Divorce, Gen-Xer Style by Judy Bolton- Fasman
Written by
Judy Bolton-Fasman
November 2011
Written by
Judy Bolton-Fasman
November 2011

A couple of weeks ago an article in The New York Timescalled “The Good Divorce” caught my eye. Although it seemed like an oxymoron, two things struck me in Susan Gregory Thomas’ piece: It is hard to feel as if one is a good divorced parent. But one can try and We have concentrated not on our rancor but on our children.

I just celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary, and divorce has been on my mind. Not because I’m getting one, but because Ken and I are at a juncture where a number of couples married as long as we’ve been are separating. They’ve been through the labor-intensive part of childrearing – the kids are about to go off to college or are independent enough to have a social life. When that happens, parents go back to being couples.

Thomas mentions that she’s lost track of the studies she’s read about the impact of divorce on children, and “they are all deeply upsetting.” She consoles herself with the caveat that if parents remain friendly and committed to the children, life eventually rights itself.

But until that happened, Thomas had to contend with two very unhappy little girls. Her older daughter morphed into a classic mean girl. Thomas’ ex dubbed that daughter and her friend “The Heathers” – as in the creepy ’80s movie that set the standard for girl meanness. Her younger child had trouble in school with reading and math. Things began looking up after Thomas and her ex-husband “hunkered down” to maintain consistency between their respective households.

My generation was supposed to have figured out how to do marriage better. Thomas cites studies that have found over 80 percent of Gen-Xer marriages have lasted well over a decade. I have my unscientific theories about why Gen-Xer marriages can last longer.

The first is feminism. Women don’t necessarily marry for financial security or social status anymore. It’s also no longer an anomaly for a woman to be happily single. My kids think that “old maid” is just a card game.

My other top theory is that a number of couples live together before marriage. But then you have a Catch-22 – did feminism truly liberate women or did it liberate men from making a matrimonial commitment? I’m going to hedge my bets here and say feminism played a part in both of my suppositions. When I was in my 20s there was an obnoxious factoid floating around that I had a better chance of being attacked by terrorists than getting married after 30. Guess again. But I was not alone when I was still unmarried at 29. And when I married at 30, I was relatively young for a newlywed among my friends.

Maybe some of us Gen-Xers carry out our due diligence more thoroughly before saying “I do.” Our decision to marry is more deliberate, more thoughtful. And so, it seems, are our divorces. Thomas cites that just 30 years ago only three states upheld joint custody. Today all 50 states have joint custody laws on the books. She also notes that mediation and collaborative divorce are on the rise. Are there really fewer Kramer vs. Kramer dramas these days?

Just when divorced Gen- Xers have figured out a civil way to work through holidays and vacations, there comes another study by a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin who finds: “After divorce, students return to the same growth rate as their [counterparts]. But they remain behind their peers from intact families. The reasons for this sober finding include parental depression, financial hardship and shuttling between two households.

I’m not in a position to dispute studies conducted by academics and other professionals who conclude that divorce is not good for the children. But as a blogger on Slate observed, “a more realistic assessment would be to say that bad marriages are the problem, and divorce is the solution. The only humane way to tackle the divorce rate is to tackle the bad marriage problem.”

Divorce is also no longer the stigma it was when I was a kid. Divorce was rare, tragic really, among my parents’ friends. I’m not saying all of those couples had happy marriages; some felt like they had to stick it out. But I’ll never forget when a friend called her father’s new apartment “sad.” We were in fourth grade.

A couple of days after I read Thomas’ essay, I saw a story in The Boston Globe about a highly effective lawyer-therapist team that mediates more difficult divorce cases. One of the strategies they often use is to instruct a couple to bring pictures of their children to place in the middle of the table. And then they’ll ask a question that resonates beyond the proceedings, beyond a couple’s hostility and anger: “Can we all agree that these are the most important people here?”

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