DOES IT SCAR EX-SPOUSES & CHILDREN FOREVER?
It is generally acknowledged that a marital separation and
subsequent divorce generates a high level of short-term emotional distress
for both the spouses and their children. However, there is no consensus on
which is less damaging long term for family members:
For the family to stay together, even though their
relationship has an emotionally toxic effects on the parents, or
For the spouses to separate and later divorce.
From the life-stories of the staff of this web site:
The four staff members of the OCRT
-- the agency that maintains this web site -- have had some experience
with marital separation and divorce. They average one divorce each!
They feel that the long-term status of
marriages fall in to one of three categories:
About 25% are able to flourish as happy, intimate,
positive relationships, in which the spouses are able to resolve conflicts
and are capable of effective communication.
About 25% seriously lack these qualities. However, the
couple stays together because of inertia, financial considerations,
the perception that this is in the best interest of the children's, or
About 50% separate in what is generally a gut-wrenching
experience. Usually, they later divorce. This ranges from a non-event, to a
second horrendous experience.
All couples seem to begin married life with the
assumption that they will be together forever. But not all are successful.
A common scenario is that:
Some find that they have inadequate communications
Some do not make the effort to maintain their
Their marriage gradually is allowed to wear down.
A crisis happens.
They cannot cope with the stress
Their relationship breaks down totally, and they separate.
Short-term affects of divorce:
In many, perhaps most, cases, the major decision is not
whether to divorce, but whether to separate. There is a general consensus that separating is a
profoundly difficult experience. Many recently separated individuals
experience an emotional roller-coaster, in which feelings of elation and
freedom alternate with depression, guilt, fear, and hopelessness. It is common
for a separated person to experience a year of major turmoil before
they are able to restore relative emotional stability. Sometimes, an
ex-spouse will become trapped in their path towards healing, and remain in
Children will almost inevitably feel that the divorce is
their fault. They believe that if they behaved better, their parents would still be
together. They will need assurance that they were not responsible.
Many children attempt to reunite their parents.
Not all separation processes are equally arduous:
Many feel that couples who go through a
collaborative divorce or divorce mediation find the process to be
faster, better, cheaper, and less emotionally draining, when compared to
the conventional process of hiring lawyers and resolving the conflicts
either by negotiation or by litigation.
If children are involved, separation and divorce are
generally more difficult because many additional factors related to child
welfare are involved.
Spouses often use their children as pawns in an attempt to
punish the other spouse. This is particularly difficult for the children
and the abused spouse.
After separation, the average standard of living of the
couple degenerates, because one additional residence has to be funded from
the family financial resources. Couples who both have careers or have
support from their families of origin often more
easily handle the financial drains of separation.
Long-term effects of divorce:
There appears to be no consensus on the long-term effects that
divorce have on the spouses and their children. Two grandmothers, both
best-selling authors, psychologists, and highly respected authorities on
divorce, are leaders in the debate. Each has studied the topic thoroughly, and has reached opposite conclusions:
E. Mavis Hetherington is a professor of Psychology at the
University of Virginia. She examined 1,400 families and more than
2,500 children in a longitudinal study which extended over three decades. She
and John Kelly -- a New York author -- have written a book which is primarily
aimed at college students and counselors. 1
She says "You haven't given your kid a terminal disease if you've divorced."
She believes that the negative effects of divorce have been overemphasized by
proponents of the "marriage movement." According to her
studies, 75 to 80% of children from divorced homes are "coping reasonably
well and functioning in the normal range." She also found that 70% of
their parents are leading lives that are "good enough" or better than
According to a review in Publishers Weekly: "Hetherington sees
divorce as part of a series of 'interconnected transitions' in life rather
than a one-time event. While destructive in the short-term, divorce can also
be positive, creating new opportunities for long-term personal growth.
Depending on their "protective" factors (maturity, autonomy) vs. "risk"
(impulsiveness, anti-sociability), ex-partners will weather the stormy first
year after divorce with varying degrees of resilience. After six years, most
An About.com reviewer says that the authors describe:
"...how women and girls experience divorce differently from men and boys; why
single-mother-son relationships and stepfather-daughter relationships are the
most difficult; why divorce presents a greater risk to adolescent children;
and how mentoring and authoritative parenting can buffer against negative
effects. This unprecedented look at our divorce-prone society concludes that
the aftermath of divorce need not be a prescribed pathway of dissolution but
can be one of healing and ultimate fulfillment." (In an apparent
Amazon.com's book review has an icon on which one can click to add this
book to their "wedding registry.")
Judith S. Wallerstein, Sandra Blakeslee, & Julia M. Lewis have
written a book: "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce : A 25 Year Landmark
Study." Ms Wallerstein is founder and executive director of the
Center for the Family in Transition, and a senior lecturer at the
School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley.
Ms. Lewis is a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University
and co-principal investigator of the Children of Divorce Project --
a longitudinal twenty-five-year study. Sandra Blakeslee is a science and
medical writer. Their book is based on a study which tracked about 100
children who grew up in an unhappy or divorced family. She reports that "...children
of divorce have a very hard time growing up. They never recover from their
parents' breakups and have difficulty forming their own adult relationships."
Their book discusses the different roles that children take in the event of a
divorce or unhappy marriage. It also deals with difficulties that children of
divorce have as adults when they pursue their own relationships. Many feel
that their relationships are doomed. They also try to avoid conflict, and fear
commitment. The book ends with recommendations on how to minimize the damage
that divorce does to the persons involved. It also has suggestions about how
to prevent divorce by strengthening marriages.
Elizabeth Marquardt, spokesperson for the Institute on
American Values, a conservative pro-marriage group, says that: "When a
major researcher like Hetherington comes out and says [that], on the whole,
people turn out okay so don't worry about it, I think it's likely to influence
Frank Fustenbert, a sociologist from the University of
Pennsylvania, stated that "the vast majority of researchers" agree
with Hetherington's research.
The book by Wallerstein et al. has sold more than 100,000
copies and spent three weeks on the New York Times, San Francisco
Chronicle, and Denver Post bestseller lists. It was featured on two
episodes of the Oprah TV program, and made it onto the front cover of
Time and the New York Times Book Review.
Author's opinions, for what they are worth:
The Wallerstein book describes how one of the subjects felt
that being a child of a divorce is "sort of a permanent identity, like
being adopted or something." This author wonders whether there is an
analogy between being adopted and being the child of a divorce.
Adoptive parents can cause serious emotional damage to their
children if they do not handle the adoption carefully -- by keeping it secret,
or by not assuring the child that they have a permanent place in the home, or
by associating adoption with negative beliefs.
Adoptive parents can also minimize or eliminate emotional
damage to their children by telling the child at an early age that they were
adopted, explaining the adoptive process to them, frankly answering any
questions that the child has about their natural parents, and by associating
positive factors with adoption -- that they were specially chosen to be in
Perhaps separating and divorcing parents can have a similar
profound effect on their children. If the parents keep the needs of the
children paramount, agree to not use them as pawns in any inter-spousal wars,
and to assure them that they are not responsible for the divorce, then the
inevitable damage that they will experience from the separation and divorce
may be minimal.
Kathy Boccella, "Book spurs divorce debate," The
E. Mavis Hetherington & John Kelly, "For Better or for Worse: Divorce
Reconsidered," W.W. Norton, (2002). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Judith S. Wallerstein, et al., "The Unexpected Legacy of
Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study," Hyperion, (2001).
Read reviews or order this book safely
Copyright © 2002, by Ontario Consultants on
Originally written: 2002-APR-8
Latest update: 2002-JUL-24
Author: B.A. Robinson