Bitter experience

September 12, 2004

The children of the divorce boom of the late 1970s are now at an age when they should be settling down, but increasingly they're not. And, writes Claire Halliday, a new study by a Melbourne sociologist reveals why.

"I think I've always had the attitude that there might be someone better out there," says Ben Ellis, 32, of his approach to love in the new millennium. "When I'm with someone and things get too hard, I have tended to give up on it, rather than work through the problems. I just think there will always be another choice. I find it easier to move on if things go wrong."

Whether Ellis's habit of surrendering problematic long-term love to the too-hard basket is a symptom of his Generation X sensibilities or a result of the fact that he watched his parents' love end in the bitterness of divorce is something he admits to not having thought about too much.

Until recently, that is. As one of 30 Gen- X Melburnians who took part in a study on the impact of divorce on the now-adult children of the 1970s, Ellis shared his experiences and attitudes towards relationships and discovered that what he'd always assumed were his own commitment foibles may in fact be behaviour learned by many people with similar childhood experiences.

Generation X is usually defined as people born between 1961 and 1976. It's a slightly arbitrary definition, but the author of the research, Victoria University of Technology sociologist Dr Katie Hughes, identified two cultural factors that make those dates seem rather more significant as markers of cultural change.

"1961 was the year the contraceptive pill came on the market and 1976 was the year the Family Law Act (introducing the concept of no-fault divorces) was enacted in Australia," says Hughes, a senior lecturer in VUT's arts faculty. "The divorce blitz happened in 1976, so they (Gen Xers) were the first generation who witnessed large numbers of divorces among their parents. I wanted to see what impact that had on their own relationships."

"Mostly they want to avoid the errors of their parents. They have bad feelings about the traditional nuclear family. They don't aspire to be part of that."

It's well known that marriage and birth rates in Australia are falling, while single-person households are growing in number. What Hughes' research found was that children of divorce constitute a greater proportion of those single-person households than do children of the same generation from "intact families".

"Mostly they want to avoid the errors of their parents so they employ risk-diminishing strategies," she says. "The two big ones are not getting married and not having children, because they have a belief that relationships always end. They have less trust and less commitment when it comes to relationships and they have bad feelings about the traditional nuclear family. They don't aspire to be part of that."

While Hughes believes previous generations viewed relationships with a "come hell or high water" mentality, her research showed that her subjects' attitudes to relationships focused more on personal growth. Notions of responsibility and duty, she found, seemed to have been replaced by a quest for individual fulfilment at any cost.

"When the people I interviewed talked to me about their relationships, they defined them by their own growth, rather than growth as part of a partnership. They defined their previous partners as the people whom they were with 'when I was going through my hippie phase' or other life stages. As they learn more about themselves, they change partners, rather than grow together."

For Ellis, whose parents had a brief separation when he was eight and ended their 12-year marriage when he was 11, relationships are something to which he admits he has not always given his all.

"I have had a couple of relationships that have gone for a few years but now I am single," says Ellis, a drug outreach worker who lives in a Fitzroy house shared with two other people.

"I think the way I am is the way a lot of people are these days. I think society has changed. It's not all about the nuclear family. I don't know if that has anything to do with the fact that my parents divorced, or if it's just generational."

Typically, Ellis has understood problems in his relationships - difficulties that have ranged from infidelity to a vague sense of "growing apart" - as signs that it was time to look elsewhere. While acknowledging that might be interpreted by some people as giving up at the first hurdle, Ellis says he is still comfortable with the fact that he has been able to make these choices rather than compromise his core beliefs.

He's not entirely cynical about the idea of "happy ever after", though having lived through a divorce that he describes as "a bit vicious" he admits there will always be a degree of caution in his approach to longterm love.

Still, participating in the research project has alerted him to certain patterns in his own behaviour. "I think you do have to work hard at real happiness with another person, and I can see I have n't tried that hard," he says. "I would still like to think that I will meet someone I can have children with and create a happy place for that child to grow up in. If I was in a relationship these days I would feel like I would try harder to make it last."

The parents of thirty-something Lisa Schuppe divorced when she was in her late 20s, after 27 years of marriage, but the signs were there long before. Schuppe's childhood was spent, she recalls, in a volatile household. "They were a functioning unit, particularly socially, but I wouldn't say they were happily married.

