The common pleasantries ensued and Marilyn found out the girl's name, whom for the sake of this column I will call "Emily." Marilyn asked for her last name, which Emily spelled out for her. When asked for her mother's name, Emily began to stammer.
"Well," she said, "I'm divorced, so my mom's name is different than my name."
I'm divorced. An eight-year-old said, "I'm divorced."
I believe those words give a glimpse into the heart and mind of this little girl. I suppose one could chalk up her choice of words to a misunderstanding of what divorce really is, but I suspect she could describe, in terms commonly used, the basics of what happened when her parents parted ways. But given the stammering and slight unease with explaining her situation, I believe her choice of words were an authentic expression of how she felt and how she lived.
In her own way, Emily was describing the reality facing children of divorce. They, too, are divorced. They are divorced from an intact family. They are, typically, divorced from a one-home lifestyle. And, according to researcher Elizabeth Marquardt, in many ways, they're divorced from childhood.
I want to pause here to acknowledge that there are times when divorce can't be prevented. In fact, there are times that divorce is the best option among many bad ones; this is particularly true in cases of domestic violence. But in each and every case of divorce, it would behoove parents to reject the notion of the so-called "good divorce" -- the idea that everything will be fine if parents divorce harmoniously and remain involved in their child's life. While that is certainly better than hostility and alienation, Marquardt explains why it's still not good.
In a groundbreaking, three-year study completed a few years ago, Marquardt discovered that children of divorce -- kids like Emily -- often travel alone between each of their parent's worlds, having to make sense of differing values, beliefs and ways of living. In your typical intact family, the married couple assumes the burden of making sense of their two worlds, forming a single-world home for their children. Divorce almost always flips that equation. In the divorced home, the divorced parents divide their worlds and it's the child who, by default, is forced to navigate the two worlds, often without the help of their parents.
Through interviews with 71 adults and surveys of another 1,500, Marquardt observed that children of divorce were much more likely than children of intact families to say that they had to be a different person with each parent. They were much more likely to say that they were afraid of resembling one of their parents because they feared it would make them an outsider in the other parent's world. And they were more likely to feel the need to keep secrets because they discovered that some information sparks tension or hurt in a parent.
I would put it this way: many of these children of divorce take on the peacekeeping role that's more appropriately filled by parents, fearing that a misstep will cause them, a parent or a sibling great pain. "Tread softly" becomes the unspoken motto of the child of divorce.
I have a friend who recently divorced. She's doing a heroic job raising her daughter on her own. But even in this case, she has observed her daughter straining to protect the emotions of her parents. The daughter feels like a "traitor" for confiding in one parent and not the other; she feels pressure to respond as quickly as possible to emails, texts or calls because she doesn't want to hurt a parent's feelings; and, as the only person or thing that keeps her parents relating to each other in any way, she feels great pressure to be keep the peace. In short, she's a child doing an adult's work.
So what do we do with this?
To parents struggling to make a marriage work or considering ending their marriage, consider Emily's sense of things and Marquardt's research. Both shout caution to do everything possible to save your marriage.
Many marriages that are struggling can be saved and can thrive. One survey found that 86 percent of unhappily married couples who stuck it out reported that their marriage was happier five years later. There are lots of programs, counselors and churches that offer great resource for couples who need help.
If you are a divorced parent you already know how difficult it can be dealing with your own pain and helping your child navigate through. For their sake it's important to do whatever possible to minimize the effects divorce will have on them.
Communicate with them clearly (and in an age appropriate manner) about what is happening, but avoid making them the mediator between you and your ex-spouse. Make it abundantly clear that you love them and that the divorce was not their fault. Give them time to adjust to the changes. In short, be the adult and let your child have as much opportunity as possible to be the child.
Each child's "divorce," like Emily's, is real and will likely affect them for the rest of their lives. Understanding their struggle should motivate all of us to do what we can to keep our own marriage healthy and to encourage the same for the family and friends around us.
Randy Hicks is president of Georgia Family Council. Georgia Family Council is a nonprofit research and education organization committed to fostering conditions in which individuals, families and communities thrive. For more information, go to www.georgiafamily.org, 770-242-0001, or email@example.com.