Breaking The Divorce Cycle

There is one day they all remember, the day they first heard the news, the day their world changed forever. For Sara Dadisman, it was her 13th birthday. Even now, two decades later, talking about it is difficult. "It seems as though my mom did it almost to hurt me," says Dadisman, who lives in Madison, Wis. "Sometimes I think, 'Was that real? Did she really do that to me on my birthday?' But I can remember her giving me a present, a Barbie doll or something, and then telling me she and my dad were getting a divorce. I was devastated."

The year that Dadisman's parents broke up, 1971, fell in the midst of a watershed period in the history of American marriage. Before that point, divorce was relatively rare and youngsters felt ashamed of their status as products of what were then called broken homes. But over the next decade the divorce rate soared to a record high. In 1965, the divorce rate was 2.5 per 1,000 population; by 1976, it had doubled, to 5.0. Through most of the 1970s and the 1980s, a million children a year watched their parents split up. Instead of broken homes, there were "single-parent households" and "blended families"--as though sanitized titles could hide the messy reality of families torn asunder.

Now, millions of those children are adults themselves; many are husbands, wives and parents. They are the first generation to experience widespread divorce. Their childhood memories include not just the breakup and its traumatic aftereffects, but often years of fighting before their parents separated. While many of them report successful marriages and happy lives, their emotional wounds run deep--and time does not always heal. Divorce remains a central issue throughout their lives no matter how well adjusted they may seem to be. "A hole in the heart is universal," says Claire Berman, author of "Adult Children of Divorce Speak Out." "There is a sense of having missed out on something that is a birthright, the right to grow up in a house with two parents."

Compared with people who have grown up in intact families, adult children of divorce are more likely to have troubled relationships and broken marriages. A desire for stability sends some down the aisle at too young an age, and they wind up in divorce court not long afterward. Others fear commitment because they learned too well the lessons of their childhood-don't trust anyone, not even Mom or Dad. Even when divorce releases children from their parents' violent or emotionally abusive marriage, they worry that they don't know how to be half of a happy couple because they've never seen one close up at home.

When adult children of divorce get divorced themselves, the painful legacy is passed to a second generation of children, the offspring of these adult survivors. Will they be the ones to break the cycle? Or will they repeat the mistakes of their parents and grandparents and send the divorce rate on yet another upward spiral? Demographers predict that by the beginning of the next decade the majority of youngsters under 18 will spend part of their childhood in single-parent families, many of them created by divorce. "We're in the midst of a huge social experiment," says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and coauthor of "Divided Families." "We don't know what the long-term effects will be."

There are some hopeful signs. Marriage as an institution hasn't lost its allure; close to 90 percent of Americans eventually wed at least once. "Marriage is still the desired status," says Census Bureau demographer Arthur J. Norton. "But I think people are more particular and serious about commitment and I think that causes them to be a little more reluctant about getting into a marriage." According to the Census Bureau, the median age of first marriage is higher than it's ever been. In 1990, it was 26.1 for men and 23.9 for women, compared with 22.5 and 20.6 in 1970.

That caution is good if it means that people are thinking twice before tying the knot-and avoiding mismatches. But some of these singles are children of divorce whose outlook on marriage has been altered: they "look into the future through the filter of potential divorce," says Dr. Edward Beal, author of "Adult Children of Divorce." Marjorie Rosenthal's parents separated when she was 9, though it took them five years to finalize the divorce. "As soon as the ink was dry on the divorce papers, they both remarried," she says. "Within a period of two days, I gained seven new stepbrothers and stepsisters." Growing up surrounded by fragmented families was as traumatic as the divorce itself. By the time she was 16, Marjorie decided she never wanted a serious relationship. At college in California, she tended to seek out boyfriends who lived in other cities. "It was easier for me to handle long-distance relationships," she says. Now 35, she's been living for the past year with a man she is considering marrying. But uncertainty haunts her. "It still bothers me when my friends and family ask me when I'm getting married," she says. "If marriage is so good, why are so many people divorced?"

In their 1989 book "Second Chances," a report on 60 divorced couples from California, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee wrote that almost half the children in these families "entered adulthood as worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry young men and women." That makes them prime candidates for unhappy unions. Research indicates that girls, in particular, suffer when their parents split up. In a 1987 study, University of Texas sociologists Norval Glenn and Kathryn Kramer found that white women who were younger than 16 when their parents divorced or separated were 59 percent more likely to be divorced or separated themselves. The difference was less for white males (32 percent) and for blacks (15 to 16 percent), but all children of divorce appeared more prone to breakups than children whose parents stayed married.

