The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce

The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce

by Stephanie Staal

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Stephanie Staal’s parents divorced when she was thirteen. But it wasn’t until years later that she realized the devastating impact of her parents’ divorce on her own search for love.

She sought help. There was none. So she wrote the book she was looking for: a personal history of, by, and for the first generation of divorce.

Drawing on

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Stephanie Staal’s parents divorced when she was thirteen. But it wasn’t until years later that she realized the devastating impact of her parents’ divorce on her own search for love.

She sought help. There was none. So she wrote the book she was looking for: a personal history of, by, and for the first generation of divorce.

Drawing on extensive interviews with one hundred and twenty adult children of divorce, The Love They Lost gives voice to their struggle to reconcile the emotional blueprints their parents left them with the lives they want to build as adults.

Here we meet men and women from all walks of life who share painful common ground: They are all living with the legacy of their parents’ divorce. What emerges, as they tell their compelling stories, are profound new insights that will resonate with anyone dealing with the wide-ranging consequences of divorce ... how abandonment and betrayal, both real and perceived, impact adult relationships and careers ... what happens when money becomes a substitute for love ... healing ways to move forward while living with the past.

Weaving reporting and memoir, storytelling and social observation, The Love They Lost is essential reading for every adult child of divorce who longs to make peace with the past and build a rewarding life — and for everyone who cares about the future of the American family.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anyone contemplating divorce, or marriage for that matter, will think twice about the health and well-being of their children over the long haul after reading this intensely personal examination of how the author and 120 other adult children whose parents divorced in the 1970s and '80s--"America's first divorce generation"--have fared. Her male and female interviewees have two important traits in common: they were all under the age of 18 when their parents divorced, and their ability to engage in and maintain intimate relationships as adults has been severely affected by the legacy they share. Writes Staal, "Recognizing that we have been affected is only the first part of the journey; the second and harder part is exploring how." Although Staal dismisses the outsiders' perspective of divorce "experts," her observations echo the recent findings of clinical psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein's 25-year longitudinal study of the effects of divorce on children. Staal's writing is marred by overreaching metaphors and moments of forced drama, though she is at her best when she shares the sometimes disturbing stories she has gathered. In the end, her cohesive and thoughtful commentary offers a sense of hope, corroborated by her own progress and the positive examples of some of her interviewees. Just as Hope Edelman's bestselling Motherless Daughters offered so many women a sense of camaraderie and empathy, Staal gives adult children of divorce reason to believe that by working through the past they can achieve and maintain healthy relationships with their own partners and children. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Based on Staal's own experiences as a child of a broken home as well as those of more than 120 others she has interviewed, this is a personal work that Staal began as her master's thesis at the Columbia School of Journalism: "I have written this book to examine divorce not as a problem or a panacea, but as a theme that permeates our lives." The well-written stories are told from the viewpoint of the children, most of whom are now in their twenties and struggling to build their own relationships. Not a social scientist, Staal hopes to add her unique viewpoint--that of the "adult child"--to divorce literature to help foster a better environment for children. The difficulty of the breakup, the trials of visitation, the need to take on adult roles faster than other children, the loss of parents following divorce owing to increased workloads and new loves, the complications of stepfamilies, and the difficulties of building adult relationships based on trust are intimately chronicled. Undoubtedly, this will be an important book of interest to other adult children of divorce, parents who are divorced or contemplating divorce, and social scientists seeking to learn more about the effects of divorce. Recommended for all libraries.--Kay Brodie, Chesapeake Coll., Wye Mills, MD Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
Adult children of divorce share their stories, dissecting the split-ups that shaped their identities and still affect them today.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.48(w) x 8.15(h) x 0.65(d)

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The Reluctant Heart

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated Of dead and living. Not the intense moment Isolated, with no before and after But a lifetime burning in every moment
— T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

A couple of years ago, my mother went to the twenty-five-year reunion of her graduate school class, held on the very same university campus where she and my father first met. She tells me how, as she roamed through the reception, weaving among all those almost-recognizable faces peering nervously at name tags and clutching sweaty cocktails, she bumped into three old friends. The four of them had lost touch over the years, and with so much catching up to do, they got off to an awkward start. The conversation moved slowly, touching upon all the usual bases of idle chitchat, until suddenly they found the hook that broke through the proverbial ice.

“We almost had to laugh,” my mom mused wonderingly, “because we were all divorced.”

“Mom.” I sighed, a little petulantly. “Who isn’t divorced?”

The brief extent of this exchange illuminates the gap in perception between my mother and me when it comes to divorce: Both my parents grew up during the fifties, when divorce was relatively unusual; they married during the early seventies as the divorce rate started to hit its peak, and divorced during the eighties. For them, divorce was a difficult choice; for me, divorce is a fact of life.

