The Impact of Parental Divorce
by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
All children are beneficiaries and victims of choices their parents make because a mixed performance is the best that parents can give -- a mix of strength and frailty, of wellness and illness, of wisdom and stupidity, of consideration and selfishness. In consequence, children develop partlybecause of and partly in spite of how their parents choose to act.
In the case of parental divorce, children are more victims than beneficiary of this decision. Now they must continue to grow up in consequence of a choice by parents that forever alters old living arrangements as separate parental homes are divided out of a single family, children from now on dividing time between the two. They and their parents will never live all together again.
Now children are left to answer many troubling questions that divorce creates.
1) How can parents who commit to get married choose not to stay married?
2) If the commitment of marriage is made to be broken, then what commitments can you trust?
3) If parents can lose their love for each other, can they lose their love for their children?
4) If one parent can leave the family, can the other parent leave too?
5) If love is not forever, then for how long is love?
Divorce is a life-changing event. It violates children’s basic sense oftrust because it breaks two contractual commitments they took for granted – that their parents would always stay together for the sake of the marriage and for the sake of the family they have created. So for many children, divorce represents a loss of love between parents and a renunciation of family responsibility. No wonder children of divorce so often wrestle with issues of commitment, and of trust in commitment, in later love relationships of their own.
Although not meaning to, when parents divorce each other, they also divorce their children. Divorce may feel necessary or right for parents, but it usually feels wrong for children who to some degree feel anxious, injured, betrayed, abandoned, and rejected. Where the parent or parents wanting the divorce see a prospect for life improvement, children only experience a broken promise, family dislocation, an uncertain future, and personal loss.
That divorce is so common (some statistics estimate about fifty percent of marriages made today will end in divorce), does not mean divorce is a casual event. It is not. It is a far-reaching choice by made by parents usually for their own self-interest at the expense of their children’s happiness. This doesn’t mean that parents are divorcing in order to hurt their children, only that parents cannot divorce without their children getting hurt. This doesn’t mean that parents can’t divorce out of a troubled marriage and make a lasting happy remarriage thereafter. They can. This doesn’t mean that children of parents who remain well married do not have their share of family hurt and harm. They do. This doesn’t mean that parents who remain unhappily married spare children from the consequences of that unhappiness. They don’t.
But divorce is a surgical strike at the family. When it cuts that unit apart, children must adjust to traveling between two households that become increasingly different over time, particularly if one or both parents remarry and the influence of step parents begins to redefine family functioning. But come remarriage or not, for the children there is a permanent sense of parental separation. Living with one parent now precludes living with the other at the same time. "When I’m with one, I miss the other, and I can never have them both together again!" And if parents are not able to emotionally reconcile the divorce, accept and let go old hurts and antagonisms between them, then children must live amid crosscurrents of resentments parents have not been able to put to rest.
Traumatic as parental divorce can sometimes be, however, it rarely "ruins" a child’s life in the long term. Certainly it can mark that life and it can hurt a lot, but the pain is passing, not permanent. It is an influential part of the child’s history, but it is not all of the child’s history. There are far worse adversities (like deprivation, neglect, violence, catastrophic events, or death of a parent) that a child can suffer. Most children are resilient enough to weather parental divorce and grow on with their lives.
Many children also reap gifts from the adversity of parental divorce. They increase their dedication to personal welfare and goals. They increase their capacity for social independence and self-reliance. They become more inured to the uncertainties of life and the hardships it presents. And they increase their resourcefulness for adjusting to change.
© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2006. All rights reserved.