The New Stigma--Children of Divorce Are No Longer Stigmatized, Until They Start Dating

The New Stigma--Children of Divorce Are No Longer Stigmatized, Until They Start Dating
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A young man says, "When I go out with a woman I can always tell on the first date if she's from a divorced family. The women from divorced families are over-anxious, eager to please. They're exhausting."

A young woman says, "My parents have been married thirty-five years and I want a long marriage like they've had. I love my boyfriend, but he's from a divorced family and, I don't know, it just seems like he had to be a lot more independent growing up than I ever was. Frankly, it worries me."

A woman writing to an advice columnist complains, "I am wary of dating guys whose parents are divorced... I think people whose parents are divorced may have a different sense of marriage - i.e., that it doesn't have to be for a lifetime..."

Decades ago, children of divorce were stigmatized in our society. People assumed that horrible problems must have led to their parents' breakup. Children of divorce felt shame. They were said to live in "broken families."

As the divorce rate shot up in the late 1960s and 1970s, the stigma about children of divorce began to fade. Widespread divorce became just another feature of contemporary society. Divorce did not necessarily point to pathological problems in families. Instead, advocates suggested, divorce simply offered liberation for adults who felt unhappy in their marriages. Children of divorce were no longer said to live in "broken families" but in "blended families" or even "binuclear families."

Yet as the stigma about children of divorce began to weaken, new realities appeared. Social science evidence now demonstrates that, compared to those who grow up with married parents, children of divorce are at greater risk for a host of social problems. Divorce also appears to be transmitted inter-generationally. Studies now show that when they grow up the children of divorce are themselves at significantly greater risk of divorce compared to those who grew up with married parents.

For years, I've been hearing anecdotes like those above which suggest that today's young adults who grew up with married parents are increasingly all too aware of these new findings. (The quotations above come, respectively, from a study by Judith Wallerstein, my own study reported in Between Two Worlds, and an advice column by Carolyn Hax.) It appears that public discussion of studies about the "marriageability" of young adults from divorced families is shaping attitudes these young people confront when they enter the dating and marriage market. Far from ending the stigma of divorce, it seems that widespread divorce has merely shifted the stigma onto the next generation.

Don't believe me? Upon publication of her book For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, renowned social scientist Mavis Hetherington conceded that in her studies the grown children of divorce had a higher divorce rate when they grew up. But she hastened to point out that, on the bright side, those who married people from intact families had more stable marriages than those who married other children of divorce. Her critic, demographer Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, replied in a USA Today article, "Then what she is really saying is that if you are a divorced person, nobody should marry your child."

This issue matters to me because I've felt the dark shadow of stigma too. I came from a divorced family. When I was twenty-two, my mother separated from my second stepfather. At the time I was in love with a young man who I thought I might one day marry. In a tense phone conversation with my soon-to-be-ex stepfather, he suggested that because of my parents' track record on marriage, my prospects for marriage might not be so good. I was devastated, angry, and scared.

A couple decades on, a suggestion like his doesn't have as much power to wound me. I'm fourteen years into marriage now, with two happy kids. I can't predict the future but I have seen in my own life - and in the lives of friends and colleagues who came from families like mine - that statistics describe populations, not individuals, and no one of us is doomed to repeat the past. (Instead, we all get to make fresh mistakes, on our own!) But for a new generation of children of divorce leaving home and looking for love, I know the anxieties are there, and I hear too many stories that confirm that their peers can see them as damaged goods when it comes to marriage.

Without question, divorce on average makes life much harder for kids and for the adults that they become. But let's not make the children bear the burdens of their parents' decisions. To those who grew up with married parents, hear this: We children of divorce value marriage because we know what life is like when it's gone. We grew up fast and we know how to take care of ourselves. Many of us are, frankly, quite wonderful. Marry us.

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