ILLUSTRATIONS BY MICHAEL KERR

Coming Apart in Alberta

Individuals bear the pain of divorce, but societal forces bigger than the individual influence marriage.

By Sandra Konrad

Picture a group of strangers sitting in a circle; they’ve come to one of my workshops to end the pain and self-doubt that have plagued them since their marriages ended. Silence reveals their nervousness, but before long they are telling painful stories of marital betrayal and breakup. They question why they didn’t see the end coming, wonder whether leaving was the right thing to do, berate themselves for staying so long. They worry that others judge them, since they judge themselves. So, too, does a certain segment of society who can’t understand the pain of divorce, and friends and relatives who blame them for disrupting families. A few who’ve been told they’re better off without their spouse don’t feel better off at all. Their life partner and their valued status—“wife,” “husband,” “married”—are gone, replaced by a sense of failure, the still-lingering stigma of divorce and fear of a future stripped of the dreams marriage and family promised. And while they worry for themselves, they worry as much for their children—what they think and how they’ll cope.

I was among the 96,200 Canadians who got divorced in 1987. No year since has seen as many divorces. The year before, the Divorce Act (Canada) introduced “no-fault” divorce after a one-year separation, revisions that fairly blew the lid off. A backlog of people waiting for the new Act to be implemented and a flood of baby boomers (myself included) created the 1987 spike in the divorce rate. Not lost on me was the irony of my circumstance. At the same time as I was divorcing, I was earning a graduate degree in family life education. My search for work—I would support myself and one of our children—led me to a job where I would facilitate workshops for people separating and divorcing.

 Individuals bear the brunt of the pain of divorce, but societal forces bigger than the individual are at work. Most of us grew up within the protective shelter of a family, society’s most enduring social institution, where we absorbed our ideals of how families work. Society reinforces those ideals, especially through the media. My generation grew up watching the ’50s comedy Father Knows Best—two parents and three children nurtured by the ever-present mom; disciplined firmly, if clumsily, when dad, the breadwinner and authority, came home. That nuclear family may have functioned well in our then-homogeneous society. Or hindsight may be overly nostalgic. Regardless, the whole of society buttressed the family if only to keep it together. 

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Today, in most families with children, both parents work outside the home. Structural changes in the economy necessitate two incomes to maintain the expected standard of living. Also, the changing roles and aspirations of women have given rise to the two-career family. A changing economy, a different culture and new laws influence the structure of marriage and family.

We still expect families to give stability to our lives and to cushion the effects of social pressures. However, the “traditional” nuclear family—like a house with only two outer walls— simply hasn’t enough supports to help it do its jobs. What’s more, the community supports that nuclear families traditionally relied on are falling away. Most notably, church and religion—formerly powerful influences on our collective behaviour and the sole arbiters of marriage—now play a much smaller role in our secular society. 

Our lifestyle contributes to the divorce rate. The frenetic pace at which families live stresses them immeasurably; our wealth makes leaving marriages possible. Kristi and Greg endured five crazy years, he working in Fort McMurray, she and their children living in central Alberta, a difficult but bearable choice that would allow them to pay off student loans and credit cards. But they never seemed to get ahead and instead began to drift apart. Lonely and eventually angry, Kristi decided she might as well be single. Fortunately, neither had engaged in the sort of behaviours that make reconciliation difficult, and the scare of losing their marriage helped them change.

Their life partner and their values status“wife,” “husband,” “married”are gone, replaced with a sense of failure.

Other couples are not as fortunate. Alberta’s divorce rate is among the highest in Canada—8,291 divorces were granted in 2002. Trends such as in-migration, which make our population the youngest in Canada, increase the divorce rate. Albertan marriages that end in divorce last an average of 13.4 years. They end earlier than the Canadian average of slightly more than 14 years, but last nearly one and a half years longer than a decade ago. The highest divorce rate occurs after the fourth anniversary, when people usually are in their late 20s and early 30s. Counselling could salvage many marriages, but far too many couples try counselling as a last-ditch solution, when it’s already too late.

It’s after the divorce that people realize how desperately they need help. Some, mostly women, find emotional help at psycho-educational workshops, such as those I lead. Some find help through the Internet. Searching “single parents” and, say, “Calgary” will reveal websites that offer a wealth of information about divorce and a chat room where people share their concerns with others. Some users eventually meet in person to replace the friends they lost when their marriages ended.

