39. Divorce

As I begin this article on divorce, I’m nervous. It’s an important subject. I know things about divorce from my own experience, from my adult friends’ experiences, and from my work with children. I got familiar with the effects on children of unhappy marriages and divorces well before I got familiar with their effects on myself and other adults. My parents have been married for over fifty years, and I suspect that the marriage will last. By the time I experienced divorce, I’d already worked with many children who’d experienced it. Some of my knowledge may reflect my personal experiences, but I’d rather not use this medium to tell you which ones.
Children with parents who seem to be happily married don’t usually take much credit for the success of the marriage, but children are quick to blame themselves for divorce. If only they had been better children, they think (at some level of consciousness), their parents would be happy together. If only they’d walked the dog regularly, made less noise, gotten better grades in school. Parents frequently try to reassure their children that it’s not the children’s fault, and that they can’t build any kind of Parent Trap to right the situation. But the feeling is persistent, and efforts to contradict it must hang in there.
The fantasy that the parents will reunite is resilient. Much of the anger directed at stepparents has to do with their role as obstacles to reunification. So children are apt to feel good about any discord they sense in the new marriage, and annoyed when things seem to be going well. This is not based on reason; children can be angry with a stepparent even if the birth parent is no longer alive. The stepparent makes it so that if the birth parent comes back to life, there’s a problem.
I’m only touching the surface of this issue. Children’s feelings about unhappy marriages and divorces run deep and wide. As long as I’m giving lip-service to issues that fill volumes, let me also take up some space comparing unhappy marriage to divorce. Children would rather have neither, but if they have to choose one, it depends. How unhappy is the marriage? Is unhappiness the norm, or are there just occasional fights? What will or does the divorce look like? Is one parent moving into a hole in the wall while the other lives in the family mansion? Will both parents be accessible? Will the fighting continue?
I know that reading and therapy help. As parents, we try to help our children find their way, and it’s a hard job, made harder if we’ve lost our way. But it’s our job.

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