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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.

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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 other factors.


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 skills.


Some do not make the effort to maintain their relationship.


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.

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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 serious distress.

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.

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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 before. 2

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 are happier.


An reviewer says that the authors describe: " 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 oversight,'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 parents' decisions."

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.

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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 their home.

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.

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  1. Kathy Boccella, "Book spurs divorce debate," The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  2. E. Mavis Hetherington & John Kelly, "For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," W.W. Norton, (2002). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  3. 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 Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-8
Latest update: 2002-JUL-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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