Psychologist Judith Wallerstein followed a group of children of divorce from the 1970s into the 1990s. She expected to find that kids bounce back from divorce, interviewing them 18 months, 5, 10, 15 and 25 years after the divorce. What she found was amazing: twenty-five years after the divorce, these children continued to experience substantial expectations of failure, fear of loss, fear of change and fear of conflict.1 Twenty-five years!
Forming romantic relationships
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 rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move centre stage. . . . Anxiety leads many [adult children of divorce] into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether."2
Other researchers confirm Wallerstein’s findings.3 Specifically, compared to kids from intact homes, children who experienced their parents’ divorce view premarital sex and cohabitation more favourably. 4 (This is disturbing news given that cohabiting couples have more breakups, greater risk of domestic violence5 and are more likely to experience divorce.6) Behind each of these statistics is a life – a child, now an adult, still coping with the emotions brought on by the divorce.
Lilly [not her real name] is not a high school dropout, or drug user. She is, in fact, a university graduate who is quite successful in her career. But her parents’ divorce haunts her to this day:
"My parents divorced almost 30 years ago when I was 12 years old. Today, I am married with my own family but still feel the effects of my parents’ decision to divorce. As with most divorce situations, my father left the home. I’ve never gotten over the feeling that he abandoned me in my most urgent hour of need. Even though my father continued to see me on weekends and during ‘visitation’ periods, occasional interactions could not heal this deep sense of abandonment. As an adult, whenever I sense that someone I trust is not present for me, it rekindles this abandonment issue with my father. Still to this day, I think of the divorce and cannot understand how a man could pack his bags and walk away from his children. He would say he walked out of the home, not our lives, but that’s not how I saw it."
Children will never fully understand
Parents considering divorce need to know that no matter how much they "explain the divorce" to their children, the children will never understand, even 30 years later.
Lilly’s story could have been written by almost any child of divorce. As Wallerstein put it, "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."7
Parents tend to want to have their own needs met after a divorce – to find happiness again with someone new. But not only do the old problems often resurface for the adults, new problems are added for the children. As Wallerstein observed, "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."8 Children again feel abandoned as parents pursue better relationships and a new life.
Effects of remarriage
Feelings of abandonment and confusion are only compounded when one or both parents find a new spouse. A second marriage brings complications and new emotions for children – not to mention new step siblings, step-parents and step-grandparents, who are often in competition for the parent’s attention. (And the adjustment can be even more difficult because it is the adults who choose new families, not the children.) Lilly expressed it this way:
"My loss was magnified as my father remarried and adopted a new ‘family.’ Despite attempts on my part to keep in touch, we live in different cities, and his life now revolves around his new family with infrequent contact with me. This has only increased the feelings of abandonment and alienation from the divorce. And the high rate of second-marriage divorces can leave children reeling from yet another loss."
Full "recovery" is nearly impossible for children because of the dynamic nature of family life. While you and your ex-spouse’s lives may go on separately with relatively little thought, your children will think about their loss almost every day. And 25 years after the fact, they will certainly be influenced by it. Life itself will remind them of the loss at even the happiest moments. As Earll explains:
"Children never get over divorce. It is a great loss that is in their lives forever. It is like a grief that is never over. All special events, such as holidays, plays, sports, graduations, marriages, births of children, etc., bring up the loss created by divorce as well as the family relationship conflicts that result from the "extended family" celebrating any event."9
What parents see as a quick way out often results in emotional damage that the children will carry for 30 years or more. Divorce is no small thing to children. It is the violent ripping apart of their parents, a loss of stability, and often a complete shock. While we often think of children as resilient, going through such trauma is a lot to ask of our kids.
It is our hope that reading this section has helped you better understand your children’s perspective. In light of the fact that most marriages heading for divorce can be salvaged and turned into great marriages, parents should take a long pause before choosing divorce. While it may seem like a solution to you, it’s not an easy out for you or your kids.
Judith Wallerstein, et al., The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. xxvii.; Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky. “Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression.,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 1034-1035.
Wallerstein, et al., 2000, p. xxix.
Andrew J. Cherlin, P. Lindsey Chase-Lansdale and C. McRae, "Effects of Parental Divorce on Mental Health Through the Life Course," American Sociological Review, 63 (1998): 239-249; Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky, "Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression," Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 1034-1035.
William G. Axinn and Arland Thornton, "The Influence of Parents’ Marital Dissolutions on Children’s Attitudes toward Family Formation," Demography 33 (1996): 66-81.
Glenn T. Stanton, Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society (Colorado Springs: Pinon Press, 1997), p. 55-70; David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "Should We Live Together?" a report of the National Marriage Project, 1999, http://marriage.rutgers.edu.
Alan Booth and David Johnson, "Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Success," Journal of Family Issues 9 (1988): 255-272; Paul Amato and Alan Booth, "The Consequences of Divorce for Attitudes toward Divorce and Gender Roles," Journal of Family Issues 12 (1991): 306-323.
Jane Meredith Adams "Judith Wallerstein: Forget the Notion Divorce Won’t Hurt Kids. It Will," Biography 1 (1997): 79-81.
Wallerstein, et al., 2000, p. xxix.
Interview with Steven Earll, M.A., M.S., L.P.C., C.A.C. III, August 2001.