July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

Are children of divorce really emotionally scarred for life? That’s the question that psychologist Dr. Constance Ahrons set out to answer in 2001, 21 years after her bestselling The Good Divorce examined the varying effects of failed marriages on 98 couples. In her new book, We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce, Ahrons offers heartening news for guilt-ridden divorced parents: After interviewing 173 grown children of her original subjects, she concluded that while the end of a marriage rearranges a family, “it does not destroy it—or the children within it.”

Now professor emerita at the University of Southern California, Ahrons—twice divorced herself and the mother of two adult daughters she describes as “successful and well-adjusted”—discussed her findings with PEOPLE correspondent Champ Clark.

Why study divorce?

I was a divorced mother with young children when I coined the word “divorcism.” Later, in my family therapy practice, I realized it wasn’t just me. My clients talked about how people assumed that because they were divorced, they had serious problems. I began to realize the kinds of stereotypes we held about divorced people.

That was in 1979. Haven’t attitudes changed?

Divorce is more socially acceptable, but we still carry the myth that it destroys family and that all children are harmed by it. The message that sends to children is that you have to be messed up because your parents got a divorce. It doesn’t have to be that way.

How did the grown children you interviewed feel about their parents’ divorce?

Almost 80 percent felt that their parents’ decision to split was a good one, that their parents were better off and that their own lives improved after the divorce as well.

How?

Fifty percent felt that their relationships with their fathers actually got better. Sometimes after divorce, fathers spend more time with their children and assume more responsibility for child care than before. Also, for some kids the marriage was worse than the divorce, especially if it was high-conflict. Those kids felt some relief from the stress.

Did the stress ratchet up again if one parent remarried?

If they remarried too quickly or married someone they were involved with during the marriage who may now be blamed for the divorce, that’s very hard. But the benefits can be that they end up with four loving adults in their lives, not just two. The grown children in the study speak very well about half siblings. Many of them said that this was the best thing that came out of the divorce. Some talked about “bonus moms.” It’s not just the evil stepmother.

How can parents make their divorce less disruptive for a child?

First of all, they cannot litigate. Yes, money is always an issue, but they should try to resolve their differences more cooperatively. Second, they can remember that children want it to be acknowledged that this is a difficult thing for them. It’s important to not have too many changes too soon. Third, they should see if they can find people outside the family who are safe zones for the kids-a grandparent or teacher or coach. The children I saw who survived in spite of very difficult situations had somebody outside the family.

Who in your study didn’t come through divorce well?

About 20 percent of the kids did not thrive and felt like the divorce had really hurt their lives. For these kids, when I looked at their parents, more of the parents had psychological problems. There was a higher degree of alcoholism and violence in these families.

Past studies have found that children of divorce have trouble maintaining intimacy as adults. Did your subjects?

Trust and commitment issues are fairly common among young adults as a whole. Fifty percent of my subjects—who ranged in age from 21 to 52—had been married; 29 percent are divorced. That’s better than the national average.

Should parents ever stay together for the sake of the children?

That’s an important question. Only if you can have a reasonably satisfying life, and that’s not true for most people who divorce. Some of the grown children I talked to who now know their parents better said things like, “I understand the divorce. I don’t understand the marriage.”

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