Dads Against the Divorce Industry

DA*DI is devoted to reinstating the societal valuation of Marriage and the traditional, nuclear American Family, with particular emphasis on the essential role of FATHERS.

DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

Don't divorce me, Mum

Grown-up kids can feel the pain of their parents breaking up as much as small children. But do their feelings count?

Angela Neustatter
Sunday October 3, 1999
London Observer

David Kemp speaks in a measured voice describing how, when he was 18, his parents announced that they were divorcing . He understands now why it may have been the best thing for them, he says, but all the same you sense the confusion and inexpressible anger of that time : 'I was just off to university, excited at the prospect of making my new life, when all the support seemed to be withdrawn. Perhaps that was selfish but I felt terribly alone and unhappy through those years. It was a rough time.'

'We hear very little of how grown-up children feel when their parents decide to end a marriage. The mountains of research revealing the painful psychological impact of divorce on children has almost all been concentrated on the young and dependent. And conventional wisdom has it that once the children are adult and leaving home, or already gone, you have given them the family life, the support and succour they need to thrive. They may be sorry to see their parents ceasing to be a unit, the thinking goes, but it will not be traumatic, casting long shadows over their future lives.

Perhaps Tom and Laura Parker-Bowles, Hilaire and Sophie Lamont, Elisabeth, James and Lachlan Murdoch, Deborah Currie, daughter of the redoubtable Edwina, and the many other adult children who have watched their parents divorce, would have something to say on the subject.

We have seen reassuring photographs of these young adults looking composed and cheerful, apparently living lives in which their parents are mere background figures. We have seen them smiling brightly as the Murdoch children did, watching their father remarry almost as the decree nisi was granted. But we have heard nothing about how they really feel when the spotlight is off them, that time when they must make sense of having the structure of their childhood dismembered.

And it is happening to an ever increasing number of young adults with parents divorcing in later life. Recently published figures from the Office for National Statistics monitoring marriage over the past two decades, show clearly that divorce through the late thirties, forties and fifties age groups has steadily increased in the past three decades. Seven thousand couples who have been married 30 years and more now divorce every year compared with just over 1,000 in 1966.

This is, surely, a reflection of how our ideas have changed throughout this century from marriage as an institution people took seriously as a commitment for life to something that fits today's culture of consumerism, where we give something a try but assume we will get rid of it if it doesn't match expectations, or if a newer or different model looks more appealing.

As family lawyer Roger Bamber, co-author with psychotherapist Janet Reibstein of The Family Through Divorce (Thorsons) observes drily: 'We regard a marriage contract as for happiness not for life these days.' He sees 'the fallout for children who very easily feel it as a betrayal of what they believed their childhood was' over and over in his office.

But if you have stayed in an unsatisfactory marriage in order to bring up children, deciding to go for what you want at this stage can seem fair enough. Conversely, children going can be the problem itself if the marriage seems devoid of meaning without them. And at a time when we expect to live some 30 years longer than we did at the start of the century, as well as being vigorous longer, it's not surprising people are opting to leave relationships that feel like a cul-de-sac or worse, in the hope there may be something better out there.

Does the quest for personal fulfilment matter at this stage? Jill Curtis, author of Making and Breaking Families (Free Association Books) is sympathetic to the idea, but wonders if we understand the implications, how devastating it is for our children embarking on their own journey to maturity, navigating critical rites of passage such as starting an important relationship, a new job, marrying, having a child when they want the support of family, to find they have parents going through the crisis of a marriage breakdown - a situation where they frequently feel responsible for supporting the parents.

'It can make it very difficult for them to have space to grow up feeling safe,' in Curtis's view, 'but parents are good at convincing themselves the kids will scarcely notice if they're not living at home or have friends, plans and are cutting the bonds with home.'

It was the sudden loss of his place as a child in parents' lives that David Kemp found so painful. 'My parents divorcing as I was going out into the world came as a shock. It meant when things were hard at university I couldn't run home to my parents and tell them about my problems. Of course I couldn't say "stuff your divorce, what about me?" when my mother was in such anguish and not really there for me and my father had gone off to live in Holland.'

Indeed, he recalls feeling he had to 'parent' his mother, Anna, helping her think through her confusion. And she too recalls this: 'For two weeks he came and sat on my bed and took this intellectual approach to the problem. But I know well how much he suffered himself, and so did his sister - also soon to go off - who became so much less confident and cheerful than she had been as a child.'

Parents may make the effort to make sense of what is going on for younger children living at home, but they can forget how important this is for children who have gone. Bamber sees this and says: 'I tell clients if they are undermining their kids' lives then they owe them a proper explanation, but not the nasty bits.

'It's as bad for a grown child to be told how their father had odd sexual peccadillos or their mother was a frigid old cow as it is for a small child. The other thing is not to lean on the child and turn it into a confidante. What they need is help maintaining a relationship with both people and keeping faith in their own futures.'

That, for Susanna Taylor, who was 18 when her parents divorced, was too difficult: 'I remember my mother standing there saying she was going to live with another man and realising that you couldn't trust a relationship to work. But because there were no more joyful occasions as a family after that, I was desperate for something to give me security and happiness. I married at 21, but I never believed it could last. I remember very early on looking for what could go wrong and I waited for it to happen. Of course that was devastating because I relived the pain of my parents' break-up and I knew I was inflicting the same on my own children. It's taken me a long time to find help and sort it out so I feel stronger and happier and can give to my children.'

The other great sadness for grown-up children is not having united grandparents for their children, and Bamber points out that some 40 per cent of fathers lose contact with their children which means the next generation loses their grandfather.

Julie Bennett, whose parents divorced after 30 years of marriage, did not speak to her father for a time after he left her mother, but she says: 'I started remembering how close my son and my Dad were. Then I got pregnant again and really wanted him to know the new baby. That has happened but we've still only got a superficial relationship and that hurts.'

The sense of split loyalties and sadness David Kemp suffered has been mitigated by the fact that although his parents are not back together again, they have 'grown up and learned to understand each other better so we can be good friends,' his mother explains. 'It means,' says David 'that my children see their grandparents together and they enjoy them as two people they see getting on which is very positive for them and me. Last year we all had a few days' holiday together in France.'

The voices here tell eloquently how much these youngsters have been upset by their parents' divorces. They may understand that it is reasonable for unhappy parents to make new lives, and many also say they would not ask parents who no longer want to be together, to stick grimly to till death us do part vows for their sake.

But if parents are going to dismantle a structure that has shaped their children's lives, they shouldn't delude themselves that it is value-free just because their kids have packed their kit-bags and made a big show of cutting the ties that bind. However much they look like grown-ups, they still feel like children.

Back to DA*DI's Home