We Americans love improving things. We’re constantly seeking “bigger, better, best” for just about every aspect of our lives: from our diets, to our exercise programs, to our child-rearing practices, to the computer software we use. And now, thanks in large part to the Gen Xers who grew up swimming in the sewage of their parents’ nasty divorces, we’re also in the midst of a radical improvement of how we end our long-term romantic relationships, upleveling the typical ugly and contentious breakup to be a less bitter and more benevolent, forgiving experience.
We might call it the second divorce revolution in America. The first was initiated in 1969 by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan when he signed the nation’s first “no fault divorce” into law. Some speculate he did so because his first wife, Jane Wyman had accused him of “mental cruelty” to obtain their divorce back in 1948. Yet he would later call this progressive act the greatest mistake of his political career. It unleashed a tidal wave of broken families, leaving millions of children caught in the crossfire between warring parents who did little to curb their thirst for revenge.
The studies of the effects of divorce on children over the next three decades would time and time again reveal the most sobering of statistics: promiscuity, alcohol and drug use, failing grades and/or dropping out of school, and troubled relational patterns that played out well into adulthood. I know. I was one of those kids, and, frankly, those statistics don’t tell the half of it.
I was smoking cigarettes by the time I was 10, and clipping classes by the age of 14 to run across the street from my high school to drink beer and play pool at the local watering hole. But the agony caused by the hostile divorce between my parents went much deeper than any symptoms we might measure. There are no words that speak of the deep and crushing loneliness of a child who no longer knows where he or she belongs, or who he or she belongs to. No acting-out behavior can fully communicate the shame-based sense of inferiority a child might feel to those kids whose intact families seem so happy and loving. And few tests can adequately gauge the inner homelessness of an adolescent who no longer feels at home anywhere, or with anyone. Nor can we always trace the chronic inner emptiness of a troubled young adult back to those early years of dislocation and loss.
For the majority of us, the end of our two-parent family meant being left to fend for ourselves. In fact, according to a 2004 study, Gen Xers (and we Boomers who caught the tip of the big divorce wave that washed over America in the 70s and 80s) “went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.”
Yet most of us managed to find our way, and some of us even became stronger, more resilient and more loving people because of all we’d endured. And many who lived through the annihilation of their childhood homes grew up determined to never subject their own children to a shattering similar to the one they’d suffered. This initially may have meant delaying marriage by several years, or perhaps by co-habitating before tying the knot “just to be sure,” and/or trying their best to stay together by seeing a marriage therapist or attending the latest new big thing in relationship seminars. But those who finally called it a day are now the ones who are leading the way towards more conscious and magnanimous breakups, and striving to discover new, healthy ways to reinvent their families in a post-divorce world.
When my husband and I decided to separate after 10 years of marriage, it was amidst a sea of confusion and uncertainty. Yet we were both sure of one thing—we wanted our daughter to have a happy childhood. One filled with love, belonging and a family she could count on. Having each endured the alienation of one parent after our own parents split—he his mother who left when he was a baby, and me my father who walked out of my life when I was 10, we were both committed and curious to discover what a cohesive, balanced, stable and loving family might look like in the aftermath of divorce.
Two decades ago, Dr. Constance Ahrons, author of the pioneering bestseller, The Good Divorce, demonstrated that it’s not so much the divorce itself, but the profoundly barbaric and decidedly uncreative “War of the Roses” ways we’ve been going about it that has been hurting our kids. Even so-called amicable divorces may be getting it wrong. While an improvement over un-amicable divorces, whenever we create two families where once there was one, we’re setting our children up to suffer. Expecting them to continually go from one family to another is essentially asking them to be in a perpetual state of longing and loss, always having to say goodbye to one family in order to rejoin the other.
Gen Xers are the heroes who are willing to stumble about trying to figure out how to remain a loving family after dissolving a marriage—a whole new take on staying together “for the sake of the kids.” They are endeavoring a recalibration and reinvention of family that strives to accommodate the growing needs of all of its members, and that puts the responsibility on the parents to accomplish the necessary emotional maturation to elegantly execute such a transition, rather than expecting the children to do so.
A little more than 40 years ago, two simple words—“no fault”—unleashed the first divorce revolution in America, and a little over a year ago, two more simple words—“conscious uncoupling”—unleashed the second, redefining divorce in an instant and giving us language for the growing movement towards more humane and respectful breakups, as well as inspiring us to discover new ways to celebrate a family whose mommy and daddy are no longer married to one another. And while the quest to live happily ever after continues to inspire millions of us to make our way to the altar each year, in a world where more of us will divorce each year than will buy new cars or eat grapefruit for breakfast, most of us agree it’s time we learned to do this better.
Katherine Woodward Thomas is the author of New York Times bestselling Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After and a licensed marriage and family therapist