The Bad News About "Good Divorce"

Elizabeth Marquardt is an adult child of divorced parents.

In her new book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, she sets out to present a corrective to all the “happy talk” books and research written by and for divorced parents to make them feel better about the kids. It is based on a survey by sociologist Norval Glenn of 1,500 adult children from both intact marriages and so-called “good divorces” and 70 in-depth interviews by Marquardt.

Marquardt, a scholar with the Institute for American Values, a wife and mother, spoke with Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe about the immediate pain and lasting impact of growing up in the aftermath of a “good divorce” — and what churches can do about it.

What is the main finding of your study?

The point is that, when parents divorce, the tough job of making sense of their two worlds — that's the hard job of marriage — doesn't go away. Instead, the job gets handed to the child alone. So it's no longer the parents’ job to rub the sharp edges of their worlds together. Instead the sharp edges of their worlds rub together only within the inner life of the child. And because this is never acknowledged or talked about, the child has no support or recognition for what they have to do. When they are not up to the job and can't get with the program, they figure they have only themselves to blame.

Are children of divorce more likely to get divorced?

The divorce rate for first marriages is 43% and for remarriages it is 60%. But the divorce rate for children of divorce in their first marriage is about 60%. And I hate it. I've been married for nine years and I hate that statistic.

Can we do anything to reduce the divorce rate?

I think that all of us, whether we're from divorced marriages or not, can do a lot to strengthen our marriages by learning about what marriage is: It's a lot more than just being happy every day and having a personally fulfilling relationship that satisfies you in all ways as an individual. Marriages go in cycles and sometimes some are bad; there are normal periods of conflict.

What can the Church do for these people they lost in their childhood?

Two thirds of the children from families that were active in church at the time of the divorce say no one reached out to them at the time of the divorce. That finding alone is a huge challenge to churches. It shows that churches have been overlooking these children and there's lots of room for improvement.

How does divorce impact the spiritual lives of children?

For one thing, children of divorce are much less likely to be religious. We want to be spiritual as much as those from intact families but much less tied to organized religion. But some become more religious as a result of their parents’ divorce, and those who are religious are more likely to be evangelical. And I think this is a real wakeup call to mainline Protestant churches that are losing people actively. They need to ask themselves why.

And do you have any thoughts?

I think the part of the theology of evangelical churches that emphasizes the salvific role of God the Father works for children of divorce who feel that God became the father or parent they never had. Some 38% say they perceive God as the parent they never had, versus 22% of those from intact families.

What impact do you hope your book will have?

I really think of my book as having three audiences:

First, grown children of divorce and the people who care for them and minister to them.

The second audience I think of as married parents who may be considering divorce, and I think my book gives a good picture of life on the other side and what that marriage does for their child and I've already heard about it changing a few people's minds about getting a divorce.

And the third audience is divorced parents, and I think it is going to be a very hard book for them to read. I sympathize with that. It's not my intention to make them feel guilty. But I think it would be a useful book for them because it helps them understand why, even if they had a so-called good divorce, their children still seem burdened.

Are “good divorce” books giving good advice about minimizing the pain for children?

Certainly the idea that, after the divorce, it's good for the parents to minimize conflict and stay involved in the child's life — which is the basic premise of the “good divorce” — is good advice. Beyond that, the “good-divorce” advice is generally pretty damaging. The biggest damage it does is that it misleads parents into thinking they can end their “good-enough” marriage and still do right by their children.

The other thing is that the “good-divorce” books, particularly those written for children, have this glib assumption that, if you just acknowledge the pain of divorce out loud, you will make it all okay.

It seems that you are challenging Americans to do a very big, unselfish thing, one that runs counter to the spirit of the age, the primacy of individual fulfillment.

It certainly does. It really speaks to the problems of the age as well. You know, in the 21st-century globalized economy, you are supposed to be ready to move at a moment's notice to satisfy an employer. Our family lives are atomized; our relationships are atomized in the spirit of global markets and the movement of capital. I think you don't have to talk to people for long to realize that it's spiritually empty and, in the face of all that, a lasting marriage is a pretty radical idea.

Pairing up with someone for life, for good and bad — having children together who rise from both of you to adulthood and sticking it out no matter what — is a pretty radical idea. So I agree it goes against the spirit of the age, but a lot of people are unhappy with the spirit of the age. The messages we have to give them about marriage, certainly in church, can be pretty appealing. People are dying to hear them.

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.




by Elizabeth Marquardt

Crown Publishing, 2005

288 pages, $24.95

Available in bookstores