For the Sake of the Children

Divorce doesn't have to be a tragedy for children. Dorit Eldar-Avidan talks about her new book on the subject, which features revealing conversations with young people whose parents divorced when they were small. She also succeeds in relieving this writer of some guilt

It was with more than a little trepidation that I set out for a meeting with Dorit Eldar-Avidan, though I remembered her vaguely, from a chance and hasty encounter in the past, as a pleasant, sharp woman with a fine sense of humor. The reason for our meeting was her new book, which is about the attitude of young adults in their twenties toward the divorce of their parents when they were children. "That's all I need," I told the editor, "as though I don't have enough guilt feelings already."

Like everyone, I had read too many popular articles, studies, novels and plain old surveys in women's magazines, all agreeing that the price of breaking up our marriages was devastation for our children. Meetings with psychologists of all kinds had not made life any easier. Not to mention talks with teachers and guidance counselors, for whom the term "separated parents" - as they called us in the best case, or "broken families" in the worst and more frequent case - was the knee-jerk explanation given for every problem encountered by the child. Surely divorce is the reason he's dyslexic, shy, anxious, asthmatic, spoiled or even too short (as a girlfriend of mine was once told by the school nurse ). Parents who are not divorced don't make life easy either.

"I hope it's clear to you that you are wrecking your son's life forever," one mother told me at a Purim party in my son's kindergarten, after she finished breast-feeding her five-year-old son.

It's almost superfluous to recount the dark prognostications I heard about what lay in store for my three children: a lonely life, irreparable damage to their self-image and the belief that they would never be able to find love. All these predictions were uttered in muted tones, almost convincing me it was truly for my good and my children's good that I was being told these awful things.

My mother and one of my aunts - who had not dared to get a divorce, not because of her feeling of family responsibility, but rather her fear of what her parents and her husband's parents would say - saw my decision to get a divorce as an act of defiance not only against the way of the world, but against them. When I said, "I want a different life," they interpreted this as me lording it over them, because they themselves did not have a different life.

In my mother's generation, and to a large degree also at the end of the 1980s when I divorced, a woman had to come up with solid, "external" reasons for the decision "to wreck a family." Because the united family, however dysfunctional it might be, was still perceived as preferable to a broken family, for which the sole adjective "destroyed" had been invented.

In my generation, here and there, some people, mostly women, did, however, begin to recognize their right to change the framework of shared family life - even for something as trivial and non-empirical as the search for happiness.

"You have to be very optimistic to take that step," I was told by a girlfriend who, a generation earlier, had had an affair while married to a man she found intolerable, out of a desire to keep the family together. "It could be that you just don't love him enough to conduct a double life," that mature woman added. A few years later she found herself without a lover, but with a husband who was not appreciative of the sacrifice she made in the name of her "love" for him by cheating on him across more than 20 years of their married life.

"I would like a life exactly like yours," my friend Ruthie said when she told me of her intention to get a divorce although her children were quite young. Of course, she saw my decision as a display of courage, whereas I learned over time to view the ability to survive in an unsatisfying relationship to actually be the embodiment of courage.

"A life like mine - are you nuts?" I replied. "My life is in the pits. What I would like is a life like yours: secure, bourgeois, tranquil, with four children, two parents - and here and there the courage to engage in a few one-night stands."

An example without anger

"So that's what you think I need now?" I asked the editor. "Another book that will tell me how I screwed up my kids' lives because of egoism?" The editor mumbled something incomprehensible, and I sat down to read Dorit Eldar-Avidan's book.

We will start with the good news - and we will end with good news, too. The book, "On Behalf of the Children" (Am Oved, Hebrew ), an adaptation of the author's doctoral Ph.D. thesis in social work, has a captivating illustration by Moran Barak on the cover and reads as easily as a good novel. The footnotes and bibliography appear at the end of the book for the convenience of the reader.

The best news lies in the conclusion that emerges from the book, according to which in many cases the children of divorced parents become stronger and are more developed in terms of their emotional intelligence. Some of them also acquire a psychological resilience, which probably would not have been the case if their parents had stayed married; others definitely view the divorce as a formative and not necessarily crushing experience, though always of course tinged with sadness.

That does not mean, ladies and gentlemen, that I recommend that you rush to the nearest branch of the rabbinate for the sake of the children. The option of two happily married parents who love their offspring is still a very good one when it comes to raising a family. In its absence, however, parents in many cases will be better off deciding to end a bad marriage and not tell themselves stories about how they are staying together for the children's sake. It's precisely for the children's sake that parents must not set for their children an example of a bad marriage, replete with repressed and overt anger, resentment and settling accounts. In short, a divorced and functioning parent is better than a married parent whose misery makes him a bad parent.

