A couple of years ago, my mother went to the twenty-five-year reunion of her graduate school class, held on the very same university campus where she and my father first met. She tells me how, as she roamed through the reception, weaving between all those almost-recognizable faces peering nervously at name tags and clutching sweaty cocktails, she bumped into three old friends. The four of them had lost touch over the years, and with so much catching up to do, they got off to an awkward start. The conversation moved slowly, touching upon all the usual bases of idle chitchat, until suddenly they found the hook that broke through the proverbial ice.
"We almost had to laugh," my mom mused wonderingly, "because we were all divorced."
"Mom." I sighed, a little impatiently, a little impetulantly. "Who isn't divorced?"
The brief extent of this exchange illuminates the gap in perception between my mother and I when it comes to divorce: My mother grew up during the fifties, when divorce was relatively unusual; she married during the early seventies as the divorce rate started to hit its peak, and she divorced during the eighties. For her, divorce was difficult choice; for me, divorce is a fact of life.
Our parents are the architects of the culture of divorce we live in today. To some extent, every generation wrestles with the legacy inherited from the one before, and with our parents' generation, millions of couples-more than ever before-entered into marriages that disintegrated to the point that divorce seemed like the best way out. In a culture where divorce is so prevalent that it almost seems like a routine bump during childhood, it can be far too easy to ignore the aftershocks that continue to rumble after our families have broken apart. Disguised by its neat promise of closure, divorce appears to signify a finite end to a marriage, a finished chapter that opens the way to the start of a new life. But it is a painful process for all involved, and while our parents endured their divorces armed with the resources of age and experience, we children were confronted with new and complicated emotions before we were fully capable of understanding them. For those of us who bore witness to the wave of divorce that engulfed our parents, their breakups defined our childhood, leaving imprints that can last a lifetime.
I can name the date when my mother and sister moved out, and my family as a whole ceased to exist; the boundaries of the emotional reverberations of divorce, however, are more difficult to identify. After the age of thirteen, I never again lived under the same roof with my mother and sister. Unlike the overwhelming majority of children whose parents divorce, I remained with my father, living in the house we once shared as a family. Yet nothing was the same. The rooms rang with loss, reducing my home to four walls from which to escape, not seek refuge. The holidays and weekends turned into days dissected into hours claimed by each parent. Protected by a carefully constructed armor of indifference, I sailed through these changes, my emotions tightly self-contained. I never once allowed myself to miss having two parents as one unit, residing in one home. Why would I? I knew my parents were unhappy together, so it was for the best, really that they were apart. I never engaged in any of the Parent Trap fantasies that my parents would reunite; on the contrary, the mere thought of having them in the same room, tense and silent, sent me into a panic.
At some point, though, as I crossed the line from childhood to adulthood, the experience of divorce was no longer limited to my past and present, but began to infect my future as well. It became harder to put a finger on my feelings, to relate the confusion, the wariness, the lingering sadness to my parents' divorce. A year or so out of college, my "tough girl" faç¡¤e from childhood started to slip. Small slips at first. I would see a mildly sad movie and, surrounded by the safe cloak of darkness in the theater, dissolve into tears. I skipped through relationships, ending them abruptly for the most minor of transgressions. I constantly felt anxious, worried about my future, yet never fully satisfied when things appeared to be going well. Every decision, from my relationships to my career, was harnessed by my own ambivalence. What if I'm hurt? What if I'm making the wrong choices? What if, just what if, I am starting down a path that will take me back to those empty rooms of childhood? These questions swirled in my head, leaving me paralyzed. Strange as it may sound, it wasn't until I left home that I started to acutely feel the effects of growing up in a divorced home.
My experience is not unusual. In a 1995 study of adult children of divorce, researchers noted what seemed to be a contradictory finding: At the age of twenty-three, some of their subjects appeared to be more negatively affected psychologically by their parents' divorce than they were at the age of eleven. On the basis of this finding, the researchers suggested that the "developmental challenges of adolescence and young adulthood may have reinvoked certain vulnerabilities for the divorced group, evinced by deleterious effects of the aftermath of divorce in their early twenties." This increased vulnerability could be due to a variety of reasons, from a "continued or renewed sense of parental loss" to more tangible factors such as a decrease in economic status resulting in fewer education opportunities.
In other words, going out on our own is scary, especially if we don't feel that we have been launched from a firm base of support. Paradoxically, leaving home can increase the need and desire for a loving home. Time does not always work its healing magic; instead, the pressures of adapting to being on our own and realizing our actions now have serious implications can leave us feeling confused and exposed. As adults, we have entered the opaque sphere of our own potential mistakes, with only the past as our guide. And for many of us, the suppressed emotions from our parents' divorce are sprung loose once we face the prospect of our own relationships.
Excerpted from THE LOVE THEY LOST: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce, a Delacorte Press Hardcover 2000 Stephanie Staal