When a family falls apart For adult children of divorce, the trauma can be long-lasting

November 15, 1990|By Mary Corey

Some things in life a man never forgets. For Brian Barke, those include his first girlfriend, his bar mitzvah -- and the day his parents split up.

"It's like the day Kennedy was shot," says Mr. Barke, who was 18 when his parents' marriage ended nearly five years ago. "You can remember everything about it.

"My dad came in to my room and said, 'I've got to tell you something.' He lowered the radio. My brother Steve came over and sat on my bed. It felt like we were kids again. There we were, grown men sitting on a bed, as if my dad were going to tell us, 'You have to stay in tonight.' But then he said, 'Your mother and I have decided to separate. I just wanted you to know that.' He couldn't finish what he was going to say. . . . He started to cry. He came over to hug the both of us. Then he turned and walked out.

"I couldn't even tell you what happened after that. I sat there like a rock for a good couple minutes."

For years, he had seen it coming. His parents stopped holding hands, they stopping kissing, eventually they stopped talking. But somehow Mr. Barke hoped a 24-year marriage that once seemed idyllic would recover from a rocky time.

"You see it happening to other people and you think, 'It will never happen to you,' " says the 23-year-old legal assistant, who lives in Silver Spring. "Then when you become one of the statistics, you see how much it really stinks."

As more and more long-term marriages end in divorce, similar scenes are being played out across the country. Adults who grew up believing their parents' marriages were destined for happily-ever-after endings are being forced to redefine their notion of what makes a family.

And researchers, who for decades focused on analyzing how marital breakups affect youngsters, are starting to acknowledge that divorce does indeed have an impact on an often ignored group: children 18 and older.

"There's a tendency to assume that adults are going to be able to handle this," explains Charles Maloy, director of Towson State University's Counseling Center. "That's an inaccurate assumption. . . . It's never easy to see the most significant male and female in your life decide they no longer want to live together."

It was the response of adult children that most surprised Judith ++ Wallerstein after she wrote "Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce," a 10-year study of how divorce affects youngsters and adolescents.

"I got hundreds of letters from young people saying, 'Why didn't you include me? I was 25 or 27 when my parents divorced,' " she says.

They told her of the fallout from their parents' divorce: their shock, anger, sadness and relief. They explained how their family loyalties were being tested, how their own marriages were suffering and how their precious childhood memories -- once as neatly ordered as the pages in a family photo album -- were becoming unglued.

"A lingering sadness" is how Sarah E. Bonkowski, a professor of social work at Aurora University in Illinois, describes the reaction among the 42 adults she surveyed, sometimes years after their parents' breakup.

That emotion is one Brian's 25-year-old sister, Jodi, knows well. "It's kind of like how you feel when somebody dies," she explains. "There's a sense of loss for something you know you can't get back."

While much depends on the family, the child and the way the divorce is handled, Dr. Wallerstein says an adult's age is often pivotal in how the news is received. College students she's worked with often experience acute anxiety. Many believe they are needed at home and feel guilty enjoying themselves while one parent is suffering, she says. Consequently, they may have trouble concentrating on their schoolwork and may often miss classes to console their parents.

Ms. Barke, who was a senior at Towson State University when her parents split up, recalls: "That semester I was sick all the time. I had colds, ear infections, sore throats, but I still managed to graduate."

For older people, incredulity, anger and resentment can replace guilt, says Dr. Wallerstein, who is also the founder and executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera, Calif. Those who are married or dating often find themselves doubting the stability of their relationships or the fidelity of their partners.

"The thinking is, 'If Dad is having an affair, why wouldn't my boyfriend do the same to me?' " she says.

For John Burns, his parents' divorce caused him to question the very values they had ingrained in him. "We were raised in a very religious family," says the 42-year-old husband and father of three, who asked that his real name not be used. "The idea was always that marriage and family were a very significant commitment in life. But after 32 years, when push came to shove, my parents got out."

He didn't feel the full effects of his parents' divorce, however, until the Homeland house where he grew up was sold.

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