Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Becoming a child of divorce when you're not a child

Months ago, I promised a review of Brooke Lea Foster’s book The Way They Were: Dealing With Your Parents’ Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage. It’s taken me a long time to make good on that promise. The delay, honestly, has been due in part to the fact that this was a hard book to read. Reaffirming my view that the only real fix for the brokenness that divorce imposes on us, Foster’s book is more than a little depressing. When she was a young twenty-something, Foster’s parents began a long and bitter divorce. Her mother was vindictive and snarky, her father was depressed. Foster’s relationship with both parents suffered and the strident tone of the book and the advice offered therein left me with the impression that Foster is still angry and resentful over the whole situation.

On the plus side, Foster’s book gives a voice to the adult children of divorce, those whose parents split up after the kids have flown the coop. Her research found that “20 percent of today’s divorces take place among individuals married more than fifteen years,” so her audience is not as small as you might think. Calling them the “lost-nest generation,” Foster details some of the unique difficulties facing these adult children:
- The parents’ marriage has had time to become part of the individual’s identity as a person, part of how they understand themselves and their broader family, and now that portion of their identity is being taken away.
- Parents who wouldn’t dream of telling their young children about intimate details of the breakup and their new life do not hesitate to share this information with adult children.
- Parents think it shouldn’t be a big deal because the kids are gone from the home; sometimes they even want their children to applaud their break for freedom. Because of this, adult children doubt their right to hurt.
- Because all their childhood stories typically involve the person one parent is trying to forget, oral history is lost or stifled.
- The breakup of a marriage that has lasted so long makes the kids wonder if the parents can be trusted at all, if the whole thing was a lie.

Reiterating the post on this blog quoting from Prison Angel, Foster says a study by Pennsylvania State University “found that 77 percent of adult children surveyed worried for their parents after a divorce, as they would worry for the well-being of their own child.”

Foster talks as well about the effect of parents’ divorces on their children with regard to romance and marriage:

Our own romantic relationships seem less certain when our parents’ marriage fails…We’d like to believe that the love between our parents is bigger than any problem. After an affair, we see our parents reduced to baser urges and impulses. When a parent cheats, the lessons learned aren’t encouraging. We realize that we can never know what’s really going on in someone’s head and heart. A person may say one thing and do another. No one can be trusted. These are all damaging, cynical thoughts for a young adult searching for a soul mate…Adult children feel less innocent going into relationships, as if their parent’s affair has marked them in some
way. We worry that telling someone why our parents divorced makes us less
desirable. Do people assume that we’ll cheat, too? Says one twenty-nine-year-old man, his dad’s affair “reflects poorly on me as a potential mate. It’s something I can’t help, but it’s there.”

As a generation, we’ve embraced marriage more than our parents did. In the late
1990s, demographer Pamela Paul noticed an interesting trend. Unlike our mothers, who dreamed of careers and independence, Generation Xers dreamed of domesticity. Forget Murphy Brown. We wanted to be Donna Reed. In a 1999 poll by a national market research firm, 57 percent of Gen Xers said they “would like to see a return to more traditional standards of marriage.” We don’t want to juggle home, family, and career as our parents did. We want to be there for our children in all the ways in which our busy parents couldn’t be there for us….As a generation, we’re also believers in divorce. Paul’s book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony cites a 2001 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that one in five first marriages ends in divorce within the first five years. “Americans are diving in and out of matrimony with a seeming ease that belies the premise of the institution. Is this, one wonders, how the tensions between our optimistic yearning for marriage and our darker, childhood experiences with divorce are meant to play out?” Paul writes.



While Foster gives a list of tips at the end of each chapter, some of which are good, I felt a sense of despondency reading this book. The problems seemed so much bigger than the solutions offered. This is the reason I started writing about faith and divorce. Those of us who believe in a Father God have a solution so much bigger than the problems. While others may bemoan “the way they were,” we can celebrate the way He is!

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