Almost every couple experiences a “rough patch” in their marriage. It might be caused by something serious like marital infidelity, financial crisis or addiction. However, the lure of greener grass elsewhere may entice a husband or wife to consider divorce. As they think about options, many wonder how a divorce would affect their children. The prevailing wisdom of today seeks to paint a rosy picture of life after divorce. Common sentiments include: “Kids are resilient – they’ll heal, they’ll be fine!” and “ It’s better for them when their parents are happy.” Are these ideas true, or just myths? How do children really feel when their parents divorce? What is the residual impact later in life?
Even in their times of deepest pain or dysfunction, most parents feel at least some level of concern about their children’s wellbeing.
“You never find a couple that’s not interested in their children – even their adult children,” says a San Antonio family lawyer with decades of experience.
This article draws from resources noted at the conclusion that convey a different, and I believe, more accurate picture of the reality experienced by children of divorce, and not just in its immediate aftermath, but for decades to come. If you are reading this, you may be considering divorce. Consider these facts:
The following authors propose that the emotional frame of reference for children of divorce never truly recovers.
Social scientists have been studying divorce’s impact on children since at least the 1970s and have compiled a large body of research. Some studies followed these children for more than 25 years, interviewing them at intervals throughout their lives. Others were more objective, collecting and applying statistics to discern social trends. Another author sought children’s input about their parents’ divorces only after they had become adults.
The overriding theme: even in the so-called “best circumstances” the emotions and perceptions of children of divorce are altered in ways that affect them for the rest of their lives.
Kids suffer when moms and dads split up. Licensed counselor Steven Earll states to Amy Desai, J.D. in an August 2001 interview that a parents’ divorce irrevocably shakes a child’s belief system. In a child’s understanding, parents are supposed to be able to overcome obstacles, care for them and make decisions that consider their wellbeing. When parents split, they are prioritizing their own interests. The kids are along for the ride and have no say in the matter.
Parents may find closure with new romances and families, but that is not an avenue of comfort for their children. New partners just introduce problems of living arrangements, stepparents and additional siblings with whom to compete for attention, according to a study by Wallerstein also sourced by Amy Desai.
Earll says divorce shatters a child’s perceptions, “Their only frame of reference of a family is one that includes both mom and dad together. Any other relationship configuration betrays their basic understanding of life.”
Virtually every child suffers from the loss of relationships and security. Thirty years of social science data point to certain risk factors common to children of divorce:
- Academic disadvantage
- Behavioral problems in school
- Lower grades
- More likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime
- Almost five times as likely to live in poverty
- Engaging in drug and alcohol use and premarital sex
- Experience illness more frequently and recover from sickness more slowly
- More likely to suffer child abuse
- Suffer from symptoms of psychological distress
- Carry emotional scars of a parents’ divorce lasting into the child’s adulthood
- Resent both custodial and absent parent *(These statistics are referenced and footnoted in Amy Desai’s
post “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids” published by Focus on the Family, Jan. 1, 2007.)
This list does not predictively doom children to poverty or drug abuse because of a parents’ divorce. However, the majority of research does agree that divorce places children at higher risk for these societal problems.
Unfortunately the picture doesn’t get brighter as time passes. A parents’ divorce continues to impact children’s view of the world and relationships. In the Wallerstein study, “these children continued to experience substantial expectations of failure, fear of loss, fear of change and fear of conflict,” even twenty-five years later. A particular problem area was when the children grew and began forming their own romantic relationships. Wallerstein said, “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.” (from Amy Desai’s article)
Earll states, “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.”(From Amy Desai’s article)
Leila Miller recently published the book, Primal Loss - The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak – that shares the responses from 70 adult children of divorce. The following conclusions reflect their insights.
Children of divorce will navigate unintended consequences of pain and complications in ways that adults from intact families will never experience. The negative affects of the divorce never end – even if the years immediately afterward are peaceful.
Children of divorce learned the lesson that conflict can lead to permanent separation, which will color every relationship going forward.
In childhood, they were swept along with the adults’ wants and feelings. Their voices were silenced. And even decades later, many feel the need to “be a team player” and go along with the narrative that the divorce was a good thing, even if that contradicts their feelings and experiences.
They hid their devastation because they didn’t want to make their parents feel bad and learned to be ever mindful of their parents’ feelings. This behavior continues as they feel the need to manage their parents’ wellbeing. “A child should never have to take the responsibility of their parents’ emotions, always in the middle, always concerned about one of the other parent’s feelings getting hurt.”
Abandonment issues plague children of divorce. One stated, “As children, they cannot make sense of why daddy or mommy has permanently left the home. As adults, the fear of abandonment —the lesson that ‘love stops’ or conflict leads to permanent separation— continues.”
Other children of divorce report fallout in their own relationships. They “desperately crave intimacy and love, but sabotage relationships.” Another “never learned skills for solving conflict in relationships.”
Adult children of divorce will never see the world the same way. There’s a “sense of having no real home. They must forever navigate two separate worlds. They feel like half of their family tree is truncated.”
They suffer lifelong grief. “It is never over, it just continues in new and unexpected ways.” For the children, there’s “no starting over with a clean slate. Things are always complicated and fractured. An ever-changing and ever-widening gap that only the children are really tasked with straddling and reconciling, season after season, change after change.”
Problems continue to unfold as divorced parents age. Caretaking elderly parents, many of whom struggle with cognitive disorder or debilitating illness, is difficult for adult children under the best circumstances. Now add the loss of resources to cover the cost of expensive care, the difficulty juggling multiple opinions of step-siblings concerning responsibilities and end-of-life decisions, and the increased number of at least one of the parents aging alone and relying on their adult children for support. Once again, adult children of divorce are left managing the aftermath of their parents’ decisions.
As difficult as these facts may be to digest, they are representative of the experiences of the many, many children in America affected by divorce. Please take time to process and consider the end result of a proposed divorce on your children before you make a decision. Hopefully these truths will motivate you to step back from a hasty choice. You may be presently unhappy, but help and hope are available. Many divorces can be avoided through restorative counseling or marriage intensive therapy programs.
The San Antonio Marriage Initiative (SAMI) can point you toward alternatives to divorce. SAMI can connect you to resources and trusted marriage champions who can throw your relationship a lifeline, even for those whose circumstances seem hopeless.
Another myth: divorce dissolves a family. Divorce ends a marriage, but families last forever. What your family and your children’s future will look like depends on you. Choose wisely.
Find more inspiration and resources on the SAMI website, including testimonies from
couples, trusted professionals, marriage events, date night suggestions and more.
Amy Desai, J.D. quotes licensed counselor Steven Earll, M.A., M.S., L.P.C., C.A.C. III and the Wallerstein study.
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak 1st Edition by Leila Miller