Last week, we pondered whether or not people whose own parents divorced are more likely to stay married themselves. The jury seems to be out on this one, but one thing is clear: divorce has a lifelong impact on kids.
In a weekend essay at the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Divorce Generation“, author Susan Gregory Thomas suggests that “When did your parents get divorced?” is the defining question of our generation, much as “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” was for our parents.
Personally, I always thought the defining historical question of my generation was “Where were you when the Challenger blew up?”. Plenty of kids I grew up with had parents who doggedly stayed married, and are still married. My own weren’t among them, so I see where Ms. Thomas is coming from. Divorce changed everything about my childhood, and the echoes of my parents’ divorce inform the choices I make as a spouse and parent today.
But to define our whole generation as a product of divorce? I think Ms. Thomas may be looking at history through divorce-colored glasses.
Understandably so. She’s still reeling from her own divorce four years ago, and has written a book about the experience. In her WSJ essay, Thomas writes:
To allow our own marriages to end in divorce is to live out our worst childhood fears. More horrifying, it is to inflict the unthinkable on what we most love and want to protect: our children. It is like slashing open our own wounds and turning the knife on our babies. To consider it is unbearable.
Given that’s how she feels about divorce, it’s no wonder her own had such a big impact.
Much of Thomas’ essay is about the struggle parents of our generation feel to keep our marriages intact, or failing that, to have better divorces than our parents did. When my parents split up, my mom promptly moved across the country from my dad, taking us with her. This wasn’t that uncommon. A lot of my friends from divorced families saw their dads rarely if at all. Now, my divorced friends have meticulous joint custody schedules, share family gatherings and attend school events together. It’s a different thing for these kids than the divorces common in the 80s were for my generation.
That doesn’t mean divorce is easy or fun, though. In another essay published over the weekend, this one in the New York Times, Heather Havrilesky writes about “the divorce delusion“, the idea that divorce can be a simple part of a process of self-empowerment and self-actualization. That you can smoothly go from a troubled marriage to a life of yoga classes and cocktails with your girlfriends, without ever plunging your family into heartbreak and chaos. She writes:
A divorce is not a birthday party or a high-school reunion or a three-day restorative spa getaway. Just as there is a time to meditate, a time to live your best life, a time to be “fierce,” there is also a time to weep openly, a time to regret everything and a time to eat big doughnuts in bed. We all have a right to our own bad choices — and a right to feel bad about them too. As Lord Byron wrote, “Sorrow is knowledge.” So for God’s sake, let’s stop rushing to get to the good part.
Faced with the prospect of divorce, even a modern “good divorce”, more of my peers do seem to be choosing to stay married. As we’ve discussed here before, people are marring later and divorce rates are dropping. Those of us who grew up with divorced parents are still more likely to break our vows than those who didn’t, though. We may feel more determined than ever to stay together and avoid repeating our parents mistakes. That doesn’t mean we’ll be successful.
I don’t know why children of divorce are more likely to wind up divorced themselves, but I have a pet theory: it’s because we don’t know what else to do. I suspect this is the same reason second marriages are more likely than first marriages to break up. When your formative experiences of marriage include divorce, it looms as an option when things are hard. It might seem like a terrible one, but it’s there. If you’ve never seen a couple go through the difficult passages in a marriage and not get divorced, you may not see what the other options are.
I felt like I scored a major coup on that front this year by simply staying married. My marriage has now lasted past the point where my own parents’ union broke up. It has outlasted my husband’s first marriage. It was the hardest year of our time together so far, a time when we often felt like strangers to each other. Strangers who did not get along at all. But we stayed together because we both believed it would get better, and it did. I’m not really sure what happens next. There’s no roadmap in my personal history for a long, happy marriage. We’re making it up as we go along.
Did your parents divorce? Does being a child of the “divorce generation” affect how you act as a spouse and a parent yourself?