Thoughts on Divorce

Adolescence is the only appropriate time in a person’s life in which to endure agonizing feats of humility and to navigate the murky waters of things never tried before. For instance, orthodontia post-graduation only appeals to the most honest of university perverts. A middle-aged bad driver is a bad driver, not an inexperienced one, regardless of when he received his license. And God forbid a person should ever have the displeasure of realizing the stud she brought home from the bar is still a virgin. When a child is in elementary school, a solid half of her friends’ parents are granted a divorce. At the time, it’s rough, but like braces and that first sex, they are happy to realize they’ve gotten it over with.

At this youthful and tender age, such separations go for the most part unnoticed by the children. It’s a process they’ve been watching in friends’ families since they started school: the buildup, the announcement, the split, the homelessness of change, and finally, the comfort of routine. She watches her friends’ lives move in that they become slightly more confused and take more effort to organize between two halves. But, in the end, these children are better off for it. By the time they are in high school, their parents were practically never together. The line has been drawn, and it is the child’s job to dance back and forth across the middle, something they get used to young. “Other” parents gradually fade out as the one with custody consumes the child’s time. Eventually her friends can barely remember that they knew her when her parents were together. Childhood becomes history, something for telling stories and learning lessons, somehow detached. A part of a person, but only distantly.

The timing makes sense. A couple marries, has kids, and the kids bring them to realize things in themselves or the other they’re not okay with. Before this time window, the parents are unsure. It hasn’t been long enough to know, and besides, there are the kids to think about. Wait too much longer, and it’s too late. The bond is irrevocable. The children are whole, and the family is made.

For a family consists of people, and people develop from infants slowly. As the budding human grows, like a particularly malleable tree, it gets bigger in some places and smaller in others in order to fit into its habitat. The bonsai will bend where an impediment is placed, and this bend is a part of the tree. Likewise, the human grows to fit into its role in the family. ““We are each a product of the role we are given in the family-complex.”[1] At first, the family serves the infant, feeding and protecting. Eventually, the human serves the family, developing a sense of self in relation to the unit and a responsibility over its members and their wellbeing.

So what happens when a fully formed human’s family is torn in half? Her identity is thrown into question. This is what built me, she thinks. This is the establishment that made me and it no longer exists. For starters, all authority of the parental unit is lost. Consider this distant and extended metaphor: A king and queen rule over their kingdom together for years. It’s a new kingdom, and so they pass much legislation that is, frankly, completely necessary, such as Do not kill and Do not steal. But citizens of the young new kingdom have no way of knowing what is and is not completely necessary, because this metaphor is apparently postapocalyptic and there is no precedent for them to follow. What is there left to do? Since they aren’t sure, they follow their leaders. Over the years, as problems sort themselves out and the new laws prove themselves, they gain confidence in what they have learned and the laws they live by. Their trust in their rulers expands. But suddenly, the royal couple divorces, each claiming the other is wrong and bad. The citizens are no longer assured that their leaders can rule properly, since they were so wrong for so long about one of the most important things to them. The connection to the family is painfully clear. A child is told for so long, “We are the parents and we know what’s best.” But something changes when that parental unit is split, and only the grown child can pick up on it.

The difference is that – let’s be honest – a lot of the time, a child doesn’t notice much. It’s not that she is not perceptive: she can be more perceptive than adults at times because she has not been so desensitized yet. However, she lacks the language with which to comprehend the events taking place around her and the experience to make emotional sense of what’s happening. Things fly over her head like clouds and all she knows is what her parents spoon-feed her. “Daddy’s going away for a little while.” A grown child can see right through this creative version of the truth.

Before school, the things the child learns are limited to the minimum: Don’t push, Sit on your butt, No you cannot eat that. However, she masters these in the first few years of her life and is ready for more. Time creates room for complications, and lessons for older children are not so easily explained. Her mother spends years reinforcing in her that everyone is always just trying their best. She doesn’t hear her mother, couldn’t hear her, for years as she struggles to ignore the concept because teenagers like to be mad and it’s hard to be mad at someone who’s trying their best. Eventually, in college, the child learns to live and let live, for her mother was right.

But when the break comes, many things change. Firstly, the parent changes, and changes his or her opinions. So now as Mom is claiming that “everyone is always trying their best” she is simultaneously stating that “your father has abandoned his familial responsibilities” and other such words of malice. The two statements clearly conflict. Do Mom’s proverbs not apply to Dad? The saintly figure that is the mother to her child is thrown into an ugly light. She is not God. She does not know all. Worse: she is a hypocrite like everyone else. This means that the child can no longer trust her unconditionally, because she has the capacity to be wrong. And if Mom can be wrong, surely Dad can be wrong. There is nothing worse to a child than realizing that her parents are not infallible, and cannot always fix everything. This is the point in which life becomes scary and real.

It doesn’t help that as a person grows older, age gaps shrink. There is a smaller age difference between a thirty and a forty year old than between a ten and twenty year old. After college, it rather plateaus into the general “adult” and relies more on a gradient than anything else. I am a young adult and you are an old adult. This sense of equality brings some level of entitlement to the child-now-adult, the expectation of information and respect. During a divorce, the grown child soon regrets making this expectation known. Off in college, earning her own money, making her own decisions, her parents have reached some kind of satisfaction with her, the realization that she in finally too old to ever be able to undo the good raising they have done of her. Their constant instruction is no longer necessary. The parent-child relationship develops into friendship, or at least some semblance of it. With friendship comes uninhibited conversation. Suddenly Dad is willing to say all the things he never did about how Mom treated him when the child was a child. Thusly the grown child’s own memories of her past now must be questioned. Mom has no reservations about sharing stories about all of her exciting new sexual exploits. The list of things a child can wish her parents to un-say is endless.

The changes don’t even stop with the immediate family unit. The extended family takes sides and does little to hide it, except from the children, who blissfully play upstairs while the grownups talk. And suddenly, the adult-child is faced with the invisible pressure to choose a parent, a pressure present from all angles, even among all the whispers of, “We’d never want you to feel like you have to pick sides, honey.” It is required. Sides must be chosen. She can’t go home to two different places for winter break.

She needs to consider which parent gossips more. Because she can only handle so much of one bad-mouthing the other. She tries to choose none, tries so hard, but even being moderate offends. She prohibits the one from insulting the other, and they both think she’s showing a preference to the opposite. The truth of it is, she for the first time feels more mature than both of her parents combined. And, not for the first time, she longs to be a little kid again. Then she’d be upstairs playing with Hotwheels, wondering why the grownups are whispering so nastily downstairs.

Divorce happens and is completely inevitable. In most cases it’s probably neither expected nor opposed. But the timing is crucial. For an adult to endure the divorce of their parents is incredibly taxing, both on the adult-child’s personal identity and relationships with her parents. Blessed be those couples who realize they can’t stand each other before they realize they want kids. To those parents with young kids who are riding out a bad marriage for their sake, the answer is clear: You’re only making it worse. Get divorced early.


[1] Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

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