Wednesday, 25 June, 2008

I've been reading for three or four hours and I think it's time for a break. Now that the July/August Briefing and The Daily Reading Bible (Volume 16) are done, I'm spending this week concentrating on writing for a change. I've been talking about writing an article on children of divorce for about a year, and now seems to be the right time to work on it.

Here is some of the material I've been reading:

Surviving the Breakup (Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly)

Surviving the Breakup

In 1971, Wallerstein, Kelly and a team of others embarked on a study of the effects of divorce on Americans. They interviewed the members of 60 Californian families who were in different stages of divorcing—both parents and children—and then interviewed them again 12 months later. Initially, they thought the study would only go for one year; in the end, it went for about 25, thus making it one of the few longitudinal studies of the effects of divorce on American families.

Surviving the Breakup is about the first five years following divorce. Strangely enough, it's the book I happen to be reading after all the others: I don't think I was aware of the order (not that it hugely matters), and I happened to have ordered the other books first.

I still haven't quite finished it. I started it some time last year and then put it down. It's not as easy to read as the others—it doesn't have Sandra Blakeslee's more fictocritical style, and it's written more like an academic work than a popular-level text. In addition, of course, some of the subject matter was distressing—I think because, in the early parts of the book, they talk about the immediate effects of divorce when emotions are still raw and the families are still undergoing trauma. Take this for example:

Karen, whose father left the household when she was not quite three, regressed in her toilet training and became whiney and demanding. Her father, who had been the primary caretaker, left in hurt and indignation and visited her irregularly. Karen clung desperately and tearfully to her other every morning when the mother left for work although the mother had worked since the child's infancy and the child had been well adjuted to this routine. (p. 58)

Or this:

Ben twisted a rubber band nervously as he talked about his father. “I can see him any time,” Ben declared too bravely. Asked what happens when he wants to see his father, Ben forced a casual air. “Oh, it's okay. It's usually not important.”. Quietly, painfully, he described their unlisted phone number, obtained by his angry mother to prevent his father from calling. Without free communication, mishaps in visiting plans increased, as did his misery

Ben remembered the time his father failed to hear him calling at the apartment gate. He returned home to telephone his dad. When he arrived at the house, his mother raged at the father's “irresponsibility” and Ben decided not to call. But the mother, by then yelling, called Ben's father herself and vented her fury. His father arranged to pick him up a block from home but Ben, by now completely distraught, started to cry and refused to go. His mother made a scene, angrily insisting that he had no choice and must go anyway. (p. 142)

(NB: It's purely coincidental that these examples I've pulled out have the same names as me and Ben!)

Of course, not all families are the same, and one of the great things about this book is that Wallerstein and Kelly take the time to draw out the nuances of difference that exist between the families (and children) who end up not doing so well and the ones who do, and the factors that possibly contributed to each one.

I've still got 130 or so pages to go.

Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce (Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee)

Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce

Second Chances picks up the study at the 10-year mark. Of the three books, this is the one that most resonated with me—probably because most of the children in the study were in their late teens/early 20s and were dealing with similar sorts of things I was dealing with. My perceptions are probably also partially coloured by the fact that this was the first book I read.

Second Chances is a lot different to Surviving the Breakup. Kelly is no longer on the project (not sure why, and this Salon.com article describes her as having “misgivings” about the direction Wallerstein has taken and says that Wallerstein is “very enamored of pathology”) and Sandra Blakeslee, a freelance writer who contributes regularly to The New York Times, has come on board to give the material a bit more of a popular spin. The result is very readable: the material is tackled according to families whose situations are painted in considerable detail in order to draw out some of the larger themes.

I appreciated this approach because it helped me to see the divorce not only from the point of view of the children (and Wallerstein and Blakeslee differentiate the points of view of the children so that we are given the perspective of older children, younger children, boys and girls), but from the point of view from the adults. Each section of the book usually starts with a discussion of the parents—the mothers, then the fathers, then the children starting with the eldest and moving down to the youngest (identities heavily disguised, of course, but what they say is taken straight from the interview transcripts).

It was also helpful to see divorce in different contexts—in families which were well off, families which were not so well off, families where domestic violence had been a problem, families which then experienced remarriage, families where the children were pretty much left to take care of themselves because the adults had gone on to pursue their own lives, and so on.

