Divorce & Kids: Disaster or Transition?

Recently, several readers have asked if I’ve written anything on children and divorce. A few years back, I did this interview with my friend and associate Dr. Stanton Samenow, author of the now classic (and recently revised) Inside the Criminal Mind as well as his book on divorce, In the Best Interest of the Child: How to Protect Your Child from the Pain of Your Divorce.

Dr. Samenow (who wrote the foreward to my own book, Bad Therapy Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference), has appeared on numerous television shows including 60 Minutes, the Today Show and Good Morning America; was appointed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan to a White House Task Force on crime; served as the expert witness in the infamous Washington DC sniper case (in 2002); and in more recent years has provided expert testimony for family courts in difficult divorce cases.

Here’s the written transcript of our discussion about the impact of divorce on children.


Dr. Hurd: You are well known as an expert on criminal psychology. Why did you decide to write a book about protecting one’s child from the pain of divorce?

Dr. Samenow: Through my criminal work, I became known to judges and attorneys. A judge asked me to look into a case that had a criminal aspect. Child custody was at issue. Thus, in 1984, my work in the child custody area began and has grown since. To my surprise, I found that some of the thinking patterns of criminals were also evident in parents who, while proclaiming to love their children, deployed battle strategies to fight each other—victimizing the child in the process.

Dr. Hurd: Is divorce psychologically harmful to children?

Dr. Samenow: We cannot know for certain whether divorce has long-term harmful effects on a child. The answer has to be that it is different for different boys and girls. I have seen some children weather a horrible divorce and continue to be productive, mentally healthy, and happy. I have also seen the opposite. It is not just the environment of a person that is critical, but also how he or she chooses to deal with it.

If parents handle their separation and divorce amicably, children invariably benefit. They suffer loss in any event—the loss of their family as they know it. However, in very adversarial cases, they may suffer more losses. In the worst instance, they may totally lose a parent who is forced out of their lives by the other.

Dr. Hurd: Why are so many parents irrational during divorce?

Dr. Samenow: Divorce is extremely stressful for all members of the family. It is difficult for parents to go through a separation from the person with whom they thought they would spend their lives. It feels like a personal failure. There is enormous fear of what life alone will be like as a single parent. Will they ever find someone else? Are they still attractive, lovable? The financial situation may worsen.

Life is just plain tough. It is hard to remain “rational” when a parent is experiencing a mixture of intense emotions—fear, anger, depression.

Parents are often so caught up in meeting their own needs during separation and divorce that they lose sight of what their children are going through. Because of this, they may use their children as confidantes. They may be so focused on fulfilling their own agendas with their spouse (soon to be ex-spouse) that the child becomes a pawn. This is not out of malice, but out of insensitivity and self-centeredness. If parents think about what their child is experiencing, they may curb some of their own extreme behavior and make life better for everyone.

Dr. Hurd: Briefly, what are “controlling” and “impaired” parents?

Dr. Samenow: Controllers are parents who seek to control just for the sake of control. Their self-image is bound up in remaining in charge, prevailing in any situation. During divorce proceedings, they aim to “win.” Obtaining custody may be seen as akin to winning a trophy—besting the other side. Impaired parents are men and women who are suffering from a mental illness that affects decision-making. Often they do not recognize their impairment, whether it be extreme emotionality, addiction, or even psychosis. They may not be fit to function as custodial parents without receiving professional help.

Dr. Hurd: With impaired parents, how do we distinguish between their poor choices/poor thinking versus their “mental illness?” And to what extent do we hold them responsible, if at all?

Dr. Samenow: People are held responsible to address their impairment, to try to improve their functioning to be responsible parents. Some deny they are impaired. The court must consider the degree of impairment in deciding how much contact and the quality of the contact they will have with their children. I agree that there is sometimes a debatable line between a greatly irresponsible choice and mental illness.

Dr. Hurd: Describe typical “toxic patterns” in divorce and separation.

Dr. Samenow: Toxic patterns are those which affect the child adversely. Children usually do not want to choose between their parents. They want both in their lives, and they want life to continue as it has. Sometimes, even years after a divorce, the fantasy remains of family reunification. Some of the toxic patterns that I have seen include: tearing one parent down in front of the child; forcing the child to compartmentalize his life so that he must live in two different worlds, never discussing his life with one parent with the other; using instruments of communication (phone, FAX, e-mail) as weapons rather than a means to transmit information; discussing adult issues with children who cannot understand or handle them.

