Over the weekend, Elizabeth Marquardt got a nice boost for her new book about the harm divorce does to children, Between Two Worlds, from the news pages of the New York Times ("Poll Says Even Quiet Divorces Affect Children's Paths") and the Washington Post "Outlook" section, which published an opinion piece she penned on the subject.
Marquardt's message is that "there is no such thing as a 'good' divorce," the name given to amicable splits. She tells the Times that parents engage in such "happy talk" about divorce to feel good about themselves when the unacknowledged truth is that even "a good divorce restructures children's childhoods and leaves them traveling between two distinct worlds. It becomes their job, not their parents', to make sense of those two worlds."
The Times and Post pieces were enough to make me want to full-nelson the first child from a divorced couple I could find and lower her into a healing hug. But as I fixed my gaze on the Marquardt data dump that appears as a sidebar to the Times piece, I began to wonder just how revelatory her findings really are.
Marquardt and sociologist Norval Glenn surveyed 1,500 people between the ages of 18 and 35, with half of their respondents hailing from divorced families and half from intact families. The Times sidebar, drawn from Marquardt's book, reports the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with the statements read to them. Here are the statements and the responses from the two groups:
At times I felt like an outsider in my home.
Divorced parents: 14%
Married parents: 4
I felt like a different person with each of my parents.
Divorced parents: 20
Married parents: 8
It was stressful in my family.
Divorced parents: 34
Married parents: 7
I always felt like an adult, even when I was a little kid.
Divorced parents: 32
Married parents: 16
I had to take sides in my parents' conflicts.
Divorced parents: 14
Married parents: 3
Sometimes I felt like I didn't have a home.
Divorced parents: 6
Married parents: 1
I was alone a lot as a child.
Divorced parents: 21
Married parents: 3
Children were at the center of my family.
Divorced parents: 34
Married parents: 63
I generally felt emotionally safe.
Divorced parents: 44
Married parents: 79
If you possess an ounce of humanity, your empathy bone probably throbbed as you read down the column. Oh, all those poor, damaged babies! But after you dry your eyes, please view the Marquardt data dump while standing on your head.
In most cases, the majority of divorced-parents respondents seem to be saying they did OK despite their parents' breakups. For example, 86 percent of people from divorced families didn't strongly agree that they felt like outsiders in their own home; 80 percent didn't strongly agree that they felt like a different person with each of their parents; 64 percent didn't strongly agree that they had a stressful family life; 94 percent didn't strongly agree that they felt as though they didn't have a home, and so on. In other words, divorce carries a long-lasting psychological sting for some, but not most, children.
There's actually a lot of good news here, good news that makes Marquardt's views—as expressed in the Times news story and her Post opinion piece—reek of the obvious and the polemical. A less opportunistic scholar—and more skeptical news reporter—might comb the same data to ask why home life sucked so badly for many of those whose moms and dads carried on as wife and husband. I can imagine a news story that uses the same survey to report the disturbing results that 37 percent of respondents from married homes didn't feel strongly as though their families were child-centered and 21 percent didn't feel strongly that they were emotionally safe. *
The story's headline: "Poll Says Married Homes Affect Children's Paths."
When I took Marquardt's "agreed-disagreed" survey, I strongly agreed with all but one of the statements—and my parents never divorced. I wish I had been "alone a lot as a child," but when you have five siblings, it's a job to locate some solitude. Send your survey results to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Correction, Nov. 10, 2005: The original version of the piece drew an incorrect inference about the survey data based on the way it was presented by the Times. The Times published only the "strongly agree" answers to some of the survey questions. The Pressbox originally assumed that any respondent who didn't "strongly agree" with the survey question disagreed with it—i.e., if 14 percent of respondents from divorced families strongly agreed that they felt like outsiders in their own home, then the other 86 percent didn't feel like outsiders in their own homes. But as the Times did not mention, the survey included four other categories: "somewhat agree," "somewhat disagree," "strongly disagree," and "don't know/refused." By treating all those who didn't "strongly agree" as a single disagreeing category, the Pressbox missed those respondents who somewhat agreed or didn't answer. For example, while 14 percent of respondents from divorced families "strongly agreed" that they felt like outsiders in their own homes, another 16 percent "somewhat agreed" that they felt like outsiders in their own home, and about 0.5 percent didn't know or refused to answer. So, only 69 percent—not the 86 percent suggested by the piece—didn't feel like outsiders in their own home.