The most common and only shared symptom of children of divorced parents is having divorced parents.
Having parents who remain married may not the best thing for a child. Having married parents is merely having married parents.
You can argue as much as you want about divorce being right or wrong, but you can’t dispute its normalcy.
Our generally unquestioned assumptions about marriage and divorce and their respective impacts on children spring from the double-sided presupposition that 1). The best possible scenario for a child is to grow up in a family that remains intact and 2). That having divorced parents causes suffering and should, if it can, be avoided. It’s commonsense, right? Married and divorced people—even single people—agree. But what if, because these observations are so ready and apparent, divorce turns out to be the scapegoat of commonsense? Hold that thought.
It’s generally accepted that 50% of marriages end in divorce. Wading through and understanding divorce statistics can be exhausting and one can, if they wish, get argumentative about that percentage or what that number conceals. And it’s true that divorce is on somewhat of a decline, but even if we conceded that only 40% of all marriages end in divorce, the bottom line is that a lot of marriages end in divorce. So many that if you take any given kid walking down the street, there’s absolutely no reason to simply assume that his or her parents are married.
I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: There’s absolutely no reason to assume that any given kid’s parents are married. This fact of our daily lives has consequences that are not yet apparent to our commonsense, which is common. Individually and culturally, our least questioned assumptions about the way things are have a tenacious tendency to lag way behind the way things are. And for more than a few decades now, divorce has been normal. I’m risking redundancy here because I want this point driven home. Grab any two kids off the street and chances are that one has married parents and one has divorced parents. That’s a pretty good argument for the normalcy of both conditions.
And yet, in spite of its normalcy, we still view divorce as a catastrophe and seek to interpret children of divorce through the lens of abnormal psychology. Granted, people enter marriages with the intention of staying together and a marriage’s end feels catastrophic. But, given its normalcy, it is perhaps time to revise our understanding of divorce as something very difficult that a lot of people experience and reserve our catastrophes for hurricanes and auto accidents. Things are never just things. They consist of what we collectively believe about them. And, for some stubborn reason, we’re still making a really big deal out of something that’s no big deal. No big deal? Yes. No big deal. If 5% of marriages ended in divorce, then it would be rare, out of the ordinary, a big deal. But half the time means just as often. It’s no big deal.
And yet where do we first look for the source of a person’s abnormal psychology? ADHD. Depression. Anxiety. Substance abuse. Oppositional/Defiance Disorder. Sexual deviance. Cutting. Suicidal ideation. Suicide itself. Serial killing. It’s a very safe bet that when abnormality of any kind becomes manifest and IF (IF) that person has divorced parents, our attention automatically hones in on divorce as undoubtedly a fundamental cause of the abnormality in question. Ah! Divorced parents; comes from a broken home. The madness of this kneejerk attribution is as crazy as the various madnesses it seeks to understand. It’s equivalent to seeking the cause of psychopathology in a person’s blue eyes (indeed, having blue eyes is less common than having divorced parents) or in a sneaky underworld demon possessing the afflicted. In fact, attributing the cause to a demon would be a much more useful diagnosis because you can at least work with a sneaky underworld demon. Demons can be exorcized. You can’t undo having divorced parents.
For people who suffer AND have divorced parents and for divorced parents with children who ALSO suffer, it’s high time to let divorce off the hook as a catch all for the cause of life’s discontents. Our various mental illnesses no doubt have deep and complex causes and would be much better served by seeking those causes beyond the limited scope of the family and perhaps in broader frontiers like the kinks in our culture or the mystery of brain chemistry. A shot of imagination to revive the depth psychologies of Freud and Jung wouldn’t hurt either. Of course this work is already being done and advances are being made but they seem to be having little to no impact on our commonsense pop-psych notions about the simplistic relationship between our problems and our Family of Origin.
The attentive reader will have noted that I laid a great deal of stress on normalizing divorce while ignoring the unarguable fact that children do indeed undergo an intense amount of suffering when their parents divorce. Agreed. However, the cause of that suffering is not the phenomenon of divorce itself; rather, the suffering is generated by our collective insistence upon living within the unquestioned and commonplace assumptions detailed at the beginning of this essay: mainly, that having married parents is good and having divorced parents is bad. If you want to cite research that supports those assumptions, what you’re actually doing is citing research generated by those assumptions. Understanding “family” as an entity that necessitates marriages that remain forever intact simply does not represent the reality of families as they exist today and we harm ourselves and our kids to the extent that we (viciously) judge half of our actual families as something less than and worse than the other half when they’re both equally common.
We celebrate diversity in so many ways. Why not here? This is not a divorce manifesto. This is not an attack on marriage any more than gay marriage is an attack on marriage. It’s simply an affirmation that there are different ways to be and a proposal that difference is not what causes suffering; refusing to acknowledge the dignity of difference causes suffering. There’s plenty of divorced people who go their separate ways while deftly co-parenting their children. There’s plenty of married couples who muck it up. Marital status is a gasping variable. Beyond the limited focus of this essay, there’s plenty of gay couples and single women and men who do fabulous jobs raising great kids. There are ways and there are ways—all kinds of ways for people to be and be together.