In a snapshot summary of her memoir released on Tuesday, In Spite of Everything, Susan Gregory Thomas gives a firsthand account of what remains of children and parents after the devastation of divorce. Thomas presents a vivid portrait of the children of divorce in her neighborhood who, with her, wandered as “sad-eyed, bruised nomads.”
Decades of research underscore the truth of Thomas’ anecdotal account and the plight and trajectories of those lonely children. Adolescents who do not live in intact families are more likely to engage in substance abuse, exhibit behavioral problems, have poor academic performance, and engage in risky behavior, including becoming sexually active at an early age. In addition, children who do not live with both parents are more likely to experience psychological and emotional problems, ranging from low levels of social competence and self-esteem to anxiety and depression.
Like others who grew up at the peak of the divorce culture, Thomas vowed she would never inflict the same pain on her own children. Yet, regardless of intentions and resolutions, statistics show that children tend to follow the marital trajectory of their parents. Children who have experienced parental divorce tend to experience more problematic and less rewarding marriages and are more likely to divorce. In fact, even the divorce of grandparents has been linked to a greater likelihood of third-generation divorce.
As Thomas notes, adult children who have experienced the “torture of a split family” often attempt to ensure the stability of their future marriages by testing the waters with a period of cohabitation. She cites that nearly 60 percent of couples who entered a first marriage in the early 2000s had previously cohabited, as she had done. However, statistics reveal that this intended failsafe is in fact a failure: Couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to separate and less likely to reconcile after a separation, more likely to experience infidelity, and more likely to subsequently divorce, as Thomas did.
As a last ray of hope, Thomas clings to the notion of post-divorce mediation and joint custody to buffer children from a contentious litigation process. Yet more effective and long-range options are possible. For example, a combination of policy reforms and public education to promote strong marriages may help to save a next generation from the minefields of marital dissolution.