"There was always a degree of separateness. I was fairly aware of it. I knew from looking at other families it was different. It wasn't the way married people should have been. I remember it being raised voices, dysfunctional communication. Even my Greek mates' parents didn't fight as much. Looking back, I think it would have been better if they did divorce when I was a kid." It's a feeling she believes has shaped her adult love life.

"In lots of ways it's the bottom line," she says. "I've travelled a long road." Schuppe has been single for the past two years, and her relationship history shows a mix of short-term "three-month flings" and long-term live-in lovers.

"I've had two de facto relationships - (one) with each gender," says Schuppe. "One was four years, one was five. It's not about gender. It's about the person." She says her view of relationships is coloured by a large dose of cynicism, softened by an overwhelming optimism.

Asked if she would ever marry, Schuppe offers "a resounding 'no'" - a decision she made when she left the family home at age 17. "I don't think there's many of us who have been through the divorce thing who do really believe in it," she says.

From her perspective, it's another dimension to an already muddied relationship view that is, she believes, typical of people in her age group.

"I think the generational aspect has a lot to do with it. My parents didn't have the focus of their own individual happiness. They lacked communication skills to express themselves. I think the secret to a good relationship is good communication, openness and an acceptance of someone else's similarities and differences. I won't settle for second best. I just don't believe in settling."

Says another survey subject, Liz Gordon, 35: "If someone had told me, when I was between 18 and 25, that when I was 35 I still wouldn't be married or have had kids, I would have said, 'Yeah, sure'. I was going to be married in my early 20s and was going to have children in my late 20s, and instead I have been single for the past five years. It does upset me a lot, and I don't think I realised that until I was involved in the research."

Gordon firmly believes her experience of seeing her parents' 15-year marriage crumble at the age of 11 is responsible for her own relationship dilemmas.

"Statistically, children of divorced parents tend to live alone," she says. "I live alone. I do now believe that I distance myself from people. I do avoid going out with people. I would rather be single than go out with the wrong person, but that can sometimes mean I'm not letting myself be open to experiences."

It's an attitude that doesn't seem to have flowed to her younger siblings - a sister two years younger and a brother born the year her family divided. Gordon says that the reaction of the two, both married since their teens, to their parents' split was clearly different from her own. Her age - she was on the brink of adolescence at the time of her parents' separation - had a huge impact. The fact that both sets of her grandparents had also divorced adds an extra layer to Gordon's admitted cynicism about the realities of "forever".

Unashamed to admit that marriage for her (and she believes it will come) will entail a pre-nuptial agreement to protect her modest financial assets and, more importantly, to ensure that any children of the union are properly considered, Gordon yet claims that she is still "a fairytale girl".

With a memory of parents who went through their troubles with disturbing quietude, Gordon says her failings in love have largely been due to the fact that she "wasn't given the tools to sort things out properly".

"I never saw my parents' or my grandparents' relationships go through difficult times and then recover, and then fail again, and then recover again. It's like I haven't been given the map. My instinctive reaction to conflict is to distance myself. I am consciously trying to turn that around and realise that I should turn towards someone, rather than turn away from them, because when you turn away from them you can't necessarily resolve it. I want to try and work things through, rather than hide from them."

To make things work when there is a next time, Gordon says she is consciously planning to take a more conciliatory approach. It's a shift she hopes will be positive, but one that will involve a lot of effort to counter the behaviour taught to her by the bitterness of divorce.

"It's not just about how I act when I am in the relationship - it's the fact that I'm less inclined to enter a relationship," she says. "Some of my inner talk says it won't work anyway, and when the relationship fails, I'll just get hurt. When you're alone, your heart doesn't get broken. I think I may take relationships more seriously than someone who hasn't experienced first-hand the devastation of a family's irreversible breakdown. Maybe that's because I learned early on that marriages/partnerships really can end."


● Children from divorced families are keen to avoid the errors they believe their parents made (this is particularly true for Generation X)
● They don't think couples should stay together for the sake of the children
● They believe that all relationships end eventually
● They see relationships as being about personal growth. They are there for a good time, not necessarily a long time
● Although half the participants were in relationships, they have difficulty with trust and commitment
● Both straight and gay participants expressed a strong desire for children, although only 30 per cent of the participants were parents
● They have very high emotional IQs and are very articulate emotionally. Many had sought counselling
● They think that nuclear families will die out and be replaced by organic families of related and unrelated members