The Impact of Divorce on Children

Sometimes I like to remind my readers why a column on parenting often focuses on marriage. It is because no single factor has a greater impact on the health of ALL family members. Parents locked in marital conflict expose their children to chronic tension, an abusive environment, constant sabotage of parenting, and the direct involvement of children in the conflict. Research repeatedly demonstrates that children and their parents develop significant emotional and medical symptoms in this “toxic” family.

If the marital conflict results in a divorce, the scars run deeper. Yes, there are marriages where this is truly the only way to stop the fighting. And many books based on studies of post-divorce families have tried to paint a picture that it’s not as bad as we thought. Well, it is AT LEAST as bad as we think it is, if not worse. The “positive outcomes” are said to occur when there is post-divorce cooperation between the parents. So how many amicable divorces are you aware of? Besides, we are still just learning about the long-term effects of growing up in a divorced family, especially on the ability of individuals to trust the vows of marriage. And it won’t be that long before the MAJORITY of adults have been raised by divorced parents!

Children tend to never let go of the wish for their parents to remarry. That was brought home vividly by a 27 y.o. patient whose parents had been divorced when she was six. Both parents had been remarried for many years and the woman really liked her step-parents and their families. Yet, when one parent’s second marriage had a crisis, she immediately shared a fantasy that a second divorce would occur followed by a second divorce of the other parent and then her parents would remarry!

Although adult children are often able to finally escape the day-to-day tensions and the shuffling from house to house (some escape by moving far away), they still experience considerable pain around holidays and special events. The children also continue to have to struggle with how to share their time with expanded families who often still harbor much anger at one another. In other words, in most families, the pain never totally goes away. Wait till you try to plan a wedding with four pairs of parents! Or try to decide which of four homes to visit on a holiday. Or which of four sets of grandparents stays with the children when you go away for a weekend?

At the other end of the age spectrum, it is painful to observe parents of very young children trying to explain their divorce. A four year old can’t really understand the concepts of marriage and adult love, so how can she understand divorce and the idea of parents not loving each other anymore? Can she really believe the parents’ well-intentioned efforts to explain not to worry, that Mommy and Daddy will ALWAYS love her? Nice adult logic but is that child able to feel secure and not fear future abandonment?

Many explanations have been offered elsewhere for the sharp rise in divorce rates that occurred over twenty years ago. These rates seem to have leveled off and appear, for the moment, to be fixed into society’s fabric. Whatever got us here, the lack of priority for marriage is certainly going to keep us here. In most families, everything else comes first. In addition, the disappearance of spirituality, ritual, and sense of community add to the lack of structures that used to help keep a marriage vigorous. Don’t delude yourselves. Today’s’ couples share a strong focus on trying to balance work and parenting responsibilities. There is an unstated belief that, somehow, the marriage will survive. But it won’t unless you not only make time for it but recognize that a successful marriage requires as much effort at developing new skills as does parenting. Problems with communication, conflict-resolution, and adaptation to changing gender roles can be prevented and/or resolved through workshops, books, and therapy. To not make every conceivable effort to enable your marriage to work – even when it appears to be failing – is a grievous error. Remember – to save a marriage is to save a family.