I found this part of the “Introduction” quite helpful:

Sometimes we think of one crisis as resembling all the others and all stressful events as having a great deal in common. But the truth is that in a family with children, there is no experience like divorce. In some respects, the closest thing to it is death and bereavement, for they each spur internal and external life changes: Each involves loss and mourning; each brings in its wake lasting changes in the fabric of daily life and intimate relationships. But divorce is different. Unlike death, divorce involves choice, and the long-lasting changes it effects carry the promise of positive outcomes. Unlike bereavement, divorce is intended to relieve stress and reduce unhappiness in family members. These intended effects may or may not be realized, but in either case, divorce at the outset comprises a special category of life crisis in that it simultaneously engenders new solutions and new problems. Divorce is also unique in that it gives rise to the central passions of human life.

Feelings of loss and grief comingle with those of love and hate. Sexual jealousy is triggered and reinforced by a sense of betrayal. Relief is tinged with guilt. Narcissistic rage is precipitated by humiliation. Acute depression rides on the heels of rejection. When long-lasting marriages break up, a person's very identity may be threatened. These feelings, and the internal conflicts they arouse, are not amenable to a quick fix or short recuperation. People do not forget that divorce is rarely a mutual decision or that it is a voluntary act, and entirely man-made and woman-made act.

When we fall in love, we idealize the object of our love; at the point of leaving, however, we de-idealize and sometimes dehumanize the loved one. Divorce is really the opposite of falling in love and it inevitable marshals anger and sometimes intense rage—rage that people feel is justified. It is a rage that feels good. Rooted in a sense of having been exploited and humiliated to the core, this anger flows from wounded self-esteem and helps us defend ourselves against feelings of depression, unloveableness, and abandonment. It is the kind of anger that helps people deny responsibility for the marriage's failure. The “bad guy” is he or she who wants the divorce; the “good guy” is he or she who wants to continue the family. What other life crisis engenders the wish to kill? In what other life crisis are children used as bullets? Divorce is unique in that it unleashes our most primitive and most profound human passions—love, hate, and jealousy.

No-fault divorce is a legal concept that has gained acceptance in this country, but I have yet to meet one man, woman, or child who emotionally accepts “no-fault” divorce. In their hearts, people believe in fault and in the loss associated with the decision to end a marriage. Adults almost inevitably blame each other, but, as we shall see, they rarely blame themselves. Children, on the other hand, feel that their parents are to blame for having failed at one of life's major tasks, which is to maintain marriage and family for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse.

Divorce is different from other life crises in that anger more often erupts into physical and verbal violence, violence that can cause serious psychological harm for many years. It spills onto the children and into the legal system. In fact, judges, lawyers, and police are in more danger of being shot or killed by angry family members than by criminals.

In most crisis situations, such as an earthquake, flood, or fire, parents instinctively reach out and grab hold of their children, bringing them to safety first. In the crisis of divorce, however, mothers and fathers put children on hold, attending to adult problems first. Divorce is associated with a diminished capacity to parent in almost all dimensions—discipline, playtime, physical care, and emotional support. Divorcing parents spend less time with their children and are less sensitive to their children's needs. At this time they may very well confuse their own needs with those of their children.

Divorce is also the only major family crisis in which social supports fall away. When there is a death in the family, people come running to help. After a natural disaster, neighbors rally to assist those who have been hurt. After most such crises, clergymen may call on the family to console adults or speak with children who are baldy shaken. But not so with divorce. Friends are afraid that they will have to take sides; neighbors think it is none of their business. Although half the families in our study belong to churches or synagogues, not one clergyman came to call on the adults or children during divorce. Grandparents may be helpful but are apprehensive about getting caught in the crossfire. They often live far away and feel their role is limited. When a man and a woman divorce, many people tend to act as if they believe it might be contagious. The divorced person is seen as a loose cannon. We have names for them: rogue elephant, black widow. Despite the widespread acceptance of divorce in modern society, there remains something frightening at its core. It is as if married people are afraid that another's divorce will illuminate the cracks in their own relationships. On a visceral level, every divorce threatens to erode our own marriages. (pp. 6-8)

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study (Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee)

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Wallerstein talks about how she had considered the study to be finished when one of the children in the study (well, a child who was now an adult) came back to see her. In contrast to previous interviews, this particular girl was thriving and positive, and was just about to get married. Seeing her became the catalyst for Wallerstein to go back and interview the children from the study one more time to see how they were faring as adults and whether they had, in fact, “grown up”.

