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At 22, Dawn Holiday had spent the previous two years getting to know her father. He was now remarried with children and planned to attend her college graduation, making it the first time in 20 years her divorced parents, along with their separate families and friends, would be in the same place. During the ceremony, Holiday consciously divided her time between the two groups, grateful they were unlikely to meet at the large event.
Afterward, Holiday went to eat with her father. But out of the hundreds of restaurants in Waco, Texas, her mother’s family happened upon the same one and sat only tables away. Awkward introductions and an uncomfortable lunch ensued. Holiday could hardly wait for it to end. She was overwhelmed by unresolved questions, confusion, and guilt: “I wanted to feel free to love them both. But love has a spoken or unspoken aspect of loyalty, creating a double-bind reality for children of divorce.”
June, marriage month, also brings sad realizations: Millions of Americans have experiences like Holiday’s, and the sting of divorce is now generations deep. As divorce permeates American culture, its ripple effects are felt in normally joyous occasions like weddings, graduations, children’s births, and holidays. Some children of divorce enter marriage with more resolve, but many others are cynical of marriage and prefer cohabitation, leading to more broken relationships.
‘You think as an adult you have moved on, but the tension never fully goes away.’ —Dawn Holiday
The sexual revolution and women’s rights movement of the 1960s shifted American views of marriage from happiness achieved through duty and sacrifice to an ephemeral individual happiness and “fulfillment.” In 1969, California passed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, allowing one spouse to dissolve a marriage for any reason and gutting marriage of its legal power. No-fault laws quickly swept the nation: By 1980, the divorce rate had more than doubled, spawning what many call the “divorce revolution.”
Psychologist and researcher Judith Wallerstein aptly asked, “But what about the children?” Her 25-year investigation followed children of divorce into adulthood, documenting their struggles, particularly in forming romantic relationships and starting families of their own.
Wallerstein died in 2012, but a body of research now supports her findings and reveals in more detail the long-term effects for adult children of divorce: less education, lower income, poorer mental and physical health, more suicide, weakened parent-child relationships (particularly with fathers), more cohabitation, more problematic marriages, and more likelihood of divorce.
Fourteen years into marriage, Zeke Sevier, 41, of Santa Rosa, Calif., says, “We realize there’s a target on us.” He and his wife, Lisa, 40, are both grandchildren of divorce. Zeke’s parents’ divorce left him afraid of marriage—he dated a girl for eight years with no intention to marry her. At a friend’s engagement party, he met Lisa, who had been in and out of relationships since her parents’ divorce and had only recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend.
The two entered marriage idealistic, and Zeke wrote in a premarital counseling notebook, “I hate divorce … for me it is unacceptable.” For Lisa, saying their vows “was like nothing I had ever experienced. All I knew were broken relationships.”
Cleveland, Ohio, wedding planner Amy Hissa, 37, says, “It’s rare to see a couple who both come from still-married parents.” She’s been in the planning business for 10 years and says mitigating family tension by working through details—seating arrangements, reception speeches, and whether to allow an expectant stepmother into the bride’s dressing room—is one of her chief tasks. When interviewing a couple, Hissa tries to figure out, “Are they all amicable or do they hate each other?”
At one rehearsal dinner, a bride asked Hissa to tell her dad she planned to walk down the aisle with her stepfather: “He blew up and stormed out.” Napa and Sonoma wedding planner Brooke Menconi, 36, recalls a bride’s father showing up at a traditional, $100,000-plus wedding with his 30-years-younger mistress-turned-wife. The bride and her mother, his ex-wife, watched as the woman danced provocatively at the reception in a short, body-hugging dress. Menconi says, “It was one of those times you want to tell everyone to look away.”
Many who have experienced these realities are delaying or rejecting marriage, choosing instead to cohabit. Over 6 in 10 adult children of divorce think cohabitation before marriage is a good idea, and they are more likely to be living with their partner than those from intact, married families, according to W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project. These trends are worrisome, as cohabitation leads to more breakups, divorce, and economic instability, creating a complex web that increasingly involves children.
Wilcox’s recent project, a five-minute video with Prager University titled “Be A Man. Get Married,” targets apathetic, cohabiting boyfriends and fathers. He says the video has received a “huge pushback,” with many men who have experienced divorce leaving comments. One wrote, “Marriage is like letting a coin flip decide if you will die immediately or die slowly. … The only way to win is to not play at all.” Another: “I went through a tough divorce five years ago. ... I have absolutely no hope for marriage. None.”
Wilcox avoids wishing back fault-based divorce laws of the past—“We’re not in 1946 … there were abuses”—but he notes that no-fault laws give more power to the spouse who leaves, and 4 out of 5 marriages end unilaterally. Often judges, when making decisions on alimony, child custody, and the division of property, fail to take into account whether a spouse has been unfaithful or abusive. Like many marriage advocates, Wilcox supports a slower divorce process, including a waiting period and more education about its risks for adults and children. About a dozen states have waiting periods of at least a year (or less with mutual consent).
For some children of divorce, painful experiences have led them to enter marriage with more resolve. “That’s the good news,” Wilcox said. The divorce rate has declined since its 1980 peak, particularly among those with a college education and those who marry at later ages. About 40 percent of first marriages now end in divorce, compared with 50 percent in 1980.
Dawn Holiday survived that uncomfortable lunch following graduation and now, at age 46, is a Novato, Calif., family counselor, pastor’s wife, and mother of four sons. Her husband is also a child of divorce, and the couple made it a part of their vows 19 years ago to “do whatever it takes” to make their marriage work. Sometimes that has meant seeking marital counseling. Holiday still regularly deals with divorce realities. Special events still carry added stress with extended family in the same room together: “You think as an adult you have moved on, but the tension never fully goes away.”
Holiday and her husband previously ran a juvenile boys camp, and now she professionally counsels young people, particularly those coping with divorce. She says many children of divorce take on a “caretaker” role with their parents. They learn to repress their own emotions and often feel pressured to side with one parent, feeling at home with one and a “guest” with the other. A typical question: “When I’m with Dad, do I defend Mom?”
One 20-year-old with drug problems made it to graduation at the juvenile camp. All during his stay he claimed to have a good relationship with his divorced parents, telling Holiday they were “perfect.” But during the graduation ceremony he blew up at his parents, cursing and storming out.
Later he told Holiday, “I didn’t know I was so mad at them.”
Erin Hiebsch, 26, runs co-parenting workshops for divorcing parents at Hope+Wellness of Marin in Corte Madera, Calif. Even though she’s set up the workshops for both parents to attend separately, most often only one parent participates. Many come from divorced families themselves but find it difficult to think about their divorce from their kids’ perspective. She shows a video about divorce’s long-term effects that leads many to tears: “There’s a fair amount of shame. … They don’t want their kids repeating their mistakes.”
The Seviers in Santa Rosa are making their marriage work. On one sunny May afternoon, Lisa Sevier was planting tomato starts in her garden while her five children, ages 11 to 3, shot baskets and ran in and out of the backyard sliding door. She recounted their toughest year of marriage so far: Their third child was newly born, and Zeke’s new landscaping business was providing a “feast or famine” financial return. Lisa battled depression: “I was at my lowest point. … I didn’t think I could go on.”
Lisa confided with a friend from their congregation who told her, “This is not between you and Zeke. This is between you and God.” That change in perspective was a turning point and the beginning of their “faith walk” as a married couple. The verse from Proverbs emphasized at their wedding, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding,” came alive. Lisa says: “I realized I had my eyes on Zeke and not Christ. … People run dry.”