Though my workshops are attended mostly by women, this doesn’t mean divorce is easier for men. Rather, this reflects men’s hesitation to use conventional psychological help. Their distress at the end of their marriages and loss of their families drives them, more quickly than women, into new relationships. It also drives a great many men into depression. Four times as many divorced men commit suicide as divorced women. That alarming figure prompted an innovative program in northern Alberta, Men at Risk, directed at men working in the trades, the oil and gas industry and agriculture, with the goal of identifying men dealing with depression, and linking them to resources. 

Some say divorce is too easy: if it were more difficult, people might work harder at their marriages and put the stability of the family and the well-being of their children before their own personal happiness. Perhaps. But gender politics and family-values rhetoric don’t help. Some marriages break up when they ought not to, and some marriages remain intact when splitting up might be better. Some couples stay together to protect their children from loss and upheaval. Others stay because of the threat of losing custody of their children. Some try for years to fix broken, limping marriages until some unfortunate event or an intolerable act tips the balance. Then, if the more essential emotional bond is not strong, no bond—not the bond of children and especially not the legal bond—can hold two people together.

We still expect families to give stability to our lives and to cushion the effects of social pressures. However, the “traditional” nuclear familylike a house with only two outer wallssimply hasn’t enough supports to help it do its jobs.

Inevitably, the separation of their parents is difficult for children. One-quarter of divorces involve dependent children. In the past, children of divorce performed more poorly in school. As adults, they had lower earnings, more troubled marriages and more symptoms of psychological disorder. Adult children of divorce may question their own ability to form lasting ties; a valid concern, since older research supports this. Heather, 47, an attendee at my workshop, worried that her leaving taught her 23-year-old son a “bad” attitude about marriage. Others at my workshop countered that children who live amid marital strife don’t learn how to form good relationships and that her leaving was a message that his father’s eight-year on-again, off-again affair wasn’t tolerable. Furthermore, they said, children who live securely in two-home families and eventually in harmonious stepfamilies can make good relationships. Research is now beginning to support these claims.

The belief that divorce is always harmful to children may in itself be harmful to children—and costly. University of Alberta sociologist Lisa Strohschein, analyzing National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth data from 1994 to 2000, found that Canadian children whose parents divorced were almost twice as likely to be prescribed methylphenidate as children whose parents remained together. Methylphenidate (Ritalin is a brand name) is commonly given to children to deal with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But Strohschein doesn’t think her finding means all children are permanently affected adversely by divorce. Instead, she suggests that some children’s normal adjustment difficulties may be inappropriately treated with methylphenidate.

Contemporary divorce practice and more professional services reduce the negative impact so that most children adjust relatively well. The key is parents’ behaviour: for example, cooperating in joint custody arrangements and staying involved in their children’s lives.

Divorcing parents in Alberta must attend Parenting after Separation (PAS), a six-hour free seminar sponsored by Alberta Justice; common-law couples resolving custody in Family Court are urged to attend. Launched in the 1990s when priorities began shifting to joint custody, PAS helps parents understand their children’s needs and work out a parenting plan that sets out how parental responsibilities and time with children are shared, and how decisions about important aspects such as children’s education, health and religion are made.

Determined to reduce the emotional trauma and minimize the residual effects of divorce on their children, more parents, about 7 out of 10, make use of a host of new formal services and professionals.

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It may be the effects of poverty and their parents’ stress, rather than the divorce per se, that account for any behavioural, social and academic problems children exhibit. Certainly, to look only at the effects of divorce and subsequent changes would be to disregard the climate some children live in prior to their parents’ separation. An attendee at my workshop, Erin, 30 and a mother of two preschoolers, found out after she left her husband that he’d been hooked on Internet pornography. When she left, Erin moved in with her parents. Within a week she was working in a bank, work she’d done before their children were born and her husband asked her to stay at home. She’ll climb as far up the career ladder as her high school education permits and hopes to have her own home in a year. Meanwhile, she’s intent on providing a secure home for her children.

