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    a father laughing with his three children

    The Myth of a Good Divorce

    As no-fault divorce became widely acceptable, experts said it could even be good for the children. A generation of children like me paid the price.

    By Stephen G. Adubato

    January 23, 2023

    Available languages: Español

    • TJ

      The cognitive dissonance and gaslighting of the author towards those of us who survived abuse while in a marriage is glaringly obvious. I've always compared divorce to combat; until you experience first-hand, it's something you can't totally understand. While I totally respect the author's experience -- believe me, I've spent many a sleepless night worrying about the impact of my ex-wife and I's divorce on my children -- I also endured years of emotional abuse by someone who was abused herself and had not healed from years of it. Now, I am remarried to a wonderful woman who loves my children like her own, and my children have the example of what a loving marriage should look like, rather than staying in a loveless one. So, I would ask the author to seriously consider his tone here, as well as his after-the-fact, dismissive statement about abuse.

    • Annie

      “His inability to hold down a job is due in part to his irresponsible attitude, but possibly also to his wife having assumed both the positions of breadwinner and homemaker, leaving him with no real role.” Really hate this victim blaming. It’s her fault for being too competent? She has to be the competent one to compensate for his incompetence. If anything, the movie showed that when Daniel showed up for his kids and pitched in with home making (albeit as his alter persona), the family ran smoothly and the mom was not so stressed out. Why didn’t he do that in the first place?

    • Bethany Meola

      Thanks so much for this, great article. My husband (a child of divorce) and I founded and run a ministry for adult children of divorce (Life-Giving Wounds) and everything here resonates and is a story we've heard again and again by those coming from "good divorces" who nonetheless struggle mightily with issues of identity, faith, relationships, etc., etc., often compounded by a "wound of silence" where they're told their pain isn't real or doesn't count....we see it and hear it every day, and our hearts are constantly breaking for those impacted by such widespread family breakdown. Appreciate this article and its author for its vulnerability and honesty!

    • Heather

      From what I’ve seen, very few Christians, especially Christian women, divorce for superficial reasons like “falling out of love.” It’s usually only after enduring years of abuse (emotional and spiritual abuse counts, too), infidelity, unrepentant porn use, manipulation, etc. that literally all the divorced Christian women I know finally said, “enough” and filed to save their sanity. Sadly, pastors are still hanging onto the whole mistranslated “God hates divorce” nonsense rather than holding the so-called “Christian” husband to account for his reprehensible behavior. I highly recommend Gretchen Baskerville’s work on life-saving divorce to learn more about how this dumb stereotype of Christian marriages breaking up simply due to inconvenience or “falling out of love.” My parents divorced when I was 4. It was absolutely the right thing for my mom to do. No one should stay married to an angry volatile man who threatens you and throws couches across a room when mad. I’m sure you would agree. Neither should a woman stay married to a man who breaks trust, is coercive, manipulative or controlling. That is just as abusive and harmful. Not in any way how Jesus would treat his bride.

    • Shannon Huffman Polson

      I'm grateful for this article exposing the naked emperor held up by the platform of questionable morality. My parents divorce when I was 12 is in meaningful and painful ways the defining event of my life-- despite having succeeded by any external measurement. Society does a grave disservice to younger generations by pretending anything else to be the case. One wonders if this is symptomatic of an attempt to shake off all traditions, eschewing tradition itself in an attempt to make progress in more isolated areas. It certainly damages the human psyche and weakens the social fabric. As well adjusted as children of divorce may be able to become, our major work is to try to address the genetic and epigenetic impact so that we do not further damage the grandchildren of these decisions.

    • Susan

      It's important to consider the couple who is divorcing. A toxic relationship is unhealthy for both and all parties involved. I was suicidal prior to my divorce, and it wasn't a physically abusive relationship... It was just not giving me life anymore. It's cruel to force people to stay together in an unhealthy relationship. It's unfortunate that it has a detrimental effect on the children. God cares about everyone in the family...

    • JoeR

      A movie staring a man who eventually took his own life influenced countless millions. A good divorce, sure thing. Look to Jesus for guidance. The world rarely provides guidance anyone should follow.

    Mrs. Doubtfire brought in millions at the box office upon its release in 1993, despite receiving mixed reviews from critics. Above all, the film left a mark on America’s collective memory due to its bold portrayal of no-fault divorce at a time when it was still not fully culturally acceptable, and due to Robin Williams’s comedic and heartwarming performance. His memorable closing monologue, delivered while dressed as a septuagenarian British woman with a “muddled” accent, encapsulated the trajectory of the country’s general attitude toward marriage and divorce.

    Reminding children not to blame themselves for their parents’ decision, Williams affirms that divorce doesn’t necessarily ruin their family, as there exist families of all different kinds: “Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents or some children live with foster parents. Or some live in separate homes in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country, and they may not see each other for days, weeks, months, or even years at a time.” What matters most, he proclaims over sappy nineties film scoring, is that “if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind. And you’ll have a family in your heart forever.”

    a father laughing with his three children

    Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993 Alamy Stock Photo

    Watching the film as a child – with the wounds of my parents’ divorce only beginning to set in – I wasn’t able to discern the cognitive dissonance of this closing line. Nor did it seem to register with the wider public – whether it was drowned out by the overt sentimentalism of the scene or by the shifting cultural standards of the early nineties is hard to say. The film itself is a cultural artifact documenting nineties moral norms, gender roles, fashion, and lingo.