Dr. Hurd: Talk about joint and sole custody.

Dr. Samenow: Joint custody requires that both parents remain involved in the child’s life, that they share information and make decisions jointly. This works if both parents are civil to each other and show a willingness to “co-parent.” It does not work when they continue to fight each other. In such cases, impasses are reached, decisions do not get made, and the child suffers.

Sole custody gives decision-making responsibility to one parent. It does not give that parent license to do whatever he or she wants. The obligation to consult the other parent and share information remains. Sole custody is necessary if the other parent is psychologically severely impaired. It is necessary if the other parent has not been involved in the child’s life. And it may be desirable if there is no hope of both parents reaching agreement. Responsibility must be allocated to one person.

Otherwise, the struggling will be eternal, and the child will continue to be caught in the crossfire.

Dr. Hurd : What is “child custody warfare?”

Dr. Samenow: I have seen terrible custody battles. I know parents who do not even agree upon what name to call their child. I have seen parents literally pull children (one on each arm) in a physical struggle. More frequently, custody battles consist of parents deploying a variety of strategies to defeat each other. Their sense of personal success or failure is bound up in winning. The forms of battle are many. A parent may attempt to financially bankrupt the other by running up legal bills. A parent may use the legal discovery process to dig up all sorts of “dirt” on the other. A parent may hire a private investigator to follow a spouse in hopes of spotting erratic driving habits, drunkenness, adultery, or other immoral behavior. The attempt is to put the parent in the worst possible light, denigrate him or her, then wrest from him or her that which is most precious—their son or daughter.

Dr. Hurd: Are attorneys really necessary for divorce, and if so, how can you find a good one?

Dr. Samenow: It is reasonable for parents to try to work things out as best they can. However, when parents divorce, emotions run high. Conflict already exists and is bound to intensify.

Hiring a competent domestic relations attorney is important to protect one’s own interests. Domestic relations attorneys will work hard to settle cases out of court if possible. In a very adversarial situation, it is important to have a seasoned attorney who is an expert litigator.

In my experience, most domestic relations attorneys are responsible and reasonable. It is important for a parent to find one who has time for the case and is accessible, even outside regular office hours.

Dr. Hurd: What is divorce mediation?

Dr. Samenow: Mediation is an attempt to reach an agreement on financial/property/custody issues without involving the courts. Parents consult a neutral third party who is a trained mediator. This does not, however, preclude each parent from having his or her own lawyer.

Dr. Hurd: Describe the audience for your book. For example, is it only for parents undergoing divorce?

Dr. Samenow: The audience for this book includes, but is not limited to, the following: parents whose marriages are failing; parents who have reached a decision to separate; mental health professionals who counsel parents and families; clergymen who counsel couples; professional mediators; domestic relations attorneys who might find the book helpful to their clients; therapists/counselors who work with children going through divorce.

Dr. Hurd: Is it always wrong for a parent to criticize the other parent?

Dr. Samenow: It is not always wrong for one parent to criticize the other. It is detrimental for one parent to constantly denigrate the other parent in order to fortify his/her position during a child custody battle. Children have to learn to adapt to their parents’ flaws whether the parents are together or separate. Mothers and fathers can either help their children do this, or they can make it more difficult. Burdening the child with their own vendettas is certainly detrimental.

Dr. Hurd: Leaving aside obvious cases of abuse, abandonment and neglect, is there some truth to the idea that divorce, at least with young children involved, is simply not worth it?

Dr. Samenow: If parents were to realize the enormous costs of divorce (emotional, financial, time, energy), they might put more effort into resolving differences and trying to work out their marriage problems so they could stay together. Unfortunately, it is often after the fact that mothers and fathers realize these costs.

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Learn more about Dr. Samenow’s revised and updated version of Inside the Criminal Mind here. If you love his writing and thinking as I do, you won’t want to miss it. He has totally updated it with a wealth of research and case studies in the years since its original publication. These include an examination of the school shootings, terrorism and other examples of criminal behavior in the past several decades.