers a child's-eye-view of divorce.
Reviewed by Jenny Schroedel

A generation of children of divorce has grown up. They have a story to tell. It's not the story you might find in books like E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly's For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, suggesting that divorce is not so bad for kids. It is also quite unlike cheery children's books like To & Fro, Fast & Slow, describing a child who goes back and forth from her dad's hip city apartment to her mother's idyllic country home.

According to Elizabeth Marquardt, being a child of divorce is more like being a football, kicked back and forth between two estranged parents and the worlds they inhabit with their conflicting rules, standards, and secrets. This is a heavy burden to bear, even in the "best" of divorces—a burden that shapes lives in subtle and pronounced ways. As the "little adults" in their families, these children understood that their role was to protect their parents by keeping silent, whether it was about long, lonely hours spent in empty apartments, dad's new girlfriend, or the sexual abuse that occasionally occurs in blended families.

In Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, these adult children finally speak. Marquardt, herself a child of divorce and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, draws from her own experiences and a study that she conducted with sociologist Norval Glenn, in which they surveyed 1,500 adult children from divorced and intact families and then interviewed 70 of them at length. They focused on college graduates because they wanted to understand how these reasonably successful adults—often cited as proof that divorce could be innocuous—had been affected.

Between Two Worlds is illuminating for what it conveys about divorce, but it is equally striking for what it says about marriage: that the couple's essential task is to make one home from their two conflicting selves, creating an ideal context for a child's spiritual and emotional growth. In intact families, this struggle goes largely unnoticed by the children. After divorce the conflict no longer rests on the parents' shoulders but takes root in the heart of the child.

Many of these children carried their conflicted hearts to church, sat alone in the back pew, and tried to make sense of it all. An overwhelming majority of interviewees said that religious leaders did not reach out to them. This was perhaps indicative of the larger societal trend to focus on parents instead of children.

"If our parents could not stay together, we needed and deserved to grow up in a society that faced up squarely to our loss," Marquardt writes, "that refused to engage in happy talk, that resisted the temptation to call children resilient in order to defend adult decisions."

The greatest strength of this book is also a liability: the multitude of quotes create texture and depth but occasionally clog the flow of Marquardt's lucid prose. Still, Between Two Worlds is an excellent resource for pastors, parents, therapists, adult children of divorce, and divorced adults. If nothing else, it can help our society better understand and protect our weakest members: those children who appear so deceptively mature that we decide, quite tragically, to look the other way.

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