Our parents are the architects of the culture of divorce we live in today. To some extent, every generation wrestles with the legacy inherited from the one before, and with our parents’ generation, millions of couples — more than ever before — entered into marriages that disintegrated to the point that divorce seemed like the best way out. I know splitting up was often a painful process for them — sometimes devastating — but while our parents endured their divorces armed with the resources of age and experience, we were confronted with new and complicated emotions before we were fully capable of understanding them. For those of us who bore witness to the wave of divorce that engulfed our parents, their breakups defined our childhood, leaving imprints that may last a lifetime.

I can name the date when my mother and sister moved out, and my family as a whole ceased to exist; the boundaries of the emotional reverberations of my parents’ divorce, however, are more difficult to identify. After the age of thirteen, I never again lived under the same roof with my mother and sister. Unlike the overwhelming majority of children whose parents separate, I remained with my father, living in the house we once shared as a family. Yet nothing was the same. The rooms rang with loss, reducing my home to four walls from which to escape, not seek refuge. The holidays and weekends turned into days dissected into hours claimed by each parent. Protected by a carefully constructed armor of indifference, I sailed through these changes, my emotions tightly self-contained. I never once allowed myself to miss having two parents as one unit, residing in one home. Why would I? I knew my parents had been unhappy together, so it was for the best, really, that they were apart. I never engaged in any of the Parent Trap fantasies that my parents would reunite; on the contrary, the mere thought of having them in the same room, tense and silent, sent me into a panic.

After I left home, I spent the next eight years trying to get as far away as possible from the memories of childhood. At seventeen, I packed up a large duffel bag with most of my belongings and moved across the country to attend college, without ever looking back. In the years that followed, I zigzagged from coast to coast, spent time living abroad, and eventually landed in a three-hundred-square-foot apartment in New York City, furnished mainly with leftovers I collected off the street. During those early years of being on my own, I had convinced myself that I had outgrown my parents’ divorce, and whatever losses I had sustained had been taken care of by time.

Here’s the thing, though: Time flirts with us, flashing what could have been, what should have been, what was. When a parent dies, children are at least given the pretense that they will travel through the five stages of grief in accepting the death: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Disorganization. Acceptance. But with divorce, there is no rubric detailing how we should act or feel, especially as we get older. Lacking the finality of death, divorce can start to mimic a film negative. We become hooked on what’s missing, where blank spaces have replaced substance.

At some point, as I crossed the line from childhood to adulthood, the experience of divorce was no longer limited to my past and present, but began to infect my future as well. It became harder to put a finger on my feelings, to relate the confusion, the wariness, the lingering sadness to my parents’ divorce. A year or so out of college, my “tough girl” facade from childhood started to slip. Small slips at first. I would see a mildly sad movie and, surrounded by the safe cloak of darkness in the theater, dissolve into tears. I skipped through relationships, ending them abruptly for the most minor of transgressions. I constantly felt anxious, worried about my future, yet never fully satisfied when things appeared to be going well. Every decision, from my relationships to my career, was harnessed by my own ambivalence. What if I’m hurt? What if I’m making the wrong choices? What if, just what if, I am starting down a path that will take me back to those empty rooms of childhood? These questions swirled in my head, leaving me paralyzed. Strange as it may sound, it wasn’t until I left home that I started to acutely feel the effects of growing up in a divorced home.

Apparently, my experience is not unusual. In a 1995 study of adult children of divorce, researchers noted what seemed to be a contradictory finding: At the age of twenty-three, some of their subjects appeared to be more negatively affected psychologically by their parents’ divorce than they were at the age of eleven. On the basis of this finding, the researchers suggested that the “developmental challenges of adolescence and young adulthood may have reinvoked certain vulnerabilities for the divorced group, evinced by deleterious effects of the aftermath of divorce in their early twenties.” This increased vulnerability could be due to a variety of reasons, from a “continued or renewed sense of parental loss” to more tangible factors such as a decrease in economic status resulting in fewer educational opportunities.

In other words, going out on our own is scary, especially if we don’t feel that we have been launched from a firm base of support. The pressures of adapting to being on our own and realizing our actions now have serious implications can leave us feeling confused and exposed. As adults, we have entered the opaque sphere of our own potential mistakes, with only the past as our guide. And for many of us, the suppressed emotions from our parents’ divorce are sprung loose once we face the prospect of our own relationships.

“My father always blamed their divorce on Cosmopolitan magazine,” says twenty-eight-year-old Denise, whose parents divorced when she was two. “I think it goes a little deeper than that. My mom just recently admitted to me that she was pregnant when she got married. I actually already knew because, interestingly enough, she had filled out one of those surveys in a magazine, and I had picked it up to read and saw what she had written. It made me really sad when I found that out. Empty.” She pauses. “My mom always said the best thing she ever did in her life was to have my brother and me, but I still feel like I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to have kids and have them go through what I went through.”

