Globe and Mail

The kids (of divorce) are all right

Dan Quayle once said that children were being scarred for life by family breakups. As Leah McLaren reports, they are growing up to prove him wrong.

Leah McLaren
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 11, 1999

Seated side by side in the immaculate wood-trimmed living room of their marital home, Tim Halyk and Bonnie Roberts are a model of modern security. They married three years ago after dating exclusively for nearly a decade.

At 29 and 30, both receive a substantial corporate salary, he as a manager for mbanx, she as a commercial litigator on Bay Street. The two recently purchased their first house, in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood; as yet, they have no children. Surrounded by framed wedding photos, Tim and Bonnie outline their resolutely traditional life plan.

"It's the standard '90s version," says Tim, sipping a diet cola. "We have the marriage, we have our careers, we just bought a house. Soon it'll be kids and then a mini-van."

"Barring some catastrophe," Bonnie says, placing a hand on her husband's khaki-clad knee. "We are going to have a successful lifelong marriage."

If they seem fierce in their determination to stay together, it's because they know a marriage can easily go the other way: the plate-throwing, door-slamming, you'll-be-hearing-from-my-lawyer way. And they know it firsthand because both are children of divorce.

In 1968, the Canadian Divorce Act made it possible to end a marriage without the presence of adultery, abuse or the consent of both parties. In the years that followed, the Canadian divorce rate soared, peaking during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the children of that first wave of broken homes are confronting the question of marriage in their own adult lives. Instead of behaving like the emotional wrecks the media have often declared them to be, many of the children of divorce are embracing wedlock with a clear-eyed conservatism that can be read as a judgment against their parents.

"One thing I've been affected by is the lack of trust in my parents' marriage," says Bonnie, whose mother and father broke up acrimoniously when she was in her teens. "Because of that, trust is something I insist upon. I still have romantic notions of marriage, I believe in true love. But at the same time I definitely know that you have to work on a marriage. This is not something I entered into lightly."

Like Bonnie and Tim, today's adult children of divorce are discovering that, while the emotional baggage is heavy, it is not necessarily a devastating burden.

Last month, Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah, presented a study to the American Sociological Association showing that the divorce rate for adult children of divorced parents in the United States has declined dramatically over the past two decades.
In 1973, children of divorce were almost three times more likely to divorce than their peers from unbroken families, the study said. By 1996, the ratio had dropped by 50 per cent, with adults from divorced families only 1.4 times more likely to divorce than their counterparts.

Dr. Wolfinger offers a two-fold explanation. Part of it, he says, is that today's children of divorce are less likely to marry. But, he adds, this only accounts for a small portion of the trend. The main reason is the changing conditions under which parents are choosing to end their marriages.

"The negative effects of divorce have declined. In previous generations, people suffered a lot more, they waited for a marriage to hit rock bottom before considering divorce. That, in turn, was damaging to children."

He also points to the fact that today's children of divorce aren't stigmatized the way their earlier counterparts were. "Families now are in a much better state after divorce. Children of divorce no longer grow up as social pariahs."

Dr. Wolfinger's encouraging findings are backed by a recent study published in American Psychologist. Louise Silverstein and Carl Auerbach of New York City's Yeshiva University found that 75 per cent of children of divorce experience no significant long-term effects as a result of their parents' broken marriages. Children who suffer from divorce, the study found, are those who are thrown into poverty or social insecurity as a result of the separation. The authors also report that the psychological well-being of children from high-conflict marriages typically improves after the family splits, indicating what most children of divorce have always known: that badly married parents can be more harmful than happily divorced ones.

The University of Nebraska's Paul Amato, after studying 2,000 divorced families for nearly two decades, found that the kids of high-conflict divorce are just as well adjusted as their peers who grew up in intact families.

"If there has been lots of conflict in the marriage, the children actually do better if there is a divorce," the sociologist told Psychology Today.

Statistics Canada also recently reported that divorce has little or no effect on a child's future performance in the labour market. Adolescent children of divorce reported earnings and incomes equal to other adolescents from similar economic background whose parents had not divorced.

This recent landslide of statistics indicates that many of the old assumptions about the negative effects of divorce on children are outdated. "Dan Quayle was right," proclaimed Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in her 1993 Atlantic Monthly article on the damaging effects of divorce on children. Since then, however, many of the negative divorce-related sociological trends cited in that article have declined. The kids, sociologists are whispering, may be all right. Indeed, today's children of divorce seem determined to prove Dan Quayle wrong.

