How Divorce Affects Kids

Author and sociologist Constance Ahrons has found that divorce is not as devastating as it has been portrayed to be.

Beginning in 1979, Ahrons studied 98 pairs of parents, who had been legally divorced for at least one year. She re-interviewed the parents and stepparents twice more before publishing the results in an earlier book called, "The Good Divorce."

Now, for her latest book, "We're Still Family," she revisits 173 adult children (from 89 of the original 98 couples studied) interviewing them over the phone about how adult children feel about their parents divorce and how that experience affected their views of themselves and their roles as spouse/parent.

Of the men and women in her study, 79 percent believed their parents' decision to divorce was a good one, with positive outcomes for their own lives, as well as the lives of their parents.

"The headline really is that divorce is never easy for any familiar, but it does not need to destroy children's lives, nor does it lead to family breakdown," Ahrons tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.

She notes that the problems do not arise with divorce, but with the type of life the family had prior to it.

Ahrons explains, "We'll take a 12-year-old child and say, 'It's the divorce.' Well, for 12 years, they lived in the marriage so it's the pre-divorce family that created much of the stress. What I've found is many more of those families - the 80 percent that did well - many more of those families, there was some family violence, there was more alcoholism. There were more problems, individual psychological problems on the parts of parents."

One of the things Ahrons notes parents did well after the divorce was not putting their children in the middle of their battles.

She says, "What the kids want, when they go back and forth between the parents, is they want it to be civilized. In the last chapter of my book, I call it, Advice From The Front Lines. It's what these kids say that they actually want from their parents."

In essence, she says kids' don't care about who has the custody, they just want to have access to both parents.

Another headline in the study is that after divorce, fathers, actually, become better parents.

"That was one of the most surprising findings, because we hear the negative," Ahrons says. "Fifty percent of the kids reported that they had better relationships with their dads after the divorce."

Read an excerpt from Chapter One:

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 celebrations.

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 in common.

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 celeno brations, which has added a deeper dimension to our feelings of family.

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 about them?

Excerpted from "We're Still Family." Copyright © 2004 by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
  • Tatiana Morales

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