I was recently at a dinner party among people I didn't know very well (note to self: stop doing that), when the topic somehow turned to grown children of divorce. One of the guests made a comment along the lines of how she thought it made total sense that children of divorce would grow up to be negatively affected by the experience. "How could they not be," she asked, "when they see that their parents -- their creators -- don't love each other?" Because I was among mostly strangers and didn't really have the desire to get into an argument with someone I would probably never see again, I bit my tongue and resisted the urge to let her know that I was a child of divorce and I'm doing pretty okay, and that I know plenty of people with parents who are still together who are -- to use the technical term -- totally messed up.
However, the comment got me thinking: attention always seems to be paid to the potential negative impact divorce can have on a child. But does anyone ever stop to consider the potential positives? We're so indoctrinated to think of divorce as a bad thing for children, but the more I think about my own life and perspectives on relationships, the more I am certain that they were shaped -- and shaped positively -- by my parent's divorce.
A few things their split taught me:
I learned to have a realistic perspective on relationships. I have never been burdened by the belief that I needed to be in a relationship to feel complete. Now I don't mean to say that a healthy relationship doesn't have the power to enhance and enrich your life. I just don't think it's a prerequisite for those things. Marriage has never felt like the end-all-be-all, and I think it's in large part because I didn't grow up with married parents for the majority of my childhood.
My expectations are not set in stone. Some of the truly unhappiest women I know are the ones constantly seeking a partner who say things like, "I just want what my parents have!" I learned at an early age that there are many ways to live a happy (and unhappy) life. Having no real expectation for what your life "should" look like is a gift.
I understand that sometimes marriages fail, and that's okay. A little under half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. A lot of people will argue that this is because of a culture of instant gratification and an unwillingness to work through tough issues. But I'm going to safely assume that it is also partly due to a few other major factors. For example, life expectancy is higher than it has ever been in U.S. history. This (kind of morbidly) means that, "'til death do us part" used to mean a whole lot less time. People didn't have the time to change and grow apart like they do today. And let's not forget that even if a couple did want to call it quits, divorce was completely socially unacceptable until relatively recent history. Not to mention women traditionally had ZERO financial independence, meaning leaving an unhappy marriage was generally out of the question.
Basically, that's all a long way of saying that divorce is going to happen, and statistically there is a not-so-insignificant chance it could happen to you. So isn't it better to go into marriage with a realistic understanding that sometimes people grow apart, that things don't always go as planned, and most importantly, that a failed marriage doesn't equal a failed life?
I don't want to sound like the queen of the cynics over here (though it might be too late. I already started a paragraph with statistics on divorce rates. Forgive me). I actually think marriage -- or at the very least, a lifetime commitment to someone you love -- is a beautiful thing if you're lucky enough to find it. I also don't want to pretend like divorce is awesome. There were plenty of moments in my childhood when divorce was terrible; times when I felt unfairly caught in the middle; when holidays became a logistical nightmare; when my parents were unable to put their issues with one another aside for larger moments in our lives, like my 1st grade Halloween parade or my sister's graduation.
But I also believe my parent's divorce helped me become a happier, more content adult, simply because I don't live or die by my relationship status. At 28, I'm not suspicious of marriage -- I just don't think of it as the missing piece that will make everything else in life magically come together.
So if any of you out there are parents in the midst of a divorce, wondering if you're ruining your kids forever: take some advice from the grown up kid of a failed marriage -- from all experience comes wisdom, and that holds true for your children too. If you can show your kids there's happiness for you on the other side of the divorce tunnel, they just may turn out better equipped to handle whatever bumps life has to throw in their direction.
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