Erin is one of the growing number of lone parents living in three-generation households; about one-third of the middle generation are lone parents. In Canada, half a million grandparents now share their home with their grandchildren. Erin is fortunate. A friend at work recently moved to Alberta from the Maritimes and separated shortly after arriving. She’d like to move back home but she can’t take her children out of the province. She receives child support, but her income, like that of most lone parents, is far below the provincial average and less than what she needs to support her family. Moving into low-cost housing will help, though she’ll wait two years for a vacancy.

Anna, at 26, was an emotional wreck by the time she left her husband. His employer had forced him to go to counselling or lose his job for a work-related problem he wouldn’t tell her about. He wouldn’t tell her about their finances either, so she had no idea where their bank account was or how much money they had—or owed. He often spent all night on their computer (she had no password), leading her to think he was gambling online. Pregnant with their first child and with no money, she moved in with a friend.

Lone parent families make up 10 per cent of Alberta’s families and one-third of them live below the poverty line. Compared to most provinces, a high proportion of Alberta’s lone parents work, but they’ll be financially strapped for years. Female lone parents earn, on average, $30,900 and males $57,200. They address their shortfall with low-cost housing and subsidized daycare, handouts and loans from parents, by moving in with new partners and by accumulating crippling debt. 

Soaring housing costs in the last two years and salary increases that lag far behind the cost of living intensify the pressure they feel. Those working in the social service and service sectors seem the worst hit. Matt, 34, works in the social service sector and earns $38,000 a year, barely enough to meet his child support payments and the $1,400 per month rent on an apartment that accommodates his three-year-old son on weekends.

Although most women prefer to organize their careers and employment around their children’s needs, divorce erases that option. In Alberta, nearly 9 out of 10 female lone parents work full time, the highest rate in Canada. Apparently determined not to jeopardize their employment, they take fewer personal and family days off work than married mothers do: 21 days compared to 35. (In spite of that, out-of-work divorced women have more difficulty landing a job than married women and men do.) The constant pressures of parenting alone and full-time work with few breaks leads to severe, prolonged stress.

If we consider lone-parent families from an economic point of view alone, we might come up with made-in-Alberta strategies to support them, strategies that would acknowledge the work ethic lone parents bring to the economy and ease a few labour problems. Topping up wages to single employed parents with rent, daycare and transportation subsidies, recognizing lone parents’ needs for days off and pay bonuses for days off not taken, creating more ways to work from home, promoting a better balance between work and family, designing more user-friendly psychological support for employees, especially divorcing men—it’s a partial list.

“For better or for worse” no longer binds spouses to lives of physical violence, psychological abuse, addictions or affairs.

We need to rid ourselves of the notion that divorce is all bad and see instead that divorce is an opportunity to create better lives and marriages. “For better or for worse” no longer binds spouses to lives of physical violence, psychological abuse, addictions or affairs. Long before 1987, when the divorce rate spiked to more than 300 divorces per 100,000 people, the state of Canada’s families was cause for widespread concern. Men benefited more from traditional marriage than women did. Today there is a movement to more egalitarian marriages, which benefit both parties—and end in divorce less often. And couples are increasingly marrying at a later age, resulting in longer-lasting marriages and fewer divorces. Six out of 10 married couples will celebrate their 30th anniversary together.

The lower divorce rate today, just under 224 divorces per 100,000, reflects our country’s aging population, the trend to slightly longer marriages and the growing number of people that don’t marry at all. Couples increasingly forgo marrying legally in favour of creating their own structure under the umbrella of marriage and family. Many couples, tailoring their own marriage vows, don’t include the words “as long as we both shall live.” Marriages are personal contracts with implied, even explicit, exit clauses. We accept that people “grow apart.” 

Still, most people take their marriage vows so seriously that breaking them is one of the hardest things they’ll ever do. 

The workshop is over and people say their good-byes. They have shared painful stories and emotional support and practical advice with others who are facing the same unexpected life transition. They have found new friends who will take the place of the ones they lost when their marriages ended. They have made bold decisions—go back to school, build a career and financial security, find a more affordable place, provide a secure home for their children, push the divorce through and work through the problems their new family form presents. They have found inner strength they didn’t know they possessed, and feel more able to cope with the future.

Sandra Konrad is a counsellor, teacher, writer and parent. She lives in Edmonton.

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