At the same time, however, she was interested in how they compared to children from intact households. She made contact with some of the kids who were peers of children in the study, and also interviewed them. The results, while interesting, lacked something which I had much appreciated in Second Chances but I can't quite put my finger on what it is. It's not that Wallerstein is saying that divorced family = bad and intact family = good; it's way more complicated than that. And some of the comparisons are really interesting—particularly that of Larry and Carol who both grew up in homes where domestic violence was the norm, but whereas Larry's parents divorced, Carol's stayed together and didn't see the violence and abuse as a problem; it was just part of the fabric of the way they related. I think my problem is I felt that Wallerstein jumped a little too quickly to her conclusion that most of the children in the study did, actually, “make it”—they learned to “master” their experience of divorce and learn from it, and then move forward from it. I think they did to a certain extent, but to me it seemed that for the majority of them, the shadow of divorce never loomed far away, and it continued to have an impact on them as adults, even though it might have happened so long ago. Certainly Wallerstein's “best case”, Lisa, for all the positives of her parents' divorce, showed that it still affected her and her ability to forge romantic relationships with others. Wallerstein's narrowing of the field also tied things up too neatly; I also wanted to know what happened to the parents, and the effect of their divorce on their grandchildren, and so on. Finally, although I am in no position to critique Wallerstein's message, WayneAndTamara.com's charge that “The Wallerstein ‘study’ is an example of statistically flawed research and improper methodology ... It does not meet accepted standards of scientific research” is worth pondering.

The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts (Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee)

The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts

Having spent so many years studying the effects of divorce, perhaps it was natural for Wallerstein to turn her attention to marriage and what makes it work when so many other marriages fail. The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts is a refreshing read after so many heartbreaking stories about the men, women and children in Wallerstein's study. Like Wallerstein's other books, this one also presents findings of a two-year study she conducted of 50 Californian couples who had been married for nine years or longer. She identifies nine “tasks” that couples must master if they are to reach the goal of a happy and fulfilling long-lasting union, along with four loose-fitting “types” of marriage: romantic marriage, rescue marriage, companionate marriage and traditional marriage. The book is structured according to these four types, and within each type, she uses a particular marriage as an example of that type of marriage as well as a springboard for discussion about the issues. She also examines the nine “tasks” as she moves through her material.

One thing I really appreciated about this book is that it wasn't a book trying to tell you how to make marriage work—it wasn't “self-help” or a magic formula. Wallerstein is more interested in observing these couples and seeing how they've managed to stay together and make the relationship last for so long. Some of the things they do may be applicable to your own situation but others won't be, and this should be expected because every couple is different. It was a bit of a relief to me to find out that there are many ways to be married and to enjoy marriage—that it didn't always have to be romance and fireworks (the romantic marriage), or equitable division of labour in partnership (the companionate marriage). In particular, I found the story of Marty and Tina Delgado fascinating: here was a couple who had each come from quite traumatic backgrounds, who had been raised with violence in the home, and who often communicated with violence: they would throw things around the room (vases, lamps, chairs) but because they had very rigid unspoken rules (the primary one being that they did not throw things at each other), the violence of their actions could still give expression to their conflict in a sphere that still felt safe to both of them. Over time as they learned to deal with each of their issues, they gradually stopped throwing things. But I find it interesting that they could still experience such a high level of conflict and still feel safe.

I also found the nine “tasks” that Wallerstein identifies hugely helpful. (I blogged about the first two of them in this CHN and commented on how the first two were rather biblical.) They caused me to reflect on my own marriage and whether or not Ben and I had managed to achieve those tasks.

In addition, I liked being able to glean a picture of marriage through different stages of life—from being newlyweds to new parents to dealing with adolescents (and the issues that adolescents bring to the surface in the parents; one of the wives talked very frankly about how she became obsessed with one of her daughter's boyfriends because he was so beautiful, and he provoked in her feelings of intense longing for the kind of adolescence she had never had) to being retirees.

Finally, I found the last section fascinating where Wallerstein turned the spotlight on a second marriage where both husband and wife were divorcees with children. I know I have a hugely negative perspective on divorce that it can be hard for me to accept that second marriages can work. Certainly Ellis and Jane Boulden had problems, and their children clashed with one another continually, but I do admire the way they tried to make it work as well as protect their own marriage so that their second marriage did not become a second divorce.

I highly recommend this book if you're married!

My Parents are Getting Divorced: How to keep it together when your mom and dad are splitting up (Florence Cadier with Melissa Daly; illustrated by Claire Gandini)

My Parents are Getting Divorced: How to keep it together when your mom and dad are splitting up

I picked this up on Sunday in Shearers Bookshop on Norton on the sale table. It's a book written for pre-teens and teens about how to cope with their parents' divorce (if you hadn't already guessed that from the title). The print is pretty large and there is a lot of spacing between the lines, and every page is adorned with some sort of colour illustration by Claire Gandini (her work is very charming and joyful). I haven't quite finished it—I've got one section to go—but so far, I've been struck by the following things.

