Is divorce always damaging to the kids?

A friend of mine is miserable in his marriage. He and his wife hate each other and have tried to work through it. They are afraid of the damage a divorce would do to their child. I have tried to express that their constant unhappiness and conflict may do more damage than the divorce. What advice would you have that I can pass along to them?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Divorce and its effects on children are often misunderstood by parents. And in the last two decades public opinion has undergone dramatic pendulum swings. The media loves drama and proliferates the false belief that all divorce ravages children. As if it were the divorce itself, and not the way the family handles it, or what improvements are being sought in the family, that impacts a child in the long term.

There have been very few studies that document the long term effects of divorce on children before 1980 when J. S. Wallerstein presented her research "project" on children and divorce. The positive influence of the project was to make parents think deeply about the process of divorce, and how it can be handled by the divorcing parents in the best interests of the child. This was and still is an important message. Prior to this time, divorce was seen more in light of a solution which was better for children if their parents had conflict. Clearly, as a society we were underestimating the potential negative impact that children can suffer in divorce. However, Wallerstein's work came under heavy criticism by her colleagues for skewed population and interpretation. But though her work came under fire, it spurred others to delve more deeply into the truly subtle and complex issues in divorce and spawned other studies of great merit. In the meantime, however divorce became the culprit, pure and simple, whether or not this was Wallerstein's intention. Newspaper headlines glared the newfound "truth" that divorce harms children! No wonder your friends, or others may feel the way they do.

When necessary, divorce can be in the best interests of the child. In 1981, E. M. Hetherington and her research team studied the effects of divorce on the family. It is heralded as one of the best designed research studies and clearly states that a conflict-ridden intact home is more detrimental to all family members than a stable home in which parents are divorced. Naturally, this is because the continued conflict drains the energy needed for a child's development, causing difficulties in learning, socializing or other areas of growth. Not to mention the role model of the marital relationship being played out and the effects on the child of living in a war zone. This kind of unresolvable conflict creates emotional insecurity for all family members. The experience of divorce and its long term impact will be unique to the child. We could imagine both negative and positive results, depending on the child and on their lives post divorce. There are situations where children fare better after the divorce. Divorce is a tool. Norma Walsh, a noted family researcher, is not alone in her field when she states that the family processes and quality of family relationships remain the most significant predictor for health in families, divorced or not.

Tell your friend that divorce does not create dysfunction! Families experiencing divorce have the same range of functionality as intact families. Family researchers have found that it is not divorce that creates long term disturbance in children, but three other significant factors related to post separation changes. These are:

  1. The quality of post-separation life on the children -- for example, whether they are propelled into poverty or cannot pursue classes or education they enjoyed previously.
  2. Change in quality of the relationship with a parent following divorce, and
  3. The number and degree of other stressors induced by the separation for the child.

Minimizing the above factors in a child's life increases stability and the child's ability to benefit from the divorce. Divorce does not change the fact that parents have a responsibility to continue to raise their child together and to keep in the forefront of their minds what is in the best interests of the child throughout the process. Marriage ends with divorce, but parenting does not!

We should not embrace divorce as an answer to all our problems, because it does cause more problems which need thorough consideration. Neither should we be afraid to divorce if it is in the best interest of the family.

A family is a system. We cannot underestimate the pain inherited by our children for marriages that are unworkable. Children of divorce suffer. And so do children who are steeped in conflict and pain unchanged over years in their parents' marriage. These adult children may never marry, because of the pain they perceive as marriage. They do not expect happiness in marriage because it has not been their experience of their parents' relationship.

Some children will suffer more if the marital discord is covert instead of out in the open. Sometimes parents feel they can protect their child from pain by shielding them from the conflict. Children definitely should be shielded from the marital battle. However, after a point, if resolution cannot be achieved, the marital battle spills inevitably onto the unconscious of the child, and the atmosphere of the family. Communication is shortened. Depth of feeling is absent. Left unidentified and ignored, such unconscious conflict can be more destructive to our children's future than if it is brought out in the open and addressed in divorce. Fears of intimacy and commitment, thought to be results of divorce, are in fact phenomena often experienced by children who grew up in disturbed intact families. Parents that remain married "for the sake of the children" may for all intents and purposes be emotionally divorced. When this emotional alienation occurs, children may develop an aversion to intimacy or an inability to commit to a partner.

In addition we should keep in mind that when spouses divorce, they are not guaranteed of marital happiness with anyone else. However, they are eligible for future happiness! And this future happiness, if it becomes a reality, can be a real improvement in the family system. Children can definitely benefit when this is the case. However it is important to balance the pros and cons and take responsibility for providing the stability and guidelines for caring for your child through the trauma of divorce as the first order of business, if this is the avenue of choice. A book which can help parents with this process is "The Good Divorce" by C. R. Ahrons.

But before proceeding towards divorce, it is important to turn over every stone to ensure you are not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. To not repeat our mistakes, we must understand our own contributions to them. And without effectively working through why the marriage is failing, we are vulnerable to regrets down the road. Have your friends tried to work through their marital difficulties? Do they know why things are not working? What their individual contributions are to marital discord? Have they studied their families of origin for projections of past childhood ghosts onto their relationship? In short, have they tried to save the marriage through intensive marriage counseling? Books such as "Getting the Love You Want" and "Keeping the Love You Find" both by Harville Hendrix are excellent resources for actively working on the marriage. There may be reasons why they are not divorcing other than their child. It is important that if they do remain married, they continue to work on improving their relationship. This could lead to deeper and rewarding change at best, and provides the child with parental role models who are taking responsibility to search for solutions instead of creating an atmosphere of despair and victimization.

Whether or not it is divorce that is the best answer for your friends' marriage, it does seem apparent that some reflection and work on the relationship is in order. To not work on the partnership in some capacity, as long as they are remaining together, is to create an atmosphere of despair, leaving the child with unconscious responsibility for the parents' happiness. It is the parents responsibility for staying in or getting out of the marriage. No child benefits from being an albatross.

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