Our fears in love are often dictated by the past, sometimes without our being fully aware of it. Our parents’ divorce offers a powerful lens through which to view both parental and romantic love, two types of love that are more intertwined than they may appear at first. The raw power of a child’s love is fragile, and the literary canon is filled with perceptive stories about the feverish bond that develops between parent and child and how the nature of that bond affects the ability to love in adulthood. In his epic tale Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust depicts the exquisite pleasure of a young boy waiting for his mother’s kiss, his small world hinging on his parent’s affection and care; as the narrator subsequently grows older and searches for women to love, the memory of his mother’s kiss inspires his every pursuit. Proust illustrates a simple truth: Across the distance of years, the moments of hurt and longing from youth continue to instruct us in the present, surging to the forefront during adulthood with renewed and explosive force, particularly if we never confronted our emotions the first time around.

And so, adult children of divorce often speak of a void that cannot be filled, an empty space that continues to expand and contract during our daily lives. As thirty-three-year-old Tammy, whose parents divorced when she was five years old, remembers, “I thought it meant I no longer had a father, which in many ways turned out to be true. I have never known, and probably never will, what it means to have a father. My father never took the time to get to know me, and I don’t think my mother has ever fully realized the impact this had on me. She always assumed that I would be fine if I had her, food, clothing, good grades, a job. But there’s a big hole in my life. I still struggle to accept love, to trust love and maintain relationships. I am always seeking, and never finding, ‘home.’”

So many of us share Tammy’s search for home, but haunted by our parents’ divorce, we can easily lose our way. Without a cohesive memory of family history that encompasses both the happy and sad times, the balance shifts. A fight that ends in an announcement of divorce is perceived on a much larger scale than an argument followed by reconciliation; the former emerges as a brutal cautionary tale that shapes our actions, the latter a minor blip in the vast network of a relationship. For so many of us, our parents’ divorces continue to live on today — not only in our need to juggle our divided families — but in our fear of intimacy and other lingering defenses developed during childhood.

The Fear of Intimacy

This is what I have left of the relationship that brought me into the world: I have photos, incomplete stories, and the bits and pieces of my own memory. When it comes to my parents’ marriage and divorce, there are too many things I simply don’t know and probably never will. Oh, I have my own perceptions, my own theories of what went wrong. I can throw out key words like “infidelity” and “incompatibility” when discussing the demise of their marriage, and I can envision my parents as they are today and reconstruct how they must have clashed over a decade ago. But I can’t pinpoint when their relationship crossed over some invisible trip wire, shutting their love down. I will never truly understand the depth of the frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness they felt when they were together; by the same token, I doubt they will ever really understand my feelings when they divorced. The three of us stand on opposite sides of this divide of age and experience, although I want nothing more than to reach out and bring us all together.

Our family stories serve as our defining armor as we go out into the larger world, and our parents provide our most salient role models as we enter into our own relationships. These stories ground us in an identity, a family, a future role. When parents divorce, however, they leave us with fractured narratives and loose ends that we carry with us into adulthood. After viewing the events of our parents’ breakup within the limited scope of youth, many of us find that as adults, we lack the facts to see the parts of the past as a meaningful whole. “It really bothers me that my parents won’t say why they divorced. They just don’t want to talk about it. They’ll say, ‘It was so long ago’ or ‘I don’t remember.’ They just brush it off,” says thirty-year-old Leslie, whose parents divorced when she was five. “It’s just confusing and it makes it hard to put the pieces together.”

When I rewind the reels of my imagination, back to a beginning before I was born, here’s what happens: Things go a little haywire. My parents start moving faster and faster, the years coming off, the lines on their skin disappearing into youth. My mother’s hair grows longer, her hemlines shorter, while my father’s hair loses its gray. Faster and faster they move, like two separate blurs growing ever brighter until they stand still, frozen. The year is 1968, the place Los Angeles, and on a college campus filled with thousands of students, my parents’ lives are about to intersect. They have no choice really; by some weird twist of fate, they have ended up with the exact same class schedule, and although their faces have grown vaguely familiar to each other, they have never exchanged a word. That, of course, is about to change.

California. I see endless horizons of blues and golds, but on this particular afternoon when my parents meet for the first time, I am told the skies performed a rare trick, turning dark, ominous, then ripping open with rain. I see my mother waiting inside one of the academic buildings, her black hair falling smoothly into the shadowy small of her back. She fidgets, shifting her books from one hip to the other as she checks her watch, wondering whether she should try to wait out the rain before heading over to her next class. She sighs, staring out a window, and at that moment, my father comes up behind her. Maybe he hears her sigh and decides to be chivalrous. Maybe he has been waiting for an opportunity to strike up a conversation with this girl from his classes. Maybe he is just in a good mood. Whatever the reason, he smiles at her and offers to get an umbrella out of his car. My mother nods gratefully, watching as he scurries out of sight, a book held uselessly over his head to fend off the raindrops. He returns a few minutes later, umbrella tucked under his arm, oblivious or simply not caring that his clothes are drenched, that water is dripping down his face, his legs, into his shoes. As he hands her the umbrella, their eyes meet, filled with expectation.

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