Eldar-Avidan opens her book with a personal introduction. Accustomed to writing academic articles and studies, she found this to be the hardest part. She divorced her first husband less than three years after marrying him, and before their firstborn son was two. That was back in the early 1970s. The concept of being a single parent had not yet been invented. Divorce was becoming more frequent but had not reached its present proportions. Eldar-Avidan, whose parents lived in Australia, had to cope with raising her son while traveling by bus to the many jobs she held in order to provide for him.

Her own father, Giora, who was destitute when he immigrated to Netanya from Hungary, took his family to Sydney when Eldar-Avidan was 15. "It was very traumatic for me," she recalls. "Furthermore, we left the country on May 31, 1967. It took me 40 years to be able to utter that sentence." Why? Because people who left Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War were considered turncoats. The joke back then was that the last person to leave should turn out the lights at the airport.

"I attended high school in Australia. Those were very good years, but it was clear that the moment I graduated I would return to Israel, and that is exactly what happened two days after I received the diploma. Mom was committed to a promise she had made that she would not try to stop me. My parents and my brother stayed on; I returned in January 1972 with the aim of going to university. Eight months later, I married a childhood friend.

"Obviously it was an immature marriage," she continues, "but it met a lot of the needs I had at the time. His family also welcomed me very warmly, and he was everything I had missed: the Scouts, books I hadn't read, the way of life here. My eldest son, Eyal, was born in November 1973. My husband and I were divorced in 1975.

"I was a social work student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The crisis erupted at the end of my third year. I took a break from studies, rented an apartment and worked in the Health Ministry as the secretary of Dvora Ganani [then a senior official in the ministry], who was wonderful to me. She extended her hand at the critical juncture. A year later, I went back to school and toward the end of that year I met Akiva at two places: in Ganani's office, within the framework of his job as a reporter for Israel Radio, and at WIZO [the women's organization's day-care center] in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood."

Akiva is Akiva Eldar, the veteran, senior correspondent for Haaretz. "Akiva was already divorced and had custody of his daughter. I was divorced and had custody of Eyal. We have been together ever since. It will soon be 36 years. Wow."

Does your son remember a parental relationship in which Akiva didn't participate?

Eldar-Avidan: "No, but he and Liron [Akiva's daughter], who is a few months younger than him, remember our wedding. They don't remember life without one of us. They know about it but don't remember."

So they grew up like twins?

"They acted like twins. Once, at Lake Kinneret, people asked them if they were twins. They said yes and when they were asked what the age difference was between them they replied 'four months' and burst into laughter."

What's it like to start a family with two small children?

"We were young and naive and in love. It was easier to ignore the difficulties. I didn't understand that the children would one day be adolescents or that the story of the divorce continues to accompany you. One of the fantasies is that you establish a new family and everything that went on before no longer exists. I think that at the end of the day we did well for ourselves and for our children, too.

"I had a great many conversations with Eyal in connection with the doctorate and the book. I asked him whether he thought I should have divorced his father. He looked at me as though I'd just landed from Mars. For him, Akiva is his father. It's the same for Liron. She knows I am her mother in every respect. I'm sure she always knew it. That doesn't mean there were no difficulties along the way, but show me parents who don't have difficulties along the way."

Dorit and Akiva also have a daughter of their own, Michal. Eldar-Avidan doesn't think she was envious of her brother and sister, who sometimes went off to visit other homes.

"I have a memory of her on the diapering table, telling her they had gone and would be back. I think she accepted that this is how it is. They generally went off on the same day and she had an opportunity to be an only child of sorts. But from her point of view, they were completely her siblings. From Eyal's point of view, too. His father remarried and has four daughters. The whole thing with different types of siblings didn't exist with us. Eyal always said: 'I have six sisters.'"

'A new phenomenon'

After remarrying, Eldar-Avidan obtained master's and doctoral degrees. Many years ago, the family moved to Ramat Poleg, near Netanya, where the windows of their home offer a panoramic view of the sea. For eight years, Eldar-Avidan taught in social work departments.

"I've dealt with taking care of children and with families my whole life," she says. "I was a parole officer for adults and also studied family therapy. Afterward, I was a district inspector in the individual and family welfare branch of the Social Affairs Ministry, and also a district official who dealt with cases involving legal rulings. We then spent a few years in the United States.