Living through divorce does not come entirely cost-free. Robert Glossop of Ottawa's Vanier Institute of the Family reports that Canadian children of divorce are still more likely to experience depression and anxiety problems. And according to recent Statscan data, only about 5 per cent of those from intact families experience divorce by their early 30s, compared to 8 per cent to 10 per cent from divorced families. But, says Dr. Glossop, divorce in and of itself may not be the culprit; more and more researchers are looking at the particular conditions of divorce as a determining factor in the psychological adjustment of children.

"The major problem with divorce is the economic circumstances that most children will fall into afterward," Dr. Glossop says. "Sixty per cent of single female parents live below the poverty line in Canada. That means the majority of children whose parents are separated or divorced will experience poverty."

Still, he is optimistic about the relationship prospects for Canada's children of divorce. The Statscan study also shows that children of divorce are waiting longer to get married than their counterparts from intact families. Dr. Glossop believes this caution may prevent today's children of divorce from making the same mistakes their parents did.

"The majority of children whose parents are divorced find a way to turn that traumatic experience into a positive experience, in the sense that they are more prepared for what is possible in a long-term relationship."

Meredyth Young sees her parents' shattered union as a good example of how not to conduct a marriage. While she was growing up, her father lived in another city under the guise of work (though he was actually living with his girlfriend). When her parents officially separated, 10-year-old Meredyth was sent to live with her father in Belleville, Ont. When she was 17, her father married a woman Ms. Young refers to as "the bitch from hell." After that, she moved back in with her mother.

"I'm very aware of the lack of communication in my upbringing," says Ms. Young, now 31 and a happily married stay-at-home mother of one. "[In my family,] we don't have those kinds of secrets."

Rather than scaring her away from domestic life, Ms. Young says the turbulence of her parents' relationship made her crave a stable family of her own. Three years ago, she married a "rock-solid traditionalist"; her son, Conchobor, is now 16 months old.

"Even before I was married, I knew I eventually wanted to set down roots. I envied other people who had that kind of family. I respect my mother, but I don't necessarily respect the choice she made. I would never do what my mother did."

Her attitude reflects a growing conservatism among young people when it comes to family matters. In a study released last year, Statscan found that Canadian children most affected by the divorce era have more conservative family values than either their parents or grandparents. The findings indicate a clear repudiation of the choices made by the liberal baby-boom generation. When it comes to marital stress factors such as money, housework, bad sex and alcoholism, people under 30 were much more likely than older Canadians to advocate sticking it out, the study found.

William Gairdner, author of The Trouble with Canada and The War Against the Family,believes today's children of divorce are judging their parents' freewheeling generation. "We've gone from liberalization of divorce laws to this [conservative] reaction. The pendulum is swinging back."

A divorcé, he has observed the effects of a broken home on his children's more cautious and conservative nesting habits.

"What I read from both my daughters is that they were waiting for Mr. Right," says Mr. Gairdner, who recently married off his 30-year-old daughter. "But let me tell you, Mr. Right is benefiting in the meantime. As the saying goes, why buy a cow if you're getting milk for free? And here are these beautiful girls wasting away their reproductive years."

Despite his assertion that the children of divorce have learned from their parents' mistakes, Mr. Gairdner is calling for tougher divorce legislation in Canada. "As it stands, there is no stigma against divorce. Without the legislated self-preservation of the unit, people will always take the easy way out."

He also maintains that children are happier in intact families, even if the marriage is a rotten one. "What I see is that children would be willing to put up with a lot of discomfort to keep parents together."

Maybe so, but studies such as Dr. Wolfinger's indicate that children of divorce are better off in a society that doesn't stigmatize their broken homes. If they are not ostracized, his findings indicate, children can heed valuable lessons from their parents' examples, rather than repeat the cycle. Laws that make it harder to get divorced could reverse that trend, says Dr. Wolfinger, who has been widely attacked by U.S. family values advocates. "Those criticisms are based on ideology. But my findings are based on fact."

Roxane Ward's first novel, Fits Like a Rubber Dress,is narrated by Indigo, a twentysomething child of divorce bent on finding true love. Ms. Ward's own parents split when she was 3; since then, her mother and father have had four marriages and three divorces between them. Despite the flux, the 35-year-old writer maintains she had an emotionally stable childhood.

"Security is a mindset and a financial commitment," she says. "People with married parents often assume my upbringing was negative, but I don't know anyone who has a closer relationship with their parents than I do."

Like many children of divorce, she has held off on marriage -- not out of distaste but caution. "The reason I'm not married is because I take marriage very seriously. I want to go into it believing that this is a forever-and-ever-type commitment."

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