Firstly, I wonder if the authors expect a little bit too much from pre-teens and teens. Take, for example, this passage:

If your parents are not as close as they used to be, it's possible that one or both of them may start another relationship with someone else—or have already. Just like children, adults develop and change over the course of their lives and it's possible for them to fall in love for a second time. Your parents' new relationships may be quite different from the one they had together, but they can be just as important and strong and beautiful. But obviously, for these new relationships to continue, the current one between them must end.

Mary can remember how her mother suddenly became really forgetful and seemed to spend her day in a dream world. She would be all smiles one moment and in tears the next. Mary knew that something was wrong but just could not put her finger on why her mother's moods had become so unpredictable. She was in the dark right up till the moment when her mother finally packed her bags. It was really hard to come to grips with, but at least Mary finally understood what was going on. Today, she's happy again, and so is her mother. And while her father was probably really hurt by her mother's new relationship at first, he seems better now, and mentions someone named Susan more and more each time Mary sees him. (pp. 19-20)

The authors gloss a little too quickly over Mary's reactions. I can't imagine a pre-teen or a teen being that understanding of their mother's adultery. Even friends I have spoken to whose parents got divorced when my friends were adults and not children were hugely upset by it—particularly when the circumstances involved adultery. In addition, the reaction of Mary's father is not typical of husbands who have been cheated on; according to Wallerstein's research, most of them remain bitter for years, even if they do remarry.

Secondly, and perhaps this is unavoidable, the authors have not been able to cater to every single experience of divorce. Divorce due to adultery is a different situation to divorce due to one partner tiring of the marriage, which is different again to divorce due to both partners coming to an agreement that it just isn't working (which is rare, according to Wallerstein). Perhaps the most significant ommission in the material is that the authors don't equip their readers to deal with their feelings of hurt, anger and depression. I felt at points they asked a little too much of pre-teens and teens in wanting them to look beyond their own perspective to that of their parents without acknowledging that, in some circumstances, the parents really have done wrong by their children and ought to acknowledge it. (Of course, I realise that this view does not sit well with modern sensibilities. Isn't this why we have “no fault” divorce?) The authors just expect their audience to grow up and deal with what is happening with them. There is no sense that this is unfair—that children shouldn't have to all of a sudden become little adults before they time just because their parents can't behave like adults with one another.

Thirdly, however, the authors do provide a lot of excellent advice for coping with the situation—things like: if your mum and dad try to get you on their side, try to remain neutral; it might be a good idea to talk to other people like your friends, your grandparents, your other relatives or a counsellor about the situation if you feel like you're not coping; and remember your parents' divorce had nothing to do with you. One of the most helpful things they do is explain the legalities surrounding divorce in a way which is easy to understand. (Unfortunately they're talking about the American system which probably isn't the same as the Australian, which makes me wonder why Shearers was selling this book in Australia.) I'm hoping that the third section which I have yet to read will give pre-teens and teens the tools to cope with and adjust to step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings.

Generation Ex (Jen Abbas)

Generation Ex

This is the first book on the topic of adult children of divorce I read. I can't even remember how I found it—I was Googling the topic and somehow it came up. I read the first couple of pages on Amazon and that was enough to convince me to get it secondhand. However, several years later, I cannot for the life of me remember what it's about. I've pulled it off the shelf again, flipped through it and perused the Table of Contents. I think I read it at the wrong time: I needed to understand the effect my parents' divorce was having on me before I could even think about the subject matter it contains (that is, it's about healing emotionally and spiritually). It also displays some of the trappings of American Christianity which I find a little odd (e.g. journaling and “retreats of silence”). That said, it did say some good things about anticipating your triggers—that is, things and events that will spark in you the emotions you felt when your parents' divorce was taking place. Maybe I need to read it again.

Divorce (Frank Retief)


I haven't quite finished this one either. Frank Retief is the Bishop of the Church of England in South Africa (CESA), and in this book, he draws on his considerable pastoral experience in counselling couples who were contemplating divorce. He is a little more pro-divorce than I am comfortable with, but I do take his point that the marriage isn't going to go anywhere unless both husband and wife are committed to it 100%. His book is valuable because he takes the time to look at all the passages in the Bible which speak about marriage and divorce. However, his argument concerning re-marriage didn't quite convince me; it seemed to be based on the interpretation of just one word in 1 Corinthians 7. Granted, I haven't looked into it enough, but Retief did not bother to explain it enough depth either.

There are a whole stack of books I would like to read if I had the time—including Elizabeth Marquardt's Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (which has an introduction by Wallerstein) and What About the Kids?: Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce (Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee), but for an article of this length, it's probably better to make do with what I have, stop reading and start writing.

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