Divorce Hurts Children, Even Grown Ones
My parents' divorce had lifelong effects on me and I am still feeling them.
Posted Oct 31, 2011
In response to Mark Banschick's September Psychology Today post, "The Intelligent Divorce," there is no such thing. Divorce is bad, plain and simple. I am a psychologist with an excellent education and the daughter of a divorce. In school, I read everything I could get my hands on, academic and anecdotal. I talked to everyone I knew, young and old. I talked to people who stayed in unhappy marriages. I talked to people who had married multiple times. From scientific articles to Hemingway on divorce, no source was overlooked. Believe me, there is no such thing as an intelligent divorce.
During the '70s, when the psychological literature first discussed the effects of divorce on children, the general view was that divorce doesn't have to harm children. But, it does. Children, even intelligent ones or older ones, often think it is their fault. There is a lot of self-blame. Grades suffer. I lost my motivation in school. My grades went down. Not studying was a form of rebellion, anger, and apathy. I really didn't care what became of me. Perhaps, the kid is stuck with a depressed mother who can't leave her room, clean up the kitchen, or take the child to school. This child is ashamed to invite friends home from school and friendships suffer. My brother couldn't play Little League because there was no one to drive him to games. Extra-curricular activities suffer.
Then, there is the lost contact with a loved parent. Without a father around, I was very promiscuous. I sought affection from adolescent boys. I was unsupervised and got into trouble. There was no one to set limits, no one to ask where I was going. And there is the shame of going to school and being the kid from a single-parent home. Everyone else, it seems, has two parents watching them at the holiday school play or a family to go camping with. Not to mention the financial loss—a lost home, a lost neighborhood, lost friends. For me, I lost my entire extended family: beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Divorce hurts children and it hurts them immediately, in the short term.
Psychological theory of the '70s was heavily influenced by Maslow and self-actualization theory. People believed that it was OK to get divorced for self-growth. It was OK for parents to leave families to pursue a dream of happiness. This is selfish, plain and simple. Who puts their children at risk for their own dream of happiness? How many fathers left their own children only to adopt the burdens of someone else's children? Children are vulnerable. They are minors. They are dependent on an adult. Adults are supposed to be the responsible ones.
Some people believe in hard-and-fast rules about divorce, like divorce is acceptable in the cases of alcoholism or substance abuse. There are no rules. No right divorces and no wrong divorces. It is just not that simple. Divorce is a case-by-case issue. People have told me they stayed in bad marriages with spouses, who had problems, to protect their children. For example, if both parents are living in the home, one can prevent the drunk spouse from driving the kids around. However, if the parents are separated, the better parent is much less able to protect their children.
Many divorced spouses are in and out of court all of the time. Family lawyers are fond of saying "litigation is recreation for divorced parents." There are ugly e-mails, violent phone calls, and frequent trips to family court. Big threatening judges in dark robes take preteens into small rooms and ask them who they want to live with. "Choose your mother or father." It is naïve to think this doesn't impact children. And, family therapists talk about mediation. Just bring the parents into therapy and they can work things out. Be real. My mother? She would have come and then she would have further blamed things on me. Children suffer.
Divorce even has long-term consequences for grown children. First, it affects their relationships. I went into marriage knowing I could leave. Statistical studies indicate that children of divorce are more likely to divorce. I also was cautious about trusting others because I knew they could leave me. Parental divorce affects children's' future relationships. My parents' divorce still affects me today, many decades later. It affected me as a child, it affected my marriage, and it affects me today. In recent years, my father was unavailable as a grandparent to my children because the second wife's grandchildren took priority. Furthermore, I was cheated of an inheritance from my biological grandfather because it went to the adopted children of my father's second marriage. They were children of his wife's first marriage. They had no biological relation to my grandparents and this was against my grandmother's wishes. There is no such thing as an intelligent divorce. There are no firm rules about a good divorce or a bad divorce. Divorce hurts children, even grown ones. My parents' divorce has had lifelong effects on me and I am still feeling them.