By Elizabeth Marquardt for The Washington Post
Sunday February 3, 2002

She’s a young professor teaching at an elite college, married and with a small child. She loves her husband and adores her baby girl. She’s a portrait of success. She’s also a child of divorce. For some researchers, the story stops there: The young woman’s parents separated long ago, but her achievements — both professionally and personally — show that she has come through the experience of her family’s breakup just fine.

I was reminded of this way of thinking when I read a new study, “For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered,” published by former University of Virginia psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington. And as a child of divorce myself who has spoken at length with many others, I think that it is misguided to imagine that divorce has so little impact on children. The effects may not be obvious to outsiders, but they are certainly there.

Hetherington claims that if children of divorce don’t end up with diagnosed symptoms, such as antisocial behavior or depression, we are fine. If we do have symptoms of this kind, then she calls us troubled.

She uses the success stories among us to support her argument that most kids survive divorce well; and those who fail, well, she contends, they’re in the minority anyway. It’s a straightforward argument — one that has been picked up and repeated in newspapers across the world. But it ignores the more textured reality: Talk with almost anyone you know from a divorced family, and whether they are successful or struggling they will tell you that each child has a complex and often painful story, with divorce at its center.

It is not that Hetherington ignores the deleterious effects of a family’s splitting up. In her recent book, co-authored with John Kelly, she presents the results of three decades of research that involved 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children from divorced, intact and remarried families. Among her findings are the conclusions that children of divorce feel less close to their mothers, frequently lose contact with their fathers and have measurable adjustment problems in step-families — and that boys have an even harder time adjusting emotionally after divorce than girls. Most significant, Hetherington found that 20 to 25 percent of children of divorce suffer what she calls “long-term damage,” which includes lasting social, emotional or psychological problems, compared with just 10 percent from intact families who displayed the same sorts of problems.

But she argues that instead of focusing on this minority, we should concentrate on how the majority of these children turned out. They provide evidence, Hetherington asserts, that researchers who study divorce have “exaggerated its negative effects.”

It is true, of course, that many children of divorce grow up and finish school, get jobs and form families. A good number achieve the impressive professional success that the young woman I introduced above has found. But sit with her in a cafe for a few hours, as I did, and the rest of the story emerges.

She was 2 years old when her parents divorced. She recalls that her childhood was absorbed with “trying to balance the relationship” between her mother and her father because she “felt responsible for everyone being happy.” Each of her parents, she said, “had their own set of truths, and I tried not to share information between them unless it was absolutely necessary.” When she talks about her mother, she says, “I was more like the parent and she was more like the child,” while her relationship with her father grew more distant as each year passed. In response, she “just internalized everything” and tried to deal with her feelings by herself.

Years later, when she was a young woman about to be married, her father came back into her life wanting to make up before he underwent major surgery. They reconciled but only weeks later he was admitted to the hospital and died there. Her mother came to the hospital and stood by the bed where her father lay on life support. It was the first time the three of them had been in the same room in more than 20 years.

When I asked how she wants to raise her daughter, she grew impassioned: “I just want her to be a kid,” she said. “I don’t want her to feel responsible for me or my husband. I want her to feel like she can wake up, and she’s in a secure family, and she never has to worry about being bounced around between parents.”

I’ve interviewed dozens of young adults from divorced families. The details vary, but all tell stories equally complex and often as poignant as this one. Because I met with college graduates, most of the people I was interviewing had achieved a certain level of success.

If you gave them a questionnaire and asked, for instance, if they had ever been arrested, dropped out of school or been diagnosed with a mental illness, practically every one of them could respond “no.” But that does not mean they were unaffected by their parents’ divorce.

Those of us who have experienced the losses of divorce know the truth. I’m 31 years old. I’m a writer, just as I always wanted to be. I have a graduate degree from the University of Chicago, a loving husband, and supportive family and friends. From the outside, I look pretty successful. But I have a complex story that, especially through my early years, was largely shaped by my parents’ divorce. They divorced when I was 2 and both remain to this day very much involved in my life. I have never doubted their love for me. But for as long as I can remember, they led completely separate lives. I lived with my mother during the school year, and with my father during summers and holidays. I did not lose either of my parents, but a reunion with one of them was always a parting from the other, and the longing I felt for each of them produced sadness and a fear of loss that persisted when I grew up. Their divorce doesn’t explain all that I am, but the way it shaped my childhood is central to understanding who I am.

In her study, Hetherington did not sit down, one on one, with children and young people from divorced families and talk with them at length about their experiences. Instead, she relied on videotaped interviews, questionnaires and diaries to detect symptoms that indicated success or failure. Her research method, while entirely legitimate, caused her to miss the finer grains in the portraits of our lives. With the blunt instrument of large-scale research she picked out the most severely troubled subjects but left the rest untouched.

Divorce has become a defining feature of American childhood. It’s tempting to seize on these success stories to say that being a child of divorce is not all that different from growing up in an intact family. But our stories demonstrate that even though the most accomplished among us have weathered the losses that come with divorce, none of us wishes for the next generation to grow up the same way.

Elizabeth Marquardt, an affiliate scholar of the Institute for American Values, an organization devoted to the renewal of marriage and family life in New York City, is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce.”

© 2002 The Washington Post