We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce
By Constance Ahrons HarperCollins
304 pp. $24.95.
It is often said that those who are concerned about the social and personal effects of divorce are nostalgic for the 1950s, yearning for a mythical time when men worked, women happily stayed home baking cookies for the kids, and marriages were never dissolved. Yet often the same people who make this charge of mythology are caught in a bit of nostalgia of their own, pining for the sexual liberationism of the 1970s, when experts began to embrace unfettered divorce, confident that children, no less than adults, would thrive once “unhappy” marriages were brought to a speedy end.
Constance Ahrons, who coined the term “the good divorce” in the title of an influential 1992 book that examined ninety-eight divorcing couples, is very much a member of the latter camp. In her new book We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce, Ahrons returns to those ninety-eight couples to survey their now-grown children. The result is a study based on telephone interviews with 173 young adults from eighty-nine families that tries to advance the idea that it is not divorce itself that burdens children but rather the way in which parents divorce. As in her earlier book, Ahrons argues that the vocabulary we use to discuss divorce and remarriage is negative; she would prefer that we regard divorced families as “changed” or “rearranged” rather than as broken, damaged, or destroyed. She claims that upbeat language will, above all, help children to feel less stigmatized by divorce. Both of her books offer many new terms, such as “binuclear” and “tribe,” to describe divorced families. The specific novelty of the new book is Ahrons’ claim that her interviewees view their parents’ divorces in a positive light.
According to Ahrons, over three-quarters of the young people whom she interviewed do not wish that their parents were still together. A similar proportion feel that their parents’ decision to divorce was a good one, that their parents are better off today, and that they themselves are either better off because of the divorce or have not been affected by it. Statistically, that sounds overwhelmingly convincing. But an answer to a survey question tells us very little unless we have a context for interpreting it and some grasp of the actual experiences that gave rise to it.
Like those whom Ahrons interviewed, I grew up in a divorced family, my parents having split when I was two years old. Like Ahrons, I am a researcher in the field, having led, with Norval Glenn, a study of young adults from both divorced and intact families that included a nationally representative telephone survey of some 1,500 people. As someone who studies children of divorce and who is herself a grown child of divorce, I have noticed that the kinds of questions that get asked in such studies and the way the answers are interpreted often depend on whether the questioner views divorce from the standpoint of the child or the parent.
Take, for example, Ahrons’ finding that a majority of people raised in divorced families do not wish that their parents were still together. Ahrons did not ask whether as children these young people had hoped their parents would reunite. Instead, she asked if they wish today that their parents were still together. She presents their negative answers as gratifying evidence that divorce is affirmed by children. But is that really the right conclusion to draw?
Imagine the following scenario. One day when you are a child your parents come to you and tell you they are splitting up. Your life suddenly changes in lots of ways. Dad leaves, or maybe Mom does. You may move or change schools or lose friendships, or all of the above. Money is suddenly very tight and stays that way for a long time. You might not see one set of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins nearly as much as you used to. Then, Mom starts dating, or maybe Dad does. A boyfriend or girlfriend moves in, perhaps bringing along his or her own kids. You may see one or both of your parents marry again; you may see one or both of them get divorced a second time. You deal with the losses. You adjust as best you can. You grow up and try to figure out this “relationship” thing for yourself. Then, some interviewer on the telephone asks if you wish your parents were still together today. A lifetime of pain and anger and adjustment flashes before your eyes. Any memory of your parents together as a couple—if you can remember them together at all—is buried deep under all those feelings. Your divorced parents have always seemed like polar opposites to you. No one could be more different from your mother than your father, and vice versa. “No,” you reply to the interviewer, “I don’t wish my parents were still together.” Of course, one cannot automatically attribute such a train of thought to all of Ahrons’ interview subjects. Still, it is plausible, and it might explain at least some of the responses. But Ahrons does not even consider it.
Ahrons also tells us that the vast majority of young people in her study feel that they are either better off or not affected by their parents’ divorce. For a child of divorce there could hardly be a more loaded question than this one. The generation that Ahrons is interviewing grew up in a time of massive changes in family life, with experts assuring parents that if they became happier after divorce, their children would as well. There wasn’t a lot of patience for people who felt otherwise —especially when those people were children, with their aggravating preference for conventional married life over the adventures of divorce, and their tendency to look askance at their parents’ new love interests.
