Research On Divorce Effects

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Sometimes individuals who are contemplating divorce come in to get perspective on whether taking this step is reasonable for themselves and their children. There is a great amount of research on divorce and children, all pointing to the same stubborn truth: Kids suffer when moms and dads split up, and divorce doesn’t make mom and dad happier, either.

Parents are perceived by children as very competent people with supernatural abilities to meet their needs. For a child, divorce shatters this basic safety and belief that parents’ make decisions that truly consider their well-being. A divorce consider’s the parent’s desires and almost always goes against what kids want. For the first time in their lives, kids see that they are NOT the priority to their parents.  

But perhaps the worst thing is that a divorce demonstrates that love is not forever and later, as boy/girl friends come into the picture, that sex is casual.

That being said I always point out that children are resilient – mainly because they have no power , and the only power they have to keep parents close is to go along with them, being a good sport.

Psychologist Judith Wallerstein followed a group of children of divorce from the 1970s into the 1990s. Interviewing them at 18 months and then 5, 10, 15 and 25 years after the divorce, she expected to find that they had bounced back. But what she found was dismaying: Even 25 years after the divorce, these children continued to experience substantial expectations of failure, fear of loss, fear of change and fear of conflict. Twenty-five years! Wow.

The children in Wallerstein’s study were especially challenged when they began to form their own romantic relationships. As Wallerstein explains, “Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage . . . Anxiety leads many [adult children of divorce] into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.”

As Wallerstein put it, “The kids [in my study] had a hard time remembering the pre-divorce family . . . but what they remembered about the post-divorce years was their sense that they had indeed been abandoned by both parents, that their nightmare [of abandonment] had come true.”

Parents tend to want to have their own needs met after a divorce – to find happiness again with someone new. But not only do the old problems often resurface for the adults, new problems are added for the children. As Wallerstein observed, “It’s not that parents love their children less or worry less about them. It’s that they are fully engaged in rebuilding their own lives — economically, socially and sexually. Parents’ and children’s needs are often out of sync for many years after the breakup.”  Children again feel abandoned as parents pursue better relationships after the breakup.”

Feelings of abandonment and confusion are only compounded when one or both parents find a new spouse. A second marriage brings complications and new emotions for children — not to mention new stepsiblings, stepparents and stepgrandparents, who often are in competition for the parent’s attention. (And the adjustment can be even more difficult — because it is the adults who choose new families, not the children.)

“Children never get over divorce. It is a great loss that is in their lives forever. It is like a grief that is never over. All special events, such as holidays, plays, sports, graduations, marriages, births of children, etc., bring up the loss created by divorce as well as the family relationship conflicts that result from the ‘extended family’ celebrating any event.

I never tell anyone not to get a divorce – that’s not my job. And these facts will rarely dissuade a parent who has emotionally checked out of their marriage. The best option for all is to cultivate a healthy marriage and seek help in the early stages of trouble, before the emotional checkout is complete.

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