In divorce, are the kids really all right?

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2012 - 7:31 PM
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From the exhibit "Broken Circle: Children of Divorce": Tony, Andrew, Karen Klein, Max, Jessie, Hannah

Divorce isn't something people understand or talk about, despite how common it is today. I still get weird looks when people find out my parents are divorced. - Becca

Karen Klein knows that divorced parents worry about how their kids are feeling about what happened. She did. Which is how she also knows that parents almost never ask, rightly suspecting that the answers won't ease their minds.

Surprisingly, those unsettling answers may not be about the divorce, but about falling in love.

Klein, a local photographer and visual artist, first explored the impact of divorce on kids about 25 years ago, while working through the end of her own marriage. "I was curious how divorce affected young people on the brink of thinking about starting their own relationships," she said.

Last year, she met a group of eight young women, all college students, and was taken aback to learn that seven were from divorced families. She saw how differently they viewed the world and began wondering how the impact of divorce had changed over the years.

The result is "Broken Circle: Children of Divorce," a photo project in place at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Union through Oct. 5.

"The kids from [20 years ago] did have something to say, but mostly it was about hoping to have a happy family," she said. "I knew when I started with this new group that it would be very different. There's this thread about lacking trust and security in relationships, a hesitancy about marriage and kids."

That made sense to her. But Klein was caught off guard by the students' surprise that someone was asking how they were feeling, and how they thought their parents' divorce was affecting them.

"Over and over, I heard, 'We don't talk about this. Nobody's ever asked me,'" Klein said. "They didn't talk about it, not even among themselves."

Oftentimes, as a child of divorce, it is easiest to think about the separation and pain of your parents when dissecting a divorce. Yet no one ever asked me to my face, "How do you feel?" ... For the first time I was not a child of divorce, but rather my own person who was shaped and molded by the divorce. - Andrew

Klein said parents are reluctant to probe too deeply. "They're afraid of what the kids may say, and you can't undo [the divorce]," she said. "I mean, no one starts out saying, 'Hey, let's see how screwed up we can make our kids.' But one thing leads to another."

Indeed, many of the young adults' brief essays, which accompany their photos, say that their parents' divorce came as a relief, with lessened tension, fewer fights, an end to abuse, an explanation for the secrets. Their lives, however upended, felt oddly better.

But as they grew up to contemplate their own adult relationships, other outcomes have emerged. Many are skeptical about the likelihood of a lasting marriage. Not that they won't aspire to that, but they have fewer illusions. They fear betrayal. They withhold trust.

For the time being, marriage is the lowest priority, something that I have learned is not the most important thing. - Annah

Some said they've learned from their parents' mistakes. They regard themselves as wisely cautious, more mature, even steely. They have higher standards for a relationship. They realize they can weather a lot. They know that people change. They wish they could be more trusting, but choose to see that glass as half-full.

I have trust issues, but it's also good to realize that you never know what's going to happen, so it's helped me to not become too emotionally involved in things that can hurt me. - Heather

Klein is careful to say that the project doesn't presume to make judgments, or claim epiphanies, but simply seeks to help parents realize the value of asking their child, "How are you feeling?" The project has value for young adults fortunate to have happily married parents, "since kids of happy marriages may marry a child of divorce," she said. "It helps to know where what they may see as crazy thinking is coming from."

Klein's photos and the students' thoughts have been collected in a book that's being lauded by marriage lawyers and family counselors, and finding a spot in office waiting rooms for some serendipitous thumbing.

"We don't give young people a place to express themselves about the long shadow that divorce casts on their lives," said Bill Doherty, a professor of family science at the University of Minnesota. "Especially divorce not handled well by the parents."

Klein praised the students' willingness to share their feelings, even as some may be difficult for parents to hear, which is why they are identified only by their first names.

She also draws on her own experience when she said that parents will do anything to believe in their kids' resilience. "We need to believe that while our lives are fouled up, they'll be fine," she said. "But there are a lot of wounded birds out there. They will survive the best they can, but how they are going to do that may not be clear until they're 10 or 15 years down the road."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

  • BROKEN CIRCLE:

    CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

    Where: Coffman Memorial Union art gallery, 300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls.

    When: Through Oct. 5. Hours vary.

    Event: A public panel discussion with students, faculty and family practice lawyers, 3:30-5 p.m. Thursday in the gallery.

    Online: Connect through www.facebook.com/BrokenCircleProject.

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