However, a child soon learns the natural lesson that complaining about a parent’s choices is a surefire way to be ignored or worse, and that what parents want above all is praise for those choices. Few things inspire as much admiration among divorced parents and their friends as the words of a child reassuring them that the divorce was no big deal—or even better, that it gave the child something beneficial, like early independence, or a new brother or sister. Parents are proud of a resilient child. They are embarrassed and frustrated by a child who claims to be a victim. And who among us wants to be a victim? Who would not rather be a hero, or at least a well-adjusted and agreeable person? When the interviewer calls on the telephone, what will the young adult be more likely to say? Something like “I’m damaged goods”? Or “Yes, it was tough at times but I survived it, and I’m stronger for it today.” It is the second reply that children of divorce have all their lives been encouraged to give; and the fact that they are willing to give it yet again is hardly, as Ahrons would have it, news.
Thus, Ahrons’ statistics on their own hardly constitute three cheers for divorce. Far more meaningful and revealing are the extended quotations from interview subjects with which the book is liberally studded. She writes, for instance, that Andy, now thirty-two, sees “value” in his parents’ divorce. Why? Because
I learned a lot. I grew up a lot more quickly than a lot of my friends. Not that that’s a good thing or a bad thing. People were always thinking I was older than I was because of the way I carried myself.
Treating a sad, unfortunate experience (like being forced to grow up more quickly than one’s peers) as something neutral or even positive is merely one example of what can happen when a person attempts to conform to a culture that insists that divorce is no big deal. To take such an ambivalent response as clear evidence that divorce does no damage, as Ahrons does, is inexcusable.
Ahrons cheerfully reports other “good” results of divorce. Here, for example, is Brian, whose parents split when he was five:
In general, I think [the divorce] has had very positive effects. I see what happens in divorces, and I have promised myself that I would do anything to not get a divorce. I don’t want my kids to go through what I went through.
Tracy, whose parents divorced when she was twelve, sees a similar upside to divorce:
I saw some of the things my parents did and know not to do that in my marriage and see the way they treated each other and know not to do that to my spouse and my children. I know [the divorce] has made me more committed to my husband and my children.
These are ringing endorsements of divorce as a positive life event? Like the testimony of a child who’s learned a painful but useful lesson about the dangers of playing with fire, such accounts indicate that the primary benefit of divorce is to encourage young people to avoid it in their own lives if at all possible.
Then there are the significant problems with the structure of Ahrons’ study itself. While the original families were recruited using a randomized method, the current study lacks any control group. In other words, Ahrons interviewed plenty of young people from divorced families but spoke to no one of similar ages from intact families. So she really can’t tell us anything at all about how these young people might differ from their peers.
Rather than acknowledging that her lack of a control group is a serious limitation, Ahrons sidesteps the issue. In several places she compares her subjects to generalized “social trends” or “their contemporaries” and decides, not surprisingly, that they are not all that different. Thus, Ahrons notes that many of the young people from divorced families told her that they frequently struggled with issues of “commitment, trust, and dealing with conflict,” but on this finding she comments, “These issues are precisely the ones that most adults in this stage of their development grapple with, whether they grow up in a nuclear family or not.” Never mind that she has not interviewed any of those other young people, or cited any studies to back up her contention, or acknowledged the possibility that, while all young people do have to deal with these kinds of interpersonal issues, some have a much harder time doing it than others. Ahrons instead wholly dismisses the pain expressed by the children of divorce and assures us that they are simply passing through a normal developmental phase.
When it comes to her conclusions, Ahrons claims that “if you had a devitalized or high-conflict marriage, you can take heart that the decision to divorce may have been the very best thing you could have done for your children.” While research does show that children, on average, do better after a high-conflict marriage ends (the same research, by Paul Amato and Alan Booth, also shows that only one-third of divorces result from high-conflict marriages), no one—Ahrons included—has shown that children do better when an adult ends a marriage he or she perceives as “devitalized.” Children don’t much care whether their parents have a “vital” marriage. They care whether their mother and father live with them, take care of them, and don’t fight a lot.
