My parents’ divorce was, as far as divorces go, pretty ideal. Even as a 7-year old, I saw it coming – to the extent that I bet my best friend my parents would divorce before hers. She still owes me $5. As things fell apart, there were important conversations hidden behind shut doors that my sister and I were not to hear, and there were unimportant conversations turned shouting matches that we couldn’t avoid. Everything culminated when I was 10 with the big announcement that my dad was moving out for a while. In their attempt to minimize the emotional damage they were inflicting, they did all the good things parents are supposed to do – explaining that it had nothing to do with us and they both loved us very much. My dad found an apartment, my parents stopped fighting and we moved on with our lives.
Of course, my situation is far from normal; few divorces proceed as smoothly as that of my parents. I was spared evil stepparents, the outright pitting of the kids against the “bad” parent and the emotional trauma of thinking I never had a “real home.” Instead, my parents talked – and still talk – regularly. They carpooled to my high school choir concerts. My mom doesn’t like to go to my dad’s house and they each grumble about the other from time to time, but overall, my parents get along much better than they did in the last years of their marriage. It was a good divorce.
Elizabeth Marquardt of the Institute for American Values disagrees. She wrote in Sunday’s issue of The Washington Post that “there is no such thing as a ‘good’ divorce.” In her book “Between Two Worlds,” she finds that children whose parents divorce even under the best circumstances are less likely to report that their family life centers on children and more likely to feel like adults well before their 18th birthdays. She suggests ending “low-conflict” marriages, like that of my parents, is more traumatic than preserving them and should be avoided whenever possible. I wasn’t aware things like spending more time alone as a child were enough to invalidate cases of divorce like that of my parents, but maybe that’s because I’m one of those victims of divorce.
I’m just one anecdote; I’m not Marquardt’s nationally represented survey of 1,500 young adults. To some extent, she is right: Even in what I would consider this best-case divorce scenario, it was still hard at times. But I have no doubt it would have been worse had they stayed together. If my parents had stuck it out, as Marquardt suggests, would they have realized that those last years of arguing were no more than a mid-life crisis? That seems unlikely.
Given all the direct and indirect damage associated with divorce, making marriages work seems a reasonable aim. Pro-family conservatives highlight all sorts of statistical evidence demonstrating the correlation between healthy marriages and benefits ranging from increased happiness to lower poverty rates. Why is that? It’s not the wedding day picture or the marriage license that help children work hard in school. It’s not the “institution” in any formal sense nor the blessing of whatever clergy or city official that is correlated with lower stress levels. The positive aspects related to marriage come with the healthy, close-knit family relationships it can – but does not necessarily – foster.
What concerns me is when pro-family conservatives take these marriage statistics and conclude that divorce is evil and heterosexual marriage is the only legitimate foundation for a family. Rather than making marriage laws more binding, as seems to be the current trend, legislators should look to promote policies that build strong families regardless of whether they resemble the “Leave it to Beaver” ideal. Focusing resources on poverty reduction, for instance, would be much more effective than the current pro-family conservative approach of misinterpreting correlation as causality by blaming poverty on failing and nonexistent marriages. It might very well be the reverse, as the instability and financial stress that accompany poverty take their toll rather heavily on family dynamics.
I’m immensely thankful that my parents had the foresight not to stay together “for the kids.” Our teenage years would have been miserable. Their lives would still be miserable. No amount of premarital counseling could have told them that more than two decades later they might not be the same people were in 1974, and no amount of marriage counseling could have saved their marriage once it failed. In the case of some marriages, things just don’t work out. Saving the family is more important than saving the marriage, particularly when marriage is increasingly an outdated notion of bride, groom and “till death do us part.”
Beam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.