Social scientists can't decide whether the adjustment problems of children of divorce grow out of the divorce experience itself, the subsequent years of living in a single-parent family or the economic decline that often follows a breakup-especially for mothers with custody of several young children. Given that many children of divorce grew up in homes where fighting was common, their difficulties could also simply reflect a chaotic childhood. Michael Pensack, a 48-year-old tenant organizer in Chicago, was 14 when his parents divorced. Like many children of divorce, his parents' problems thrust him into early independence. His mother had been so unhappy in her marriage that she had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Her psychiatrist persuaded Pensack's father to grant the divorce. Pensack still remembers his mother's collapse. "She would sit all day and not do things," he says. "She just shut down." Even after the divorce, she remained remote. "She drank coffee and smoked cigarettes most of the time," he says. "She did the laundry and made the dinner, but for the rest of the time, we were on our own." Pensack married at 24 and was divorced himself 11 years later. He won't talk about the reasons for the split, except to say that he was surprised he was married even that long. Now, he says, "I don't ever go into a relationship thinking it's going to last."

There's no way of predicting how children will react to a parental divorce. A lot depends on the child's relationship with each parent, as well as the youngster's basic nature. Some kids are born survivors; others are more vulnerable. Maureen Hannah and her sister, Kathy, were teenagers in California when their parents split up. Both women have vivid recollections of fighting. Their father, an alcoholic, had jobs only sporadically; their mother worked to support the family. The girls became latchkey children when Kathy was 7 and Maureen was 5. There was never enough money for clothes; mealtime was a haphazard affair. Both girls grew up feeling insecure, lonely and neglected. Maureen recalls one incident: "I can remember lying in bed in trepidation waiting for my father to come home from drinking." She adds, "I kept listening for the sound of the car. When he finally did pull up, I could hear things going on downstairs. They were throwing things and he was out of it. It was disgusting."

Both sisters left home shortly after the divorce, and both eventually ended up in London where they worked as waitresses. Now 43, Kathy still lives in London with her fourth husband, a man 20 years her senior, and her two children from her first marriage. As she looks back on her life, she sees a series of false starts, failures and periods of deep depression. "I think I have carried around a great rage inside of me which has spilled over into other relationships," she says. "I have a difficult time being intimate and I'm not as affectionate with my children as I would like to be. I have a tendency to withdraw, to be stoic, not to cry, to be an island." She believes that this marriage is her last, but, like most adult children of divorce, she knows there are no guarantees. "I have these moments of panic where I think I haven't made anything of my life and never will," she says. "But I'm getting stronger. I'm very future oriented. I don't like to think about the past."

Maureen, on the other hand, was able to escape the past. During her first few years in London, she dated a series of men, but no relationship lasted long. Then she met John Hannah, a Scottish journalist. Married 14 years, they have two children and live in California. "I married the right man the first time," says Maureen, now 40. "I had certain ideals for a husband and I found them in John. It wasn't my parents' marriage." Growing up with a bad marriage makes her work harder on her own. "The biggest strength in our marriage is the belief that it could end any time," she says. "That's the strength-knowing how fragile it is."

One critical factor in determining how well a child functions is the attitude of the custodial parent, usually the mother. For the first year or two, many parents feel angry and depressed. But if they can control those emotions and get their lives on track, their children have a much better chance. Even in this time of trauma, parents can still be role models. Gail Stern, 50, has experienced divorce twice-as a daughter and as a mother. She doesn't want to pass the legacy of divorce to her own two daughters, Lori, 21, and Jodi, 24. Gail's parents' marriage was deeply troubled for years, but they waited until their children were grown before splitting up. Gail was determined to do better and says she worked hard to keep her marriage going. But in July 1985, after 19 years of marriage, her husband left. She started a career in publishing and has had an active social life. Gail knows that there's no way to guarantee that her daughters will someday celebrate golden wedding anniversaries. But she hopes that she has given them a role model for grace under great pressure. "I was scared, but it made me stronger," she says. "My kids saw that I didn't fold."

Parents who maintain a good relationship with each other also help their kids. Constance Ahrons, a sociologist at the University of Southern California and the coauthor of "Divorced Families," says that if the ex-spouses can maintain open lines of communication and share parenting decisions, they will minimize the effects of divorce on their children. "These are people who can put their children's needs first and not let them get caught in a loyalty conflict," says Ahrons. They know that "parenting is for life, even though marriage isn't always."

That advice is probably useful in the long run, when emotions are sorted out. But many children of divorce say they recall that almost any contact with their parents was painful in the first few months after the breakup. There are still so many unresolved questions that parents either can't or won't answer: Why did you stop loving each other? If I'm really good, will you get back together? Whose fault was it? Children feel confused, torn between the two parents, and guilty. Kellie Healy Foster's parents divorced when she was 13. Her father, a salesman, immediately moved out of their New Jersey house and into a New York apartment. Her mother moved the family across town to a smaller, more affordable house. Kellie's father came to stay in their house every weekend. He would sleep on the couch, have dinner with the family, watch a football game. "They could tolerate having each other in the house," recalls Kellie, now 28. Though she felt lucky to see so much of her father, this affability just made it harder for Kellie to understand why her parents couldn't stay married. "Every Sunday it would be like going through it all over again," she says. "I used to sit there by the front door and cry after he'd leave."