As in her first book, Ahrons continues to hope that adults who can’t get along while married will suddenly become selfless and cooperative when divorced. Of divorced parents she writes, “With parents who can communicate and negotiate and accommodate, children have the best opportunity to thrive.” Well, yes, but couples who can do these things could probably find a way to stay married, giving their children a far better opportunity to thrive.
Ahrons also remains preoccupied with the concept of stigma. She writes, for instance, that we are seeing “progress” because a high divorce rate has the effect of reducing the stigma experienced by children of divorce. That’s all well and good, but one wonders why Ahrons gives stigma so much attention while saying nothing about a far more damaging social problem for children of divorce—namely, silence. Consider my own experience. The type of family in which I grew up was radically different from the intact family model. Yet no one around me, not even therapists, ever once acknowledged that fact. Never mind that my beloved father lived hours away, or that the mother I adored was often stressed as she tried to earn a living while also acting as a single parent. I was left to assume, like many children of divorce, that whatever problems I struggled with were no one’s fault but my own. The demand that children of divorce keep quiet and get with the program puts them in the position of protecting adults from guilt and further stress—effectively reversing the natural order of family life in which the adults are the protectors of children.
Ahrons is remarkably unsympathetic to the children on whom this burden is laid. What do children of divorce long for? According to Ahrons, they nurture unrealistic hopes for “tidy,” “perfect” families. She uses these words so frequently—the first term appears at least six times in the book and the second at least four times—that she sometimes appears to be portraying children of divorce as weird obsessives. Speaking directly to children of divorce, Ahrons offers the following advice: “You may not have the idyllic family you dreamed of . . . [but] often the only thing within our control is how we perceive or interpret an event.” “For example, you can choose to see your family as rearranged, or you can choose to see it as broken.” Indeed, the curative powers of social constructivism are nothing short of miraculous. Encouraging her readers to stop using the descriptive term “adult child of divorce,” she asserts that “it’s a stigmatizing label that presumes you are deficient or traumatized. . . . If you have fallen prey to using it to explain something about yourself, ask yourself if it is keeping you from making changes that might bring you more satisfaction in your life.” Apparently, coming to grips with one’s family history and the deepest sources of one’s sadness and loneliness is the worst thing a child can do.
Ahrons wants above all to get children to stop expecting perfection from their family lives. But one wonders if she would be willing to pass along the same advice to men and women who are considering divorce. More than one couple has found that lowering expectations for a perfect marriage—one that fulfills both individuals in every way, emotional, financial, and sexual—has saved their marriage. Ahrons is not entirely wrong to say that our perceptions can shape our reality. But on whom should the primary responsibility for perception-modification be placed? On adults, or children?
Ahrons surely knows more about the tragedies of divorce than her thesis allows her to admit. She has studied divorced families for years. She has worked with them as a clinician. She has been through divorce herself. Yet she inevitably follows up heartbreaking observations of interviewees with the confident assertion that everyone involved would be so much happier if only they talked themselves out of—and even walked away from—their anguish. As she writes in one (unintentionally haunting) passage, “Over the years I have listened to many divorcing parents in my clinical practice talk about how much they look forward to the day when their children will be grown and they won’t have to have anything more to do with their exes.” Is it possible to imagine a sadder or more desperate desire than this one—the longing for one’s children to grow up faster so that relations with one’s ex-spouse can be more effectively severed? In such passages it becomes obvious that all of Ahrons’ efforts to explain away the tragedy of divorce and its legacy are in vain. In the end, the theory collapses before reality.
Ahrons’ poorly structured study and far too tendentious thesis are of no help to us in thinking through our approach to divorce and its consequences. Children of divorce are real, complex people who are deeply shaped by a new kind of fractured family life—one whose current prevalence is unprecedented in human history. These children are not nostalgic for “tidy,” “perfect,” “idyllic” families. They grieve the real losses that follow from their parents’ divorce. They don’t need new words to describe what they’ve been through. Ordinary words will serve quite well—provided that people are willing to listen to them.
Elizabeth Marquardt is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York City. Her book on children of divorce will be published by Crown.