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AFA Journal


Is Divorce Really The Lesser Of Two Evils?

Experts Confirm What Children Have Known All Along

By Pat Centner
AFA Journal Staff Writer
AFA Journal, May 2001 Edition

The day was warm. A teenage boy mowed the lawn at a house across the street, and a soft breeze filled the air with the sweet smell of freshly-cut grass. As we walked to the car, my sister Sue and I clung to each other, crying. Our little brother Don, who was five at the time, looked questioningly at us, not fully understanding what was going on. Jerry, the oldest, turned away to hide the tears in his own eyes. He had driven us to our daddy's small cafe on the west end of town where we said goodbye.

As we drove slowly through our small hometown for the last time, Daddy followed in his old, dark green Mercury. I sat up on my knees in the back seat and looked out the rear window, straining to see his tear-stained face. Soon, he turned down another street and slowly faded from view.

This is among the saddest memories of my life, the day I finally admitted to myself that my parents weren't ever going to get back together. And though it seemed like a bad dream, I realized my siblings and our mother really were going to a place far away--a place where Daddy would not be.

It was May 11, 1955, and I was nine years old. I will never forget it; the emotional and mental impact of my parents' divorce continues to this very day.

I used to wonder if other kids whose parents had divorced were as adversely affected by the experience as my siblings and I were--or had we just over-reacted? In recent months, I have found my answer.

Several new books and countless newspaper, magazine and Internet articles cite the results of extensive studies on the subject of divorce's impact on children. The bulk of this literature reveals that children are, indeed, dramatically affected by divorce and manifest that effect primarily in adulthood as they struggle with developing intimate relationships of their own. The loneliness, fears, anxieties and insecurities brought on by the divorce move front and center, often leading the person to make bad choices in relationships, giving up when problems arise or avoiding relationships altogether.

Probably the most widely respected book on this subject is the best-seller The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D. wrote the book in collaboration with University of San Francisco psychologist Julia M. Lewis and New York Times science correspondent Sandra Blakeslee.

This book explores the validity of the viewpoint held since "no-fault" divorce became so prevalent in the 1970s and '80s, that: 1) unhappy couples will be happier if they divorce; thus, their children will be happier too, and 2) divorce is just a temporary crisis for children. They hurt for a while, but soon bounce back.

Indeed, Wallerstein's 25-year study of 130 children of divorce and their parents proves quite the opposite. The comparisons between divorced families and the intact families of their neighbors provide a good basis for addressing the frequently asked question: for the sake of the children, is it better to divorce or to stay in an unhappy marriage? Wallerstein discusses the pros and cons of this question and provides helpful advice that will make the divorce less devastating for the children of those who do choose to divorce.

To me, the most profound statement in the book, and the one that helped me put my own experiences into proper perspective is: "Divorce is a life-transforming experience. After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescense is different. Adulthood--with the decision to marry or not and have children or not--is different. Whether the outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience."

Another book along the same lines is Stephanie Staal's The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce.

"For my generation (kids growing up in the '70s and '80s), divorce has taken on the social proportions of a Great Depression, a World War II, or a Vietnam in influencing our lives," writes Staal. "Divorce struck in the privacy of our own homes, shaking our beliefs about family to the core."

Wounded for Life
When I was asked to write this story, I knew that some of the old wounds in my heart would be re-opened, and I was right. But also opened, wider than ever before, has been the door to understanding myself. Now I know why I react the way I do in certain situations, why I struggle so with my self-worth, and why it's always been imperative for me to excel at whatever I do.

Before going further, I want to make it clear that I harbor no hard feelings toward either of my parents, who are now deceased. I loved them both deeply, and I know they loved me. When I think of them and that time in our lives, I feel an incredible sadness--a sadness that, after all these years, still brings immediate tears.

Neither is it my intent to condemn or judge anyone who is divorced or contemplating that step. I am merely writing this story to say I identify completely with those test subjects who say divorce has completely changed their lives.