"When we returned, I established and directed the assistance unit associated with the family affairs courts. That was the achievement of my life. To create a service where none existed is a tremendous professional experience. This is a service that sits on the 'seam' between social work and law; the Family Affairs Court Law was enacted in 1995. The work in the unit revolves mainly around divorce and also violence - the subject of my previous book. So I have a very rich professional background. Regrettably, I had to leave the job for health reasons in 2001 and started teaching at university. I had started the doctoral thesis earlier."

Avidan-Eldar embarked on the doctoral project with the aim of dealing with a narrower field: adolescents who file suit against a parent with whom relations have been marred by divorce: "For example, [there were cases of] a child who is the beneficiary of child support until the age of 18 and then wants to go to university, but one of the parents avoids taking any responsibility for this. That was a new phenomenon," she relates. "They came to the assistance unit and within three seconds, it emerged that the real subject was not money but feelings of abandonment, loneliness and longing. People going through a divorce fight about money, although what they are really fighting about is pain. The money is concrete and far more easily quantifiable than the feeling of wanting to be acknowledged."

However, following a seminar she took under Prof. Ruthellen Josselson, a clinical psychologist at the Hebrew University, Eldar-Avidan decided to abandon the "small question" in favor of dealing with broader issues.

"I wrote a new research proposal," she says, "which tried to understand the experience of children of divorced parents." She completed the thesis in 2003, after interviewing 23 young people in their twenties whose parents had been divorced before they reached the age of 18.

Do you recommend divorce, then?

"It's a question of what the alternative is. In the study, I asked the children how they see life without divorce. In most cases they described a bad marriage. It's clear that a happy, fulfilling marriage in which there is a balance between parents and children, is better than divorce. The problem is that not all marriages are like that, and thus the divorce alternative is sometimes also for the child's good."

Did your guilt feelings over your divorce influence your choice of this subject?

"Of course. It used to be thought that a researcher should investigate subjects that are 'distant' from him. The need was for objective research. These days there is an approach which says that one's personal experience can be helpful in research. But it was very important for me that my children and my family should not feel embarrassed in any way by the book."

That's an essential part of divorce: to preserve the dignity of those getting divorced in the face of the children and the whole world, preferably for all time. What do you think about the new trend, in which some people who are planning to split are already talked about on television or in the newspaper?

"I think it is terrible, despicable. Besides stories about people who turn the family's breakup, which is so trying for children, into a public affair - there are also programs like 'Super Nanny' and 'Debt Slayers.' I am appalled at the thought that the day after the broadcast, those children have to go to school or kindergarten with that.

"But you mentioned two different things here. One, that it's important not to badmouth your partner. To let him be, in the eyes of the children, the father they want. The second thing is not to expose the children and the separation process publicly. It is very hard to act the part of the saint in regard to the first issue. I suppose that no matter how hard I tried, I too occasionally came out with sarcastic or not very complimentary remarks about the former husband - but I certainly made an effort to avoid that. Naturally, I would have waged a bitter battle against anyone who informed me that he wanted to take part in a reality program in general, and one in which he exposes his family in particular."

What is the least damaging way to get a divorce?

"Seeing the children all the time. For the parents, divorce is the most agonizing and difficult crisis in life - when the person we chose and whom we promised to love forever says 'No more.' No one gets married in order to get divorced. Something very meaningful is shattered. And precisely then, when I want to cry and smash dishes and need so much support and love, and I spend the whole day on the phone - just then my children are also experiencing a crisis and also need so much security and support and love. It's not enough to give them that nice explanation of 'Mommy and Daddy love you, it's just that they don't get along.' And even though your own shoes are torn and ruined, you have to step into your children's shoes and continue to function as a responsible parent. Parents don't always remember to do that, and there's not always someone around to remind them. The assistance unit [of the family affairs courts] offers workshops to help prepare parents for the divorce process."

Three main reactions

Eldar-Avidan writes in her book that children experience a divorce as a process that splits and shifts the paths of their life, and exposes them to unpredictable difficulties. They interpret it as abandonment, as a crisis that has to be coped with. However, when such children mature, their perspective changes. In her interviews, she identified three reactions seen among children confronted with divorce: resilience, survival and vulnerability. First off, the resilience response involves seeing divorce as the start of a process of growth, change and strengthening.

