What is the real legacy of divorce? To answer this question, Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., interviewed one hundred and seventy-three grown children whose divorcing parents she had interviewed twenty years earlier for her landmark study, the basis of which was the highly acclaimed book The Good Divorce. What she has learned is both heartening and significant.
Challenging the stereotype that children of divorce are emotionally troubled, drug abusing, academically challenged, and otherwise failing, Dr. Ahrons reveals that most children can and do adapt, and that many even thrive in the face of family change. Although divorce is never easy for any family, she shows that it does not have to destroy children's lives or lead to a family breakdown. With the insight of these grown children and the advice of this gifted family therapist, divorcing parents will find helpful road maps identifying both the benefits and the harms to which postdivorce children are exposed and, ultimately, what they can do to maintain family bonds.
No Easy Answers
Why the Popular View of Divorce Is Wrong
"Everyday meat and potato truth is beyond
our ability to capture in a few words."
-- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
It was a sunny, unseasonably warm Sunday morning in October.
In a quaint country inn in New Jersey, surrounded by a
glorious autumn garden, my young grandchildren and I waited
patiently for their Aunt Jennifer's wedding to begin. The white
carpet was unrolled, the guests were assembled, and the harpist
was playing Pachelbel's Canon.
A hush came over the guests. The first member of the bridal
party appeared. Poised at the entry, she took a deep breath as she began her slow-paced walk down the white wedding path.
Pauline, my grandchildren's stepgreat-grandmother, made her
way down the aisle, pausing occasionally to greet family and
friends. A round of applause spontaneously erupted. She had
traveled fifteen hundred miles to be at her granddaughter's wedding, when only days before, a threatening illness made her presence doubtful.
Next in the grand parade came the best man, one of the
groom's three brothers. Proudly, he made his way down the aisle
and took his position, ready to be at his brother's side. Then the
two maids of honor, looking lovely in their flowing black chiffon
gowns, made their appearance. My grandchildren started to wiggle
and whisper: "It's Aunt Amy [my younger daughter]! And
Christine [the longtime girlfriend who cohabits with Uncle
Craig, my daughters' halfbrother]!" As they walked down the
aisle and moved slowly past us, special smiles were exchanged
with my grandchildren -- their nieces and nephew.
Seconds later, my youngest granddaughter pointed excitedly,
exclaiming, "Here comes Mommy!" They waved excitedly as the
next member of the bridal party, the matron of honor -- their
mother, my daughter -- made her way down the path. She paused
briefly at our row to exchange a fleeting greeting with her children.
Next, the groom, soon officially to be their "Uncle Andrew,"
with his mother's arm linked on his left, and his father on his
right. The happy threesome joined the processional. Divorced
from each other when Andrew was a child, his parents beamed in
anticipation of the marriage of their eldest son.
Silence. All heads now turned to catch their first glimpse of
the bride. Greeted with oohs and aahs, Aunt Jennifer was radiant
as she walked arm in arm with her proud and elegant mother,
their stepgrandmother, Grandma Susan. Sadly missed at that
moment was the father of the bride, my former husband, who
had passed away a few years earlier.
When I told friends in California I was flying to the East
Coast for a family wedding, I stumbled over how to explain my
relationship to the bride. To some I explained: "She's my exhusband's
daughter by his second wife." To others, perhaps to be
provocative and draw attention to the lack of kinship terms, I
said, "She's my daughters' sister." Of course, technically she's my
daughters' halfsister, but many years ago my daughters told me firmly that that term "halfsister" was utterly ridiculous. Jennifer
wasn't a half anything, she was their real sister. Some of my
friends thought it strange that I would be invited; others thought
it even stranger that I would travel cross-country to attend.
The wedding reception brought an awkward moment or two,
when some of the groom's guests asked a common question,
"How was I related to the bride?" With some guilt at violating
my daughters' dictum, but not knowing how else to identify our
kinship, I answered, "She is my daughters' halfsister." A puzzled
look. It was not that they didn't understand the relationship, but
it seemed strange to them that I was a wedding guest. As we
talked, a few guests noted how nice it was that I was there, and
then with great elaboration told me stories about their own complex
families. Some told me sad stories of families torn apart by
divorce and remarriage, and others related happy stories of how
their complex families of divorce had come together at family
At several points during this celebratory day, I happened to be
standing next to the bride's mother when someone from the
groom's side asked us how we were related. She or I pleasantly
answered, "We used to be married to the same man." This
response turned out to be a showstopper. The question asker was
at a loss to respond. First and second wives aren't supposed to be
amicable or even respectful toward one another. And certainly,
first wives are not supposed to be included in their exhusband's
new families. And last of all, first and second wives shouldn't be
willing to comfortably share the information of having a husband
Although it may appear strange, my exhusband's untimely
death brought his second and first families closer together. I had
mourned at his funeral and spent time with his family and friends
for several days afterward. A different level of kinship formed, as
we -- his first and second families -- shared our loss and sadness.
Since then, we have chosen to join together at several family celebrations, which has added a deeper dimension to our feelings of
You may be thinking, "This is all so rational. There's no way
my family could pull this off." Or perhaps, like the many people
who have shared their stories with me over the years, you are
nodding your head knowingly, remembering similar occasions in
your own family. The truth is we are like many extended families
rearranged by divorce. My ties to my exhusband's family are not
close but we care about one another. We seldom have contact
outside of family occasions, but we know we're family. We hear
stories of each other's comings and goings, transmitted to us
through our mutual ties to my daughters, and now, through
grandchildren. But if many families, like my own, continue to
have relationships years after divorce, why don't we hear more