I think the most debilitating effects of my folks' divorce have been the deep insecurity I have felt for as long as I can remember, and an incredible fear of rejection. Thus, I have always been hesitant to make friends or ask others for help.

The insecurity has manifested itself in several ways. After the divorce, I never felt truly safe, ever again. Mother had always been a very quiet, gentle person who was perfectly happy with letting Daddy run things. After the divorce, she was emotionally adrift and struggled to keep herself together. Watching her, we knew something was very wrong, and it was frightening. I remember her being almost "aloof" when she was home, and I felt left out of her life. I also missed Daddy, and as his contact with us steadily declined, I grieved because I thought I must have done something wrong.

Dr. Robert Crankshaw, director of Palmer Home for Children in Columbus, Mississippi, says kids of divorce struggle with feelings of disloyalty to one or both parents, as well as embarrassment caused by the divorce. That was certainly true in my life.

After my folks were separated, I can remember my Daddy coming to our house one night, drunk and banging on the door, demanding that Mama let him in. She had gotten word that he was on the way, so she had us turn out the lights, lock the doors and pretend we weren't home. I still remember, vividly, sitting in the dark, shaking with fear and feeling sick to my stomach, while conflicting thoughts raced wildly through my mind.

I loved Daddy so much, but at the same time, I was afraid of him when he was drinking--not because I thought he would hurt me, but because he was such a totally different person.

I still feel, to this day, the guilt I felt at hiding from my father, especially after he was gone from our lives. But at the same time, I was angry with my mother for wanting to leave our daddy and our home. And so, I also felt disloyal to her.

Back in the days when my parents were divorced, it "just wasn't done"--especially in a small town in the deep South. I have one vivid memory of hiding behind a tree on the school playground, crying, after several friends told me they couldn't play with me any more because my parents were getting a divorce. We were the big scandal of the town.

When we moved from Mississippi to Flagstaff, Arizona, I never let any of the kids at school know that I didn't have a daddy at home. I was too embarrassed. I was already being teased for my Southern accent, and I wasn't about to tell anyone my mom and dad weren't together.

Our mother worked as a cook and couldn't afford to pay someone to stay with us. So, Jerry and Sue moved into the role of caregivers for my little brother and me. This is common in divorce situations. Jerry stayed with us a year, and then returned to Mississippi to finish school and be near Daddy. Although our Aunt Vera had come to live with us, both she and Mother frequently worked at night, so the three of us kids stayed by ourselves. Sue, who was 13, cooked for us and comforted us when we were afraid at night.

All were affected. Mother would tell us what a good man our daddy was, and her eyes would always fill with tears. I now realize how fortunate we were that our parents didn't try to make us take sides. Our great loss was the presence of a father who loved us.

I will never forget Don wailing when he heard a fire siren at night because it was such a mournful sound; he was afraid Mother wasn't coming home. And when we started to school, he clung to my legs and begged me not to leave him until the teachers had to pull him away. I felt so helpless and so sorry for my little brother.

The sadness goes on and on. But God was gracious and gave me the strength to persevere and live a productive life, in spite of the sadness.

I suggest to those still struggling to cope that you write down the memories that elicit the most pain and anger when you think of the divorce, and ask God to help you forgive those responsible.

Also, talk with your siblings about their memories and reactions, although this may be very painful and difficult. This helped me view the divorce from a different perspective, which was very helpul. For other wonderful helps, go to your search engine on the Internet and type in "effects of divorce on children."

Leaning on the only One who can really help
For Christian divorcees concerned with the impact of divorce on their children, Dr. Linda S. Mintle, Ph.D. offers these positive strategies:

1. List the negative consequences of divorce. Take each one and pray over it as it pertains to your child's circumstances.

2. Strengthen your relationship with God so your children see a healthy model of love and commitment to Him.

3. Expose your children to other people who exhibit healthy models of love and commitment.

4. Trust God to do what He promised--make something good out of a negative situation.