Jen > Q&A With Jen Abbas
you have question about the effects of divorce? I'd
love to hear from you. Just a reminder that I'm not a counselor.
I am not a pastor. I do not even hold several degrees. My only expertise
is that I have experienced two divorcesone as a young child, one
as young adultand I have spent most of my life learning to make
the most of my life and faith so I don't repeat my parents' past.
Who exactly is an adult child of divorce?
The language is a bit limiting, because it can either refer to:
For the purpose of this site and in my book, I used the former term because I believe that any divorce significantly affects any child, at any age.
What are some common long-term effects of divorce on children (as adults)?
The most significant effect is what Dr. Judith Wallerstein-the foremost authority on long term effects of divorce on children-calls the Sleeper Effect. Essentially, it means that the real impact of divorce does not manifest until the child seeks his/her own romantic relationships.
Parents tend to feel relieved when they see their child adjust to their divorce. But really, that adjustment is simply a coping mechanism. Most people don't really think about their own plans or desires for marriage, so it makes sense that young adults would go though a period where all the emotions of the divorce are unstuffed and released. It's very important to realize that this is natural. A lot of unbridled feelings may come out-angry, resentment, bitterness, hurt, betrayal, abandonment, confusion-and this is to be expected. The parent can make things easier by answering questions about their past, making a special effort to adjust for their child's convenience taking responsibility for their part in causing pain to their child and expressing their unconditional love.
What resources have you found for adult children of divorce?
I have a compiled a list of resources.
So what's your book about?
A lot of things! Here are a few key points:
How does divorce affect adult children differently than young kids?
Divorce is hard on any child, regardless of his/her age when the papers are signed, because we need the stability of our parents for our entire lives. Our folks don't give up their parenting role simply because the child has left home. We still look to our parents to guide us and affirm us through life decisions like deciding our college major, choosing where to live, career decisions, establishing a budget, selecting a spouse and raising our own children. Children whose parents divorce when they were young often grow up with holes in their histories because the past is taboo and memories can be tainted with bitterness or rage. Children whose parents divorce when they are 18 or older share a lot of the issues of self-doubt and fear of intimacy, but also have the additional guilt of wondering if their parents sacrificed life happiness because of them. We also wonder if life as we knew it was a facade, especially if we are told that our parents have been out of love for a long time. We lose confidence in our own ability to marry wisely, and if we are married-especially to someone just like Mom or Dad-we fear that we are destined to divorce as well.
Why do you think that divorce is occurring amongst older people?
My personal opinion is that the same fast food, throwaway consumer mentality that has infiltrated our culture has seeped into our marriages. Divorce has become more common because we are believing what society wrongly tells us to expect: that it is our spouse's responsibility to make us happy. If we really think about that, we are choosing to be victims rather that taking ownership for our own lives. In the movie Jerry McGuire, Tom Cruise's character tells Renee Zellweger's character that she completes him. That's a beautifully romantic notion, but so harmful to believe. Absolutely, two partners in a marriage should strive to bring joy to the other's life, but to say that our happiness is dependent on another is crazy. If you aren't happy with yourself by yourself, you can't expect anyone else to make you happy either. Marriage satisfaction ebbs and flows through the seasons of life, but just as the honeymoon highs don't last, neither do the trials of the tough times. We get ourselves in trouble when we focus on the ever-changing tides as an indication of our marital health, instead of the sand than stays. Unfortunately, divorce doesn't solve any problems; it just offers a new set of struggles.
Many couples assume that divorcing after their children have left home will affect them less. Is this a fair assumption?
I think that's an optimistic opinion that divorcing parents tell themselves to calm their conscience. Imagine if you were putting together a puzzle and had just a few pieces left to fit in when someone came in and knocked over the table. All the pieces fall to the floor. Does that fact that you were almost done make you feel better about the fact that you have to start all over? For children whose parents divorce when they are young, the analogy follows that they don't have a picture to compare to their work. For children who are adults, who start to reassemble the pieces, they find that the picture has changed. Each piece has to be examined to see if it even fits the photo anymore. Adult children of divorce question the validity of their history, their values and their memories because their foundation has been torn away. One of the most popular wedding songs is "I Will Be Here" by Steven Curtis Chapman, whose parents divorced after he was married. The song was written as a way of affirming to both himself and his wife that he was committed to their marriage.
Can a parents' divorce actually be more distressing if you're an adult?
I think marriage is devastating for any child, no matter what their age. Some of the responses may be different, but each divorce is distressing because it represents an unwelcome revision to their way of life. W ill my parents be able to be civil at my wedding? Where will we spend the holidays? As adults, we expect to have some autonomy, but our parents divorce forces us to make dividing choices.
Are there any particular experiences or trends that you have noticed in dealing with adult children of divorce?
My mom and dad divorced when I was seven. After living with my stepdad for eleven years, he and my mom divorced when I was 18. I've noticed that as a society, we are too quick to use separation as a precursor to divorce, rather than as a first step toward reconciliation. If a life is in danger, by all means, protect yourself and get out, but divorce doesn't have to naturally follow. We hold on to our right to divorce pretty tightly, because we like to think that we'll be happier if we can just marry again. Two-thirds of divorces are not due to abuse or adultery, but because one or more partners want out. It's The fact is though, that the rate of divorce for second marriages is higher than the first.
It's not popular to acknowledge long-term effects in children because what parent wants to feel good about a decision that causes pain to their child, for the rest of their life? The fact is, though, we never come to a point of closure with our parents' divorce because every milestone of our life is tempered by the challenge of figuring out how we can share them with our full families. The brunt of responsibility for mediating falls on the child, not the parent.
The naive assumption is to tell us to just get over it, and move on. The problem is, the divorce IS us. On a recent Oprah episode, the host quoted a rabbi speaking to divorced parents, "As much pain as you feel...as many tears as you have shed and as much grief as you feel, multiply that by hundred for your children." Some may point to our successes as proof that we are fine, but the fact of the matter is that our parents' divorce taught us that acceptance is conditional and earned. If we desire to be loved (and who doesn't), then why would we give less than 110% in attempt to recover what we have lost?
The main reason I was compelled to write my book, (titled Generation Ex: Adult Children of Divorce and the Healing of Our Pain, WaterBrook/Random House, 2004), is that the shelves of our local bookstores are filled with books for parents who want to learn how to fall in love again and be assured that their choice was a valid one. There is very little, if anything, for us. Judith Wallerstein's books (Second Chances and The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce) are invaluable because they tell us that our voices are valid and our hurts are heard. Stephanie Staal's book, The Love They Lost gives more first-person accounts of long-term effects, building on Dr. Wallerstein's theory of the sleeper effect, that is, the full effects of our parents' divorces don't really hit us until we seek to form our own romantic relationships. What is utterly lacking from the shelves is the book that tells us that yes, our parents divorce deeply affected us, and now here's what we can do about dealing with it. Let's talk about forgiveness, rebuilding trust, anticipating trigger events so we aren't blind-sided by an emotional onset. Let's remember that our parents are flawed people who did the best they could at the time they made that difficult decision, and we need to give them the freedom to grow and learn from that experience just as we must adjust to it. With that foundation, let's figure out how to fill in the gaps with healthy ways of viewing one's self and fill in the blanks with patterns and behaviors that will give us a better opportunity to establish a different legacy.