Many adult children of divorce say that as they get older and more independent of their original families, they reach a turning point in their lives when they believe they have to take aggressive action to overcome the hurt of these early sorrowful pages in their family album. Weddings are often the beginning of this process. The arrangements for the ceremony frequently echo disputes surrounding the divorce. Will the parents sit near each other? Will relatives or family friends who took sides be invited? Who will give the bride away? In resolving these and other emotionally laden issues, the child of divorce begins the healing process.

Robin Stone was 24 when her parents decided to get divorced. Still, she says, the shock of their split left her shaken and unsure of whether she wanted to marry. Then, just a few years later, she accepted Shelby Stone's proposal. He indicated his strong commitment to the relationship by following her to Boston from Oklahoma when she decided to go to graduate school. But saying "yes" to Shelby was just the beginning of an agonizing process. First, she decided she had to be married in the Roman Catholic Church. "It's what I know," she says. Plus, she adds, "you can't get divorced." Even though the church's prohibition did not stop her parents, Robin says she hoped that the religious ceremony would cast some kind of magic spell on her marriage that would keep it from dissolving. Although her sister had a large wedding, with 250 guests, Robin invited only 70 people. "I was afraid to make that much of an investment," she says. "What if it didn't work out? Then I'd have to tell all those people." Robin recalls that everyone was sobbing at the ceremony. There were tears of joy, but she thinks that underneath they were also tears of sadness-tinged with the realization of how fragile a union could be.

Robin started worrying about her marriage almost as soon as the wedding was over; she thought divorce was in her blood. "It did seem like this big divorce was just all around the house and everything was just directing me toward a divorce," says Robin, now 29. Her reaction is common among children of divorce. Because their primary model of marriage-their parents' union-ended unhappily, they feel that their marriage is equally shaky. Routine disagreements seem like major blow-ups. In Robin's case, she says she "was struggling to find this perfect little relationship where nothing ever went wrong." Her anxiety lasted until her first anniversary. It helped, she says, to acknowledge to herself that the divorce was a major event and had had a profound impact on her life. "Once you can do that, you have a lot more control," she says. She has been able to move on-and separate real problems from imagined ones. In some ways, she now feels wiser-and more mature-than her parents. In fact, she frequently finds herself counseling and comforting them, instead of the other way around. Robin isn't necessarily pleased to have the roles reversed. "You want them to always be more grown-up than you are," she says wistfully.

Independence and maturity are unexpected, but not uncommon, benefits of divorce. Children who can see beyond their parents' mistakes and learn from them--as well as forgive them--may ultimately make stronger and more committed marriage partners. Deanne Poppens, a 35-year-old Chicago nurse, has been married for six years to Tim Sayles. They have a son, Colin, 3. Poppens's parents had been married 25 years when her father decided he had had enough. He woke Deanne-- then 21-in the middle of the night to tell her he was leaving her mother. He hadn't even informed his wife, and he made Deanne promise to keep his secret. A few weeks later, he gave her mother a long letter detailing all the things he thought were wrong. As upsetting as the divorce itself, Poppens says, was the fact that she never knew her parents' marriage was in trouble. There was no fighting--not even raised voices. Now, she realizes that their inability to express their frustrations contributed to the collapse of the marriage. "My husband's family is very verbal," she says. "They're a very loving family and they're not afraid to really yell at each other and express their feelings. I had to learn that you could yell and raise your voice and talk about issues. If I hadn't met Tim, I'm not sure I would have ever learned to talk things out."

During their third year of marriage, after unsuccessfully trying to have a child, Deanne and Tim went to a marriage counselor. "That was an eye-opener for me," Deanne says. "It made me realize that I not only wanted Tim, but that I had been romanticizing what a marriage was and what a relationship was. He wasn't a knight in shining armor. He was a man who I really liked. He was a friend--and he's my husband." A short time later, Colin was conceived. Now, says Deanne, "I think we're stronger as a couple. We've gone through some difficult times and we've survived." For adult children of divorce, that's the happiest ending--love, marriage and hard-earned wisdom to keep it all together.

In 1990, 1,175,000 couples were divorced, and 1,045,750 children were involved in these divorces.

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of people who three or more times increased from 4% of marriages to 8% of the total.

Preliminary data indicate that children of divorce, particularly women, have a higher chance of getting divorced themselves than children of intact families.