The white, working-class young adults my wife and I have interviewed in Ohio don’t want to divorce, and they want to spare their children the pain that they endured in their own childhoods. So you might expect them to place a priority on having children within marriage, and connect marriage with family togetherness—but that’s not always the case.
Ricky hated watching his dad come home from the factory drunk and beat his mom. They fought so much that he wishes that his mom would have divorced his dad sooner than she did. He hated the man that his mom remarried. Her second husband made her happy, he said, but “it was all about her.” Because while his mom was happy, the new stepdad verbally abused Ricky and his brother. “All I heard was how much pieces of shit we are,” Ricky remembers. Again, when his mom divorced him, Ricky was relieved.
“Some people say that marriage is the ideal environment for kids,” I noted to Ricky. “And other people say, ‘No, there’s no ideal setting. Kids are resilient; they can thrive in many different family forms.’ What would you say?”
“Well, it’s not really about marriage,” Ricky said. “Of course a child needs a father figure, and of course a child needs a mother figure. It really has nothing to do with the marriage. I mean, boyfriend, girlfriend—if they do it right, the child will have their father and mother figure.”
“Should the mom and dad be together in a relationship?” I asked him.
“They don’t have to be in a relationship,” he said. “I mean, even joint custody. As long as you’re in that child’s life, and you’re in it as much as possible, the child will realize, ‘Yeah, my daddy wants to see me.’ Or, ‘My mommy wants to see me.’ As long as they feel wanted.”
But there is a gap between his theory of separated but involved parents, and the reality that Ricky is a distant figure in his son’s life (he gets to see him a few times a year), and totally absent from the lives of the children for whom he was a father figure at one point. After leaving his son’s mother, Ricky moved in with a woman and helped raised her child, until she was two. Ricky hasn’t seen that little girl since he broke up with her mother. The same is true of the daughter of his next fiancée.
Can parents be separated but involved? There's sometimes a gap between theory and reality.
It’s not that Ricky doesn’t care about the girls. In fact, with his last relationship, he misses Amy, his ex-fiancée’s daughter, more than he misses Hailey, his ex-fiancée. And he feels sorry for Amy.
“Her little girl, I mean, she’s innocent,” he noted. “She didn’t deserve to be put through what she did…. I mean, hell, she just pretty much lost somebody she called dad.”
After he and Hailey broke up, Ricky went to jail and then rehab for drug abuse, and Hailey had children by another man. For understandable reasons, Hailey’s family doesn’t want Ricky involved in Amy’s life. Once, though, Ricky sneaked a phone call to Amy. He told her his name was Steve—that way she wouldn’t know who he was and run and tell Hailey’s family.
Despite Ricky’s best intentions, then, his own son and the children of his ex-fiancées are enduring the same instability that Ricky resents about his childhood.
But here is the rub. Ricky is in no position to trust marriage, either. After he saw his parents’ abusive marriage? After watching his mom cycle through two more marriages? No way.
“I mean, because what I went through, you know, my dad beating my mom,” he said, “I shouldn’t have had to grow up seeing that shit. I think they should have split up, and then I wouldn’t have seen it.”
So when Ricky says, “I usually think about kids before anything,” he doesn’t connect those thoughts about the welfare of his children to marriage. If he did, maybe he would have thought twice before having children before marriage. Although we know from national statistics that marriage is in general a better bet for children, Ricky’s experiences growing up did little to convince him of that.
In Ricky’s mind, marriage is not associated with stability for children; it’s associated with violence.
And that is one of the cruel legacies of Ricky’s parents’ high-conflict marriage and subsequent divorce: it left him looking for stability, but distrustful of marriage, the institution specifically designed to attach mothers and fathers to their children. In Ricky’s mind, marriage is not associated with stability for children; it’s associated with violence and love lost. The best that Ricky can imagine is a dim hope, the hope of the stable fragmented family, the good divorce. The problem is, the science suggests that the good divorce is elusive—at least for children.
Ricky’s story of dissociating marriage from stability for children is by no means representative of every young person we interviewed. But his story hints at the limits of abstract pro-marriage messages among some young adults, especially those who are most negatively affected by divorce. At the very least, proponents of marriage have to wrestle with the reality that the only marriages some young people have witnessed have been anything but stable for children.
Does this mean that we should stop talking about marriage? No, of course not. But it does suggest that while ad campaigns, educational services, and policies have their place, in-the-flesh solidarity and positive examples are irreplaceable. Young people must witness marriages that work if their faith is to be restored.