Will my divorce have any serious long-term effects on my kids? Our marriage has been very difficult, and I recently contacted a divorce attorney in order to discuss and explore my options. My children are still young – between 8 and 14 – and sometimes I become extremely depressed and anxious thinking about how the divorce is going to impact them. At other moments, however, I find encouragement in the thought that kids are extremely resilient and can bounce back from almost any kind of negative circumstance. Can you help me resolve this issue in my mind? Should I be concerned or not?
We're sorry to be the ones to break it to you, but statistics indicate that your anxieties are well-founded. As a matter of fact, based on what the research has to say, we'd urge you to put the brakes on the divorce process, get some counseling, and find out if there isn't some way to reconcile with your spouse before things proceed any further. That's how strongly we feel about the long-term effects of divorce in the life of a child.
Why do we say this? Consider the work of psychologist Judith Wallerstein. In a landmark study, Wallerstein followed a group of children of divorce from the 1970s into the 1990s. She interviewed them at eighteen months, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty-five years after the divorce. In the beginning she was expecting, like you, to find that kids bounce back from divorce fairly easily. Instead, she discovered that twenty-five years after the divorce these now-adult children continued to experience substantial expectations of failure, fear of loss, fear of change, and fear of conflict as a result of the breakup of their parents' marriages. Twenty-five years!
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 arises 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."
Other researchers have confirmed these findings. They have also learned that, compared with kids from intact homes, children who experienced their parents' divorce tend to view premarital sex and cohabitation more favorably. Why? Because they're leery of "committed" relationships. This is disturbing news on a number of levels. It also explains, in part, why cohabiting couples have more breakups, greater risk of domestic violence, and are more likely to experience divorce if they do marry than those who don't live together before marriage. Behind each of these statistics is a life: a child, now an adult, still coping with the emotions brought on by the divorce.
Children of divorce carry with them into their adult years deep feelings of abandonment. As Wallerstein writes, "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."
This sense of abandonment is aggravated by the fact that parents tend to concentrate on meeting their own needs after a divorce. If you and your spouse go through with your plan, you will inevitably end up spending a lot of time and energy picking up the pieces afterwards. You may also feel compelled to find happiness again with someone new. That translates into less time and energy for your kids. As Wallerstein observes, "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."
And it only gets worse if one or both parents actually succeed in finding a new spouse. In that case, the feelings of abandonment and confusion are compounded. That's because a second marriage brings complications and new emotions for children. It also often brings new stepsiblings, step-parents, and step-grandparents, who are often in competition for the parent's attention. What makes this adjustment particularly difficult is that it's the adults who choose the new families – not the children.
It's vital to add that full "recovery" is nearly impossible for children of divorce because of the dynamic nature of family life. While you and your ex-spouse may pursue your separate lives with relaively little thought for one another, your children will think about their loss almost every day. Twenty-five years after the fact, as Wallerstein's findings show, they will still be reeling from it. Holidays, special events, graduations, marriages, births of children – in short, life itself – will constantly remind them of their loss. It will be with them even in their happiest moments.
Bottom line: while you and your spouse may see divorce as a quick and easy way out of a difficult situation, the facts indicate that it will impact your children for the rest of their lives. That's why you need to think long and hard before choosing divorce. If you need a marriage therapist to help you sort out your options, call us. Focus on the Family's Counseling department can provide you with referrals to specialists practicing in your area. Our staff counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone.
Helping Children Survive Divorce
Children & Divorce (resource list)
Choosing Wisely: Before You Divorce (DVD Series available through DivorceCare.org)
Should I Get a Divorce?