Children of Divorce are Good Actors

Children of divorcing parents tend to be good actors.

Posted Jul 30, 2009

Children of divorcing parents tend to be good actors. They put on different masks to fit into their parents' different worlds.

All of us put on and take off masks depending on whom we're with. I once studied personality by studying letters that famous authors had sent to various people in their lives. I looked at the letters that Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Bronte had written to three different life-long friends, over the course of their lives.  Each woman had taken on a different but consistent voice for each friend. In other words, Woolf was a different Woolf--goofier, or bolder, or more submissive--when writing to her sister, her close male friend, or her female lover. (Indeed, you can study spoken and written language to study personality. In work with computer programs that count and categorize the words we use, James Pennebaker and others (see here) have shown that when we use certain words instead of others, different personality traits are at play. For instance, increased use of the first pronoun "I" signifies increased depression.)

But we don't need computer analysis to know that when we're with different people, we play out different roles, or different parts of our personality come into relief while others parts retreat. Young children of divorce might just have it worse than most: being one side of themselves with mom, and another side with dad.

For example, I know a nine-year-old boy caught between two of his selves. His father essentially left his mother and is now in a new romantic relationship. The boy's mother, a bit nostalgic, would like to fix the old marriage. When the child spends weekdays with his mother, he does his best to align himself with her world. He allows the sad side of himself to rise to the surface, regretting what's ending, saying he wished his parents were still a couple. But when he is with his father, every other weekend, he aligns with his father's wave-length, so to speak, being more active, engaging with his father's new girlfriend with an exaggerated buoyancy. The boy knows what each parents' respective worldview is, and he tries to fit into that worldview to have fun with that parent. He's performing roles, fuelled by cognitive dissonance: It's easier to believe in the atmosphere around us than to constantly fight it.

One massively confusing part of all this for a child is that he doesn't often know he's adapting to two different worlds. He just feels moody, and might blame himself for that moodiness: He thinks he's sometimes really depressed and sometimes too buoyant, and doesn't know why other people don't experience such drastic shifts. He's on a merry-go-round that's inexplicable. In essence, he's resistant to recognizing that he's playing roles to please two parents who are so different from each other.

In her 2006 book Between Two Worlds, The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt wrote that children of divorce experience a split existence: They report that they feel like different people with each of their parents, that their parents are polar opposites (even when they're not), that they need to keep more secrets from their parents than other kids do, and that they don't want to resemble one of their parents too much, because it might alienate them from the other parent. Marquardt also claims that children of divorce experience especially early pressure to create their own moral systems, because they can not wholeheartedly endorse the rules of two different households.

Marquardt is famous for saying there is no such thing as a "good divorce." But there is a chance that some of the difficulties of divorce can strengthen personality traits in a child. Unfortunately, these children are forced into an form of adolescent "splitting"--keeping two sides of their personality in two different realms. But they are also forced to stitch together their own code of behavior. If they are able to move from a world of "splitting" (dancing between two radically different selves) toward a world in which these various masks are integrated, perhaps they find themselves with a more varied toolbox for approaching life than many of us have.

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