"I asked myself what all those who demonstrated resilience had in common," Eldar-Avidan says. "The primary meaningful criterion was that the parent who continued to raise these children continued to be a parent all along, to show responsibility all the time. That's the first criterion shared by all those whom I placed in the 'resilience' category. [One interviewee,] Roi, for example, relates that as a child he had plenty of complaints against his mother, but today he sees that she was very responsible all the time. There is also Yossi, whose mother disappeared, but from that moment his father was rock-solid. He didn't give up, it's clear that there was a dad. A parent."

Divorced parents will undoubtedly be happy to know that there are cases of children who are not resentful for the split, but this is not always true.

"Of course there are those who blame the divorce for everything; they view every emotional or functional difficulty they have as 'payment' for their parents' divorce. That is the 'vulnerability' reaction," Eldar-Avidan continues. "In these cases, you find that the parents stopped functioning as such, during the period of the divorce and also afterward. Other offspring belong to the 'survival' model: They repressed everything related to the divorce in real time, and now, as adults, they are starting to deal with it. Among those who responded with psychological resilience or with a survival approach, it was good to hear them say at their initiative that although grief at their parents' divorce always accompanies them, they identify the experience as one that made them more sensitive or stronger or better."

So how do you get divorced the right way?

"You become a parent, and the other spouse succeeds in maintaining a continuous, consistent connection. Certainly the connection is not always binding at the same level, but it must be consistent. Stability is very important. If you want to divorce well, remain a parent. Consider your children before you consider yourself."

What is the best age at which to get a divorce?

"There is one woman whose parents were divorced when she was an infant; she has no memories of it and she thinks that's good. Others say that it's good for the children to 'grow into' the reality. Researcher and therapist Judith Wallerstein says that a type of deficiency arises among children who never created a memory of their parents as a couple. My own view is that there is no uniform answer and that children react differently at every age. You can't do with a 16-year-old what you do with a three-year-old. But it's important to remember that the parents' happiness is of no interest to the children. If you tell the children, 'I am getting divorced so I can be happy,' they won't care. So, if the parents are able to delay the divorce and preserve a calm, sane, functioning household where there is a good atmosphere, maybe it's better to put off the divorce. But who can live like that? It's clear that children prefer divorce when relations are very bad - and the age factor makes a big difference."

Your book helps free people somewhat from guilt feelings.

"That is due in part to a professional outlook and in part to the fact that I am an optimist by nature. When I was studying social work, it wasn't the usual norm to search for strength and reinforcement. We were taught about pathologies. But every field has undergone a revolution. When I was a student, we tried to discover where divorce hurts the children. I did not set out to research the ways in which it can be beneficial, but rather to investigate the children's experience. Some say, 'It's a good thing they were divorced,' or 'You have become a better and more capable person afterward,' or 'I was the mature one and later my girlfriends came to consult with me.' That doesn't mean the divorce wasn't painful - it was very painful. But there were also good things."

So your conclusion is that it's better to have happily divorced parents than a wretched marriage?

"Yes. But I want to say again that I recommend happily married parents, if not the first time then at least the second."

For Dorit and Akiva it worked very well the second time around.

So now, after we have transformed our children into people who are above average in psychological resilience and emotional intelligence - all that remains is to keep looking for a happy marriage from here to eternity. For the sake of our children, of course. W

In favor of joint custody

Most of the young people whom Dorit Eldar-Avidan interviewed in her research experienced their parents' divorce before the options of joint custodianship or equal division of time with the parents were prevalent in Israel. As a result, despite one exception in which the mother abandoned the family, and Eldar-Avidan's own case, the usual situation was that the mother raised the children and the father had to try to see them frequently, in order for the youngsters to be imbued with psychological resilience.

Nowadays, however, the model is more likely to be of two (divorced ) parents of equal centrality and importance in their children's day-to-day lives. In this model, the parents succeed in holding a dialogue instead of engaging in property or other battles behind which lurk unprocessed feelings of affront and revenge.

What is your opinion of a joint custody arrangement?

Eldar-Avidan: "Let's put it this way: It's best for the children if both parents are happily married to each other, and are mutually respectful and supportive. If that's not the case, the arrangement of joint custody, irrespective of the financial aspect, is the second-best possibility. But for that you need two parents who are willing to forgo the battles and are capable of conducting a dialogue between themselves about looking after the child and relating to the world of values and the environment in which he grows up. They also have to be willing to live close to each other, and each has to do everything possible to help the other, the mother or the father, to be a better parent from the child's viewpoint, too."

My experience is that there are fathers who want that arrangement and mothers who for reasons of ego or solitude will not forgo the competition for the child's heart.

"Yes, that's true. Relinquishing competition and ego is part of what's demanded from parents to make them better parents."