Time to stop kidding ourselves on what divorce does to children

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There is nothing quite like watching Robin Williams rock out to Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like A Lady) whilst vacuuming and disguised as an old lady in Mrs Doubtfire. Just as it is hilarious, this family favourite also grips at our heartstrings as we watch a family struggle to come to terms with a divorce. In the final scene, Mrs Doubtfire responds to a little girl’s letter about her parents’ breakup on a popular children’s TV program. She gently explains that divorce is a normal experience and says that, “If there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right…”

I can’t help but feel uneasy. Will this little girl really be okay? Obviously, I am not advocating that we tell young children that they are going to be “messed up” by their parents’ divorce. Nor am I suggesting that all children of divorce are. In fact, many of my friends from divorced families have not spiralled into a bottomless pit of crime, sexual promiscuity and substance abuse like the studies predict. So, does Mrs Doubtfire have a point? Are children of divorce really all right?

The culture of divorce repeatedly tells us that as long as the parents are happy, the children will also be. All they need is love. However, many experts argue that these assumptions are both damaging and a great injustice to the child. Why? Because it pressures children to remain silent, often leaving them totally alone as they try to make sense of their confusing new reality.

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study, Judith Wallerstein’s ground breaking research outlines the fundamental differences between an adult’s understanding of divorce and a child’s. For parents, a divorce is a solution to existing marital problems. They often think that the child will understand their decision, and adjust to their new life. But to children, divorce takes a radically different meaning. A child’s identity and understanding of their whole being is forged in the profound reality that he or she “…is the fruit of the union of a man and a woman” (Lickona, 2012). When the marriage is broken, the child feels a pain that not even the parents can fathom. Efforts to soothe a child through the divorce can only go so far, as it is the very structure of the divorce itself which “is the cause of the child’s wound” (Lickona, 2012).

Children see their parents as a “two-some unit”; so, when a divorce occurs, the child sees this as a failure of his or her parents to do their most fundamental job. They, therefore, do not view divorce as a solution to their parents’ marital problems but, rather, they see “divorce as the root cause of the trouble that follows” (Wallerstein, p 92). Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, argues that this is precisely why there is no such thing as a “good divorce,” since nothing can “diminish the radical restructuring of the child’s universe” (p 16).

After a marriage breakdown, a child usually inherits two new homes, lives, routines, different values and, sometimes, new family members. Though not all children are affected the same way, these drastic changes usually cause great psychological stress, anxiety, anger, depression and feelings of loneliness that can endure long into adulthood. For many, it has been found, the pain of parental divorce is worse than death. The child always misses one parent while they are with the other.

Resembling their father or mother can become a frightening experience for a child, especially when their parents do not get along. Secrets become unavoidable. Many feel like a rag doll  tossed between two worlds. Others feel like outsiders to one or both of their parents. And some children become caretakers to their siblings, or even to vulnerable parents, which often leaves them less protected. Whilst children of divorce are at greater risk of susceptibility to crime and heightened sexual activity, the more subtle effects can be just as harmful to a child’s development.

Studies consistently indicate that divorce affects children worse when they enter into adulthood. Wallerstein writes, “from the viewpoint of the children, and counter to what happens to their parents, divorce is a cumulative experience. Its impact increases over time, reaching a crescendo in adulthood. At each developmental stage divorce is experienced anew in different ways. In adulthood it affects personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships and the ability to cope with change” (p 298).

Troubles usually resurface when children of divorce begin to pursue their own romantic relationships. Forming healthy relationships can become challenging because images of happy marriages, family and stable relationships have been shattered by their parents’ marriage breakdown. They typically repeat the same mistakes as their parents and are more likely to divorce.

Some are left with a strong fear of commitment and loss, and their self esteem and self-worth have been crippled by the lack of unity and stability in their lives. Ultimately, it is the children that pay the price for divorce.

Wallerstein warns us not to mistake a child’s passiveness and silence for resilience.

In actuality, children are either unwilling or are unable to vocalise their feelings. Furthermore, most young children cannot even grasp the concept of divorce: small children are unable to draw the connection between the parental behaviour that precedes the divorce (such as arguing and crying), to the marriage breakdown.

Even in cases of abuse, the child does not see separation as the better solution. Thus, when the split is announced, the news is almost always shocking. Marquardt, a child of divorce herself, questions the whole idea of resilience. She writes: “Our culture treats children of divorce who are beyond babyhood as if they are a separate species, more adaptable and resilient than other children. We routinely expect children of divorce to take in stride situations that children of married parents rarely, if ever, are expected to face.”

“How often do married parents send their child away from home for days, weeks, or years at a time?… How often do married parents put their children on airplanes by themselves? … How often do married parents sleep with someone besides their child’s parent in the home when the child is present? … It is almost unheard of for married parents to do any of [these].

“Yet the needs of the children of married parents and children of divorced parents are the same. They are the same species. So why are children of divorce considered so resilient? Because the adults need them to be that way” (Marquardt, p 181).

Sometimes, of course, circumstances arise that are out of one’s control.

Sadly, our divorce laws allow one spouse to abandon the other and force a divorce on the family. And certainly, in cases of abuse, violence, chronic addiction, or serial infidelity, separation is a necessary measure for the safety and welfare of spouses and their children.

But, for the sake of our children, we must not ignore the facts. As Karl Menninger, a leading US psychiatrist of the mid-20th century, said: “What’s done to children, they will do to society.”

By silencing children and burying our heads in the sand, we are failing our little ones. If we want to protect our children and encourage them to flourish, we must not be blind to their sufferings. We must accept responsibility for our actions and admit that our divorce and mistakes have hurt them profoundly.

Children of divorce are not doomed to a life of misery. On the contrary, Wallerstein’s research shows that many were able to overcome their difficulties and forge happy and lasting marriages; yet it took a great deal of time – decades, in fact – courage, honesty and persistence.

It’s time for us to better help our children by confronting the reality of divorce and giving them a voice in their plight. Only then can they begin to truly heal.