    Daniel Hillard (played by Williams) takes the risk of decrying the “moral irresponsibility” of portraying cigarette smoking to children in the cartoon for which he does voice acting. After surprising his kids by picking them up early from their suburban San Francisco school, he explains that he lost his job over “reasons of conscience.” He then decides to throw his son a birthday party (against his wife’s wishes), complete with petting zoo animals and House of Pain blaring at full volume, and with Williams playing master of ceremonies in baggy jeans, an oversized T-shirt, and a backwards baseball hat.

    A disgruntled elderly neighbor calls Miranda (Daniel’s wife) at her office to notify her about the party. Miranda is the picture of 1990s girl bossery. In contrast to her husband, who can’t hold down a job for long, she takes her career so seriously that Daniel accuses her of “spending too much time with those corporate clones you used to despise.” The plot revolves around the clichéd juxtaposition of the strait-laced, “bad cop” mom and the fun-loving but immature dad. Mom works hard to provide a comfortable life for the family and maintain order in the house, while Dad is easygoing, cool, and relatable. His inability to hold down a job is due in part to his irresponsible attitude, but possibly also to his wife having assumed both the positions of breadwinner and homemaker, leaving him with no real role.

    As the argument over the birthday party (which we are told is the straw that breaks the camel’s back) unfolds, Daniel and Miranda fall into classical tropes of marital conflict; they’re so clichéd that I imagine psychologists watching the film immediately begin devising a therapy session. But Miranda refuses to consider therapy or any kind of counseling. Despite the futures of their three children (fourteen, twelve, and five), she feels she can’t go on like this anymore. After fourteen years of this, “We’ve just grown apart, we’re different, we have nothing in common.”

    At the time of the film’s release in 1993, no-fault divorce had been legal in California (the first state to legalize it) for twenty-four years. The number of divorces in the country had been rising steadily through the 1970s and 1980s. The divorce-per-marriage ratio had already been decreasing, however, in part due to a lower marriage rate and people waiting until they were older to get married. After the divorced and remarried Governor Ronald Reagan opened the door to no-fault divorce in California, most other states followed suit – though some took their time, with New York being the last in 2010.

    Needless to say, changes in divorce law reflect generational shifts in attitudes toward divorce. While the Greatest Generation took the “till death do us part” clause within marriage vows seriously and viewed divorce as a social stain, the Silent Generation rejected divorce more on grounds of social conformity. Divorce didn’t become widespread until the Baby Boomers (including the fictional Daniel and Miranda Hillard) came of age. The generation with the highest divorce rate, Boomers viewed divorce as an acceptable solution to an unhappy marriage, which corresponded with an increased emphasis on individualism. Further, many Boomer couples had two incomes, allowing the wife more independence should the couple decide to divorce. Generation X was the first to grow up in a world where having divorced parents was supposed to be normal. Perhaps that is a reason they have proved more likely to stay married.

    A year after the release of Mrs. Doubtfire, clinical psychologist Dr. Constance Ahrons released her book The Good Divorce, making the claim that a “good divorce is not an oxymoron. A good divorce is one in which both the adults and children emerge at least as emotionally well as they were before the divorce.” Dr. Ahrons starts the book lamenting the unavailability of no-fault back when she divorced her husband in 1965. If only she knew back then that it was possible to have a “good divorce,” in which “a family with children remains a family,” things would have turned out less dramatic than they did for herself, her ex, and her children.

    She explains that in a good divorce the parents “continue to be responsible for the emotional, economic, and physical needs of their children. The basic foundation is that ex-spouses develop a parenting partnership, one that is sufficiently cooperative to permit the bonds of kinship – with and through their children – to continue.” Ahrons also raises the issue of using proper language around children after the divorce; for example, she doesn’t hyphenate the terms binuclear, exspouse, exhusband, exwife, stepparent, stepkin, stepfamily. “The hyphens,” she writes, “imply that these words are additions or modifications of other words.”

    After learning to live in a healthier relationship with her ex, she paints a picture of the scene at her daughter’s wedding, in which she saw “two proud and happy parents walking their daughter down the aisle.”

    From these images of smiling, laughing people, a stranger could never tell that this couple had not been husband and wife for the past twenty-five years, unless, fast forwarding to the altar scene, they noticed the three beaming parents to the right of the bride. In this scene we three parents stand together tightly holding hands, laughing and crying, deeply moved.

    Such are the attempts to control the narrative handed to children of divorce. Some divorces, Ahrons insists, just “happen” for bourgeois reasons like no longer “feeling the same way anymore” or happening upon “incompatibility.” Divorce can even be good for children, and they will “turn out fine” when they grow up, provided the parents behave properly and use the correct terminology.

