"It does have to shape their parenting," says Marcia Lebowitz, director of the Children’s Divorce Center in Woodbridge. "People whose parents were divorced approach marriage and parenting in a different way. They either don’t want to repeat the same mistakes their parents made or they want to give their children different things in life than they had."
It’s no small group, either. The divorce rate in America increased steadily through the 1970s and ’80s, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of divorced people in America jumped from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996. Divorce was not an altogether uncommon situation for the children of Generation X.
"Just run the numbers," Lebowitz notes. "Since 1980, a million kids a year have dealt with divorce. Millions of them are all grown up and many of them are parents."
Joanne Goldblum of New Haven is on the older edge of the demographic. Her parents divorced in the early 1980s, when she was 16. She’s now 42, married, and has three kids.
"I feel like (the divorce) affected my life broadly, but it doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on my parenting," she says. "I think I’m much more alert to what’s going on in the world. I’m more accepting of the different families I see among my kids’ friends, and I’m more sensitive to kids whose parents are going through a divorce."
Goldblum, who is a social worker, says one aspect of her parenting style that may have been influenced by her childhood is that she likes to present "a united front" with her husband to their kids. "I try not to have discussions in front of them that I don’t want them to hear."
She also says that divorce can be a better solution for some families than staying married to someone with whom you don’t get along. Kids in that situation "always know what’s going on," she notes.
Yet debate continues regarding the long-term effect of divorce on children. Some researchers, including California psychologist Judith Wallerstein, contend that a divorce’s emotional consequences can last for decades.
In a book she co-wrote in 2000, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," Wallerstein argued that adult children of divorce may have difficulty picking a spouse and are more prone to getting divorced themselves.
Other observers are more optimistic.
"Just because someone comes from a family of divorce doesn’t mean they have to be terribly injured. Don’t forget, there are also what we call good divorces," says Connecticut psychologist Jeffrey Zimmerman, co-author of "Adult Children of Divorce: How to Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy Love, Trust and Intimacy."
Zimmerman, whose practice is in Avon, says there’s a wide range of parenting behavior that children may see before and after a divorce. It can be anything from amicable, cooperative concern to angry, manipulative behavior.
Likewise, the way divorce affects a particular child into adulthood is quite varied.
"You can find some adult children of divorce who will pull away from relationships, who don’t want to even move toward parenting," Zimmerman says. "You might also find them parenting in a similar vein as one of their parents, or wanting to protect their child from every conceivable discomfort."
Of course, childhood experiences are bound to influence all parents, he adds, whether divorce was part of the picture or not. However, adult children of divorce often exhibit "a greater sense of self-reliance. They may have operated out of two homes and had to develop better planning skills. Kids of divorce can be amazingly sensitive in reading the tea leaves of whatever environment they’re in, because they may not have felt they could count on mom and dad to fix everything."
Psychologist Judith Primavera of Orange, who teaches at Fairfield University, has published research on children of divorce with a colleague, Stephanie S. Farber. Primavera says adult children of divorce, as a group, have a "bidirectional" reaction to their experiences as kids.
"Some children of divorce spend their lives leery of making commitments to others and not able to really trust a partner’s commitment to them, with a minority going to the extreme and resolving never to get married and certainly never wanting to bring children into the world," Primavera explains.
"Other children of divorce seek to find better relationships for themselves, including being better parents, and use the family disruptions of their youth to inform their life choices. Like most of the divorce outcome research, the more positive outcomes can be expected in situations where family conflict and hostility were kept to a minimum."
What’s more, Primavera says, divorced parents who showed little "tug-of-war" behavior actually gave their kids a positive model for resolving problems in later life. "It’s the amount of conflict, both pre- and post-divorce, that best predicts the long-term effect of divorce on children," she says.
Finally, there is the matter of divorced grandparents.
Zimmerman explains that some adult children of divorce are still mediating their parents’ squabbles — while trying to parent their own kids. It can come up during holidays, birthdays and vacation season.
"They may find themselves asking, ‘How do I balance this?’" Zimmerman says. "‘Why is my parents’ divorce still center stage in my life?’"