The True Face of “Happy Divorce” is Quite Ugly

A feature film now in theaters tells the story of children devastated by divorce and the story of middle-aged adolescents living almost exclusively for themselves.

The Way Way Back is the story of teen-age Duncan, who spends part of a summer at a beach house with his mother Pam, her boyfriend Trent and her boyfriend’s snotty and obviously wounded teenage daughter.

Duncan is morose, deeply depressed by the situation he finds himself in. Trent bullies him. He demands that Duncan rate himself between one and ten. Humiliated, Duncan finally mumbles “six.”  “No, you’re a three,” says Trent. And that’s the remarkable opening scene as they drive to the beach.

The woman at the beach house next door is also divorced and most of the time drunk. Her hyper-sexualized daughter is also morose. Another couple enters the scene, long time friends; they all seem to have been going to this beach resort in Massachusetts their whole lives.

Though the divorced Pam has been dating the also divorced Trent for a year there is not much of a connection between them and she certainly does NOT connect with his longtime friends, she seems an utter outsider.

There’s lots of drinking and some pot smoking and silly cavorting on the beach. All the adults act like adolescents while the real adolescents are disgusted. They are disgusted not simply in the way adolescents might always be disgusted. They have a reason for their disgust, which is the way the adults are.

In one of the revealing moments in the movie Duncan finds the dinner table festooned with dirty plates after the adults have stumbled to the beach, this after Trent had ordered the boy to remove his own plate since “that is what we do in this house.” Trent is not only a bully, he is a hypocrite, too. But this becomes painfully clear when Duncan sees Trent making out with one of the married neighbors and that tees up one of the more dramatic and confrontational moments in the movie.

One of the film’s writers says the movie came from his own experience growing up in a divorced family and that the opening humiliating scene was almost verbatim from his own experience. Clearly the makers want us to see the children as victims of their parents’ sad “happiness” and the easy divorce culture that remains so much a part of our fraying social fabric. All the fathers are gone away to some mystical place where fathers get younger wives, spoken of only sotto voce. The only men left are the philandering boy friend who is no kind of father, and the feckless husband who knows his wife is canoodling with the boy friend but who cannot muster himself to do anything about it. The women are weak or drunk or both. There is a man-child at a local water park who befriends the boy and even cares for him but even he is a nearly hopeless case.

How could these kids not be disgusted and damaged almost beyond repair?

We were told at the dawn of easy divorce that it would be good for families, children and society. We were told children would be better off bouncing between happily divorced parents rather than living with unhappy ones. The important thing for children was the happiness of their parents.

Almost immediately after the divorce culture set in, we discovered something quite different. Entire generations have been harmed.

One of the best books on this topic remains Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005) by Elizabeth Marquardt, which reported “the first national study in the United States of grown children of divorce.”

Marquardt and her colleague Norval Glenn performed 1500 telephone interviews of young adults, half from divorced families, half from intact families, in addition to 70 face-to-face interviews.

The first thing to understand is that of the one in two marriages that now end in divorce, overwhelmingly most were from low-conflict marriages. These are not couples that spent their days fighting and throwing things. These are couples that have simply grown bored, feel they now lack communication, having mid-life crises.

It is likely they never knew what marriage was in the first place.

A trick was played on kids from these low-conflict divorces and that is the myth of the happy divorce, a notion that Marquardt easily dispels with her research.

Divorce in a low-conflict marriage comes as a total surprise to the children. Out of nowhere a child’s world is ripped apart. The child may spend years or even his whole life trying to figure this out. Trying to figure this out is a huge and profoundly unfair burden to place on small shoulders. It traumatizes for life.

The parents, following the playbook of the happy divorce, tell the children that nothing will change, you still have a mother and a father, “we will simply be living apart.” The children know this is a lie.

The parents explain in great detail exactly how the child will live; how many days with each parent, when, where etc. But what inevitably happens is the child now lives in two different and in most cases irreconcilable worlds. Marquardt and Glenn report that such children feel interiorly divided. They are asked to keep secrets but also to inform on each parent. The two worlds are likely very different with different rules, values and ways to live.

Marquardt writes, “Most startling, two-thirds said their divorced parents seemed like polar opposites, compared to one-third of those with married parents, even though few said their divorced parents conflicted a lot.”

Consider that these types of interior conflicts begin when children are 4 or 8 or 12.

Marquardt’s cites a book called The Good Divorce by Constance Ahrons who tells the story of two little girls—4 and 7—who spend half the week with mom and half with dad but when the switch is made the four-year-old “regresses” and begins sucking her thumb, clings to her mother and whines, while the seven-year-old starts “to let go even before she left.” She becomes more independent and “ornery.” And these poor troubled girls are presented as a success story.

It is likely these poor girls are suffering and will suffer their whole lives because their parents went through a bored patch in their marriage, maybe had a wandering eye, decided they would be happier without their spouse and because of no-fault divorce there was nothing to stop them or even to slow them down.

The result of all this mess is that children of divorce, including children of “happy divorce,” have much higher incidents of deeply harmful pathologies including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, an inability to form relationships, and much more.

This is the true face of happy divorce in America.

The odious homosexual agitator Dan Savage makes an excellent point, one we should pay attention to. We marriage proponents wag our fingers at the homosexual penchant for multiple sexual partners even within “committed relationships.” Savage admits homosexuals do this and is unrepentant. And he wonders how we can criticize homosexuals for not being Ozzie and Harriet when we are so far from it ourselves.

In the coming months and years if we lose the marriage debate, if marriage is redefined to include homosexual couples, we should know we lost it a long time ago. We lost it when we devalued marriage to such an extent that it became easily disposable and we irreparably harmed our children for our own convenience and “happiness.”

Austin Ruse

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Austin Ruse is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic (Sophia Institute Press, 2021).

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