I remember the scene in my house on a Friday afternoon, two years after my divorce. My son comes home from school, his temper already short because of the coming transition: My ex–husband is picking up the children to take them to his house for the weekend. My son remembers to pack his backpack and then has time to play a video game. His sister, four years younger, does not remember. She is deeply engaged with her Barbies. Suddenly, the doorbell rings: Dad has arrived, and he wants to leave immediately to avoid the rush–hour traffic.
My daughter must stuff her bag as quickly as she can while her brother rushes to the door, not wanting to displease his father. He yells at his sister to hurry up! as she struggles to remember what she needs. I come in to say goodbye and give each of them a hug. Meanwhile, both children know that Dad is waiting. They want to get out the door as quickly as possible, but they do not want to slight my feelings. And they cannot afford to leave anything behind that they might need for school on Monday. My son hugs me and dashes to the car—my daughter clings to me a few moments longer, filled with conflicting feelings, before running after her brother.
Both children are under pressure, caught by opposing loyalties. They long to please both parents, and they have to remember every single thing they will need for the three days they are spending with their father. This is emotionally charged multi–tasking of the most demanding sort, repeated twice a week with each transfer from one parent's house to the other's.
My son describes his life immediately prior to and after the divorce as walking on a narrow bridge across the sea. The tides—his parents' moods, needs, and desires, and the tensions and conflicts between them— threatened to pull him down and drown him on either side. My daughter describes it as being put on trial in a foreign country where she knew neither the laws nor the language. Both children needed to become exquisitely aware of what each of their parents was feeling, how each of us would react to things said or done, in order to protect themselves from feeling emotionally swamped or from being barred from a desired activity, such as guitar lessons or a trip to the beach. As a result, they became highly intuitive observers of others' emotions and superb diplomats, able to soothe the most fraught situations. They learned these skills both out of self–protection and out of loyalty to both parents. And they are not alone.
Study after study, even those conducted by the most vocal critics of divorce, has found that adult children of divorce are more empathic than their peers and have a greater devotion to honesty, kindness, integrity, and compassion in relationships. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the great challenges they face present these children with powerful opportunities for growth.
Living through a divorce is almost always difficult for children, but if it unfolds in a way that makes them feel empowered, the next time they face something hard or unfamiliar they will be able to do so with confidence rather than fear. As Judith Wallerstein writes in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce:
Many children of divorce are stronger for their struggles. They think of themselves as survivors who have learned to rely on their own judgment and to take responsibility for themselves and others at a young age. They have had to invent their own morality and values. They understand the importance of economic independence and hard work. They do not take relationships lightly. Most maintain reverence for good family life.
Although this process is often painful for children, and although it is natural for us to regret their suffering, it is also unjust to the children of divorce to remain blind to what they have gained.
Discussions of divorce rarely consider these complexities. Instead, the last two decades have produced a tidal wave of divorce hysteria, and many divorced parents feel deeply stigmatized and guilty as a result. Divorce is blamed for the troubles of young people; the feeling is that if the youth of today is "in crisis," this must, at least in part, have to do with the ravages of growing up in a nontraditional family, without the benefit of traditional parental roles.
In 1988, Joseph Guttmann conducted a study demonstrating that when teachers and counselors are told that the child they are watching on videotape is from a divorced family, they see the child as having significant problems. If they are told that the child comes from a traditional home, they find the same behavior by the same child unproblematic. Children on the receiving end of this bias end up being treated by parents, teachers, and others as "problem children," when in fact they are perfectly normal. If we believe that children are damaged, we force them to respond—often in negative ways—to this depiction of themselves.
On the other hand, if we believe that they are successfully solving important problems and gaining valuable new skills and abilities, we make it easier for children to have confidence in themselves and their ability to overcome obstacles. These research findings and observations suggest that we need a new perspective on divorce. Rather than writing these children off as wounded victims, we must understand how parents can help their children thrive rather than flounder after a divorce.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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