Parents’ attitudes can help kids survive a divorce

Divorce. Split up. Break up. Even the words sound hostile and aggressive. But, whatever you call it, it’s one of the great unresolved controversies of our age—particularly when children are involved. Is it better to stay together for the sake of the kids, or separate in an attempt to find personal happiness? Far from being just an abstract, sociological question, this is a real-life dilemma for almost half of our population at any point in time.

Let’s start with the existing research on the subject. Not surprisingly, you’ll find conflicting results and opinions.

A 25-year landmark study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley found significant differences between children of divorce and children from non-divorced households, once they entered their 20s and 30s. Sixty percent of the children of divorce were married in adulthood, while eighty percent of the children from non-divorced families were married. Twenty-five percent of children from divorced homes used drugs and alcohol before age fourteen, compared to only nine percent of the non-divorced group. Perhaps most revealing: The children of divorce were far more likely to marry before age 25, suggesting that their marriages, statistically, were more likely to fail.

According to this study, the long-term impact of divorce on children is not a good thing. But wait’there’s more to the story. Dr. Constance Ahrons, author of ‘The Good Divorce,’ makes a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ divorce. She says, ‘There are two elements to a good divorce. One is that the parents get along sufficiently well that they can focus on their kids as parents, and be parents. The other element is that children continue to have relationships with both parents.’

This very much squares with what I have observed in my therapy practice for nearly two decades. Young children, particularly before the teen years, tend to follow their parents’ lead. If the parents are comfortable with the new arrangement, the children generally adapt well. If the parents are uncomfortable, or engage in open conflict, it’s another story. First and foremost, children want to be loved. If, through the transition and crisis of divorce, they feel loved by both parents, they will certainly fare better than if they lose their parents’ attention and care.

Yet the nagging question remains: What about the long-term effects of divorce on children? In her book, ‘Between Two Worlds,’ author Elizabeth Marquardt states, ‘What we found in the study’of the young adults who grew up in divorced families’was that there is no such thing as a good divorce. A good divorce is better than a bad divorce, but it is not good. It turns out that the way the parents divorce, whether or not that they’re good at divorce, matters less than the divorce itself.’

She goes on to point out that it’s difficult for children to pass between the two worlds—the differing value systems, the different lifestyles—of the now divorced parents. This can be a major adjustment for children. Yet, in many cases, I have to ask: ‘What’s the alternative?’ Should the parents pretend not to have differing values and different styles of living? Should they lie, suck it up, and suffer the destructive effects on their own mental (and perhaps even physical) health? Or is it better to at least set a good example, be honest about the differences, and move on?

In my practice, I have seen it go both ways. Initially (as with any life change such as moving or changing schools), it’s hard for kids to go back and forth between households. Yet, after the first six months or so, some children adapt while some don’t. What’s the difference in these cases? From what I have observed, it’s partly the degree to which the parents work together to keep the children out of the conflicts. If each parent displays an attitude of tolerance for the other, while sticking to his or her own values, it goes better for the kids. The healthy attitude projected to the children who fare better might go something like this: ‘Your father does things his way, and that’s his choice. That’s what you have to deal with when you’re there. But in our household, it’s different, and you have to respect my approach while you’re here.’

I realize this attitude can only be stretched to a certain point. You can’t tolerate things like physical, sexual or even verbal abuse and pretend that they’re ‘just a different way.’ Yet most things don’t fall into these categories, and the healthy attitude reflects the common sense that people can still disagree without trying to change one another. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for a child or young adult to learn this fact sooner, rather than later.

From a psychological point of view, nobody can, across-the-board, either advocate or condemn divorce. Obviously, in cases of outright abuse or neglect, the responsible and rational thing to do is split up rather than live in misery or danger.

Parents considering divorce primarily for reasons of personal fulfillment should, therefore, (1) think things out very clearly, from a self-interested point-of-view, since divorce is hard on everyone, and, (2) be aware of research which suggests (but does not absolutely prove), that children of divorce display more personal problems over the long-term.

Children learn about marital commitment and permanence by observing their parents. Help protect and strengthen that sense of commitment by marrying someone you’re sure you can live with, and love, for a long, long time.