    Elizabeth Marquardt, a child of a “good divorce,” challenges Ahrons’s thesis in her book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, which presents results of a study she co-directed with sociologist Norval Glenn. Based on both a questionnaire survey and a series of one-on-one interviews, her study examines the inner lives of children of divorce, primarily “well-adjusted” ones who have stable careers, as they grow into adulthood.

    Though her book doesn’t take a position on when, how, or whether couples should get divorced, she does insist that both parents and psychologists question the good divorce narrative, as it privileges an “adult-centered vision that does not reflect [their children’s] true experiences” after the divorce. She concedes that “while a ‘good divorce’ is better than a bad divorce, it is still not good.” The willingness of the parents to live amicably in the aftermath does not “diminish the radical restructuring of the child’s universe.”

    Proponents of the “good” divorce, she argues, tend to place too much emphasis on external factors in the lives of children of divorce: Do they find jobs, stay out of trouble, and form meaningful relationships with others? She acknowledges that she, like many other children of divorce, “appear to be fine” in the aftermath. She has friends, a husband, children, and a successful career. But, she insists, “our society must do more than ask whether divorce causes clear and lasting damage to some children. It should also ask probing questions about how divorce shapes the lives of many children who experience it.”

    The primary thesis that emerges from Marquardt’s study is that divorce, whether the relationship between the exes is good or bad, inevitably results in the children feeling like they are caught between two different worlds. “However well or poorly [couples] handle the challenge of negotiating their differences, an important but often ignored feature of married life is this: The work of making sense of their two worlds is the parents’ job, not the child’s.” She highlights the importance of the “parents’ job to bridge their differences; even if they do their work badly no one would say that their child should attempt the job instead.”

    This work of having to forge their own bridge between two worlds forces children of divorce to become “mini-adults,” with many cheerily referring to themselves as old souls. Later in the book, Marquardt refers to children of divorce often fixating on ethical issues  – having to determine whether things are right or wrong by themselves, as they often hear conflicting narratives of morality from their two parents. They also develop a tendency to internalize the dramas they experience, which causes them to become strongly introspective and to dwell obsessively on their thoughts.

    I’ve been seeing ads on the back of buses with a phone number to call for a “quick, cheap, and easy” divorce. While things that were once controversial, like divorce, have become commonplace, things that were once commonplace, like smoking cigarettes, have become unacceptable. Three decades after the release of Mrs. Doubtfire, I can’t help but feel conflicted by today’s moral landscape, which condemns a vice with adverse health effects yet defends the rupturing of a child’s inner world as morally acceptable – or perhaps even virtuous.

    Robin Williams’s closing monologue in Mrs. Doubtfire presupposes that the moral weight of our actions is largely determined by our intentions and their predicted consequences. The fact that both my parents still loved me after their divorce surely played a crucial role in helping me to adjust to my new life. And yet the monologue’s claim that this love is enough to forge “ties that bind” grossly overlooks the effect of breaking another tie that binds, the bond formed when two people marry. This rupture is part of what makes it so difficult for children like me to develop a sense of stability and internal integration. My bouts of social alienation, moral scrupulosity, and existential dread were in part the result of having to reconcile two drastically different worldviews presented to me by my parents. This frenetic effort is not something three-year-olds are adequately equipped for. It clouded my outlook toward the world with a looming sense that everything was fragile and that people were not worth trusting.

    This began to change when I came to terms with the fact that my parents’ divorce was not some random, unfortunate event that “just happened,” but rather a decision that deprived me of something I needed and had a right to. As much as my parents loved me and worked tirelessly to make their divorce a good one, I was starving for something to which I no longer had access. Shaking off the notion of the neutrality of divorce allowed me to understand that many of the emotional complexes I developed were not random nor were they my fault. The writings of Marquardt and others have helped me understand that these are widespread effects of divorce – which is inherently not a “good” thing.

    Of course, growing up with parents in an unhappy marriage is also far from pleasant and can give rise to plenty of psychological complexes. And I am not speaking here of situations involving abuse, where divorce becomes necessary and appropriate. But Marquardt’s research indicates that, overall, children of a loveless marriage with low conflict (minimal arguing, no abuse) find themselves to be more emotionally grounded than children of a good divorce. As much as our society, with its affinity for sentimentality and utilitarianism, may try to deny it, a loveless marriage causes less damage to a child than does divorce.

    Research like that of Marquardt, whose point of departure is listening to children themselves and not imposing external analyses of how they “seem to be doing,” is invaluable. My personal experience makes me call into question the narrative presented in Mrs. Doubtfire and books like The Good Divorce. Do most couples really get divorced because they think it is in the best interest of their children? Or do they simply no longer want to do the work of forging a bridge between their two worlds, and expect their resilient children to do that work for them? If more parents understood that by getting divorced they are shunting this adult responsibility onto their offspring, they might not be so quick to convince themselves that a “good divorce” is good for their children.

    Contributed By StephenAdubato Stephen G. Adubato

    Stephen G. Adubato is a freelance writer and a professor of philosophy and theology. He hosts of the Cracks in Postmodernity blog and podcast.

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