Is Divorce Bad for Children?

 

In 1999, my children’s world crumbled. After 11 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced. The security my children had always known disappeared—their childhood marred, and their teenaged years scarred with wounds that reopen at every holiday, every sports banquet, every graduation.

The guilt is a burden I have lived with for years. I’m reminded of it every day as I look into my children’s eyes and see a hardness and pain that I never had as a child. I lived carefree in the comfort of my parents’ love. This is a gift I never gave my children. Instead, I showered them with the curses of a divorced life, the mixed loyalties of remarriage, and the travails of a blended family that never really blends.

So when I opened the pages of Scientific American and read an article titled, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?—The breakup may be painful, but most kids adjust well over time,” I couldn’t help but instinctively grasp for relief from my guilt—guilt that is particularly poignant for a conservative who knows full well that one of the great plagues on our nation is the decline of the family.

From the Scientific American:

Parents who split have reasons for hope. Researchers have found that only a relatively small percentage of children experience serious problems in the wake of divorce or, later, as adults. In this column, we discuss these findings as well as factors that may protect children from the potentially harmful effects of divorce.

Divorce affects most children in the short run, but research suggests that kids recover rapidly after the initial blow. In a 2002 study psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia and her then graduate student Anne Mitchell Elmore found that many children experience short-term negative effects from divorce, especially anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief. These reactions typically diminish or disappear by the end of the second year. Only a minority of kids suffer longer.

Most children of divorce also do well in the longer term. In a quantitative review of the literature in 2001, sociologist Paul R. Amato, then at Pennsylvania State University, examined the possible effects on children several years after a divorce. The studies compared children of married parents with those who experienced divorce at different ages. The investigators followed these kids into later childhood, adolescence or the teenage years, assessing their academic achievement, emotional and behavior problems, delinquency, self-concept and social relationships. On average, the studies found only very small differences on all these measures between children of divorced parents and those from intact families, suggesting that the vast majority of children endure divorce well.

I have to admit that after reading the article, I didn’t feel any hope. That’s because I didn’t believe it. No matter what Scientific American says, I knew that divorce is bad for children. I knew it because I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. 

I was never one who could deny the anxiety and heartache that plagued my children as I pulled up to their father’s house or met him at the local McDonald’s for the transfer of the children as if we were trading goods at the market. I remember too well phone calls in the middle of the night from my daughter telling me her stomach ached and she wanted to come home but that she didn’t want to hurt daddy’s feelings. Or when I’d hear her whispering on the phone in her bedroom at my house talking to her dad so I wouldn’t hear (even though I didn’t mind).

I remember my son’s anger, the shaking of his normally gentle voice, when I told him I was getting remarried. Or the tears in his eyes when after one of his soccer games, he told me he wanted to go get pizza with his dad and not me but that he didn’t want to upset me. I can still feel the coldness of my daughter when she said she didn’t care anymore who came to her musicals— she was tired of worrying about whether her dad and I might end up sitting too close to each other. At that moment, I longed for the tears I once hated to return to my daughter’s cheeks and wash away the bitter cold.

I could go on and on: the anger, the outbursts, the fear, the once generous love a child has for his parents that has turned inward to protect and guard itself like a wounded animal. These are the realities of divorce that articles like the one in Scientific American fail to consider. 

To say there’s hope because of a few statistics is meaningless. To say kids get over it is shallow at best. Yes, they learn to cope, they grow up, they have good times in the midst of the bad, but they’re scarred, and they’ve been scarred by those who were supposed to protect them. How sadly ironic that the mother (or the father) who protects her children from so many dangers—be careful climbing that tree, don’t swim too far beyond the waves, watch out for cars when you’re riding your bike, be careful, be safe!—how ironic that she has inflicted more pain on her children than any childhood tumble ever could.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too Irish and prone to guilt anyway. Maybe the article is right. Maybe kids don’t suffer so much. But I just don’t see it because I know the truth, at least in my own life.

Divorce is bad for children. It’s a pain that never ends. It can’t be fixed. Like death, it can’t be undone. It can only be forgiven. The denial mentality of superficial studies will not lift my spirits or give me hope; it will not heal my children’s wounds; it will not fix what is forever broken. That power belongs to Grace alone.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Denise,

    Why can’t people get along? Everyone knows divorse is necessary for truly bad relationships, but it seems people nowadays divorse to fulfill their dreams. You explained the woman’s side but it can be very tough on the man. This is because unfortunately the man does not realize how unhappy the wife is. When they do find out it is usually too late. It just breaks my heart to see two basically good people destroy their family because conflicts are allowed to fester. In life when things are said and done we realize after what we should have said and done. Fortunately many times it is not too late to make things better.
    • #91
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RadiantRecluse
    Mark: Divorce is not good for the children but the degree to which it is bad is impacted by how the parents handle it. 

    Exactly.  Mine, unfortunately, became combative and put me and my three siblings in the middle, and even tried to pit us against each other.  It was so much worse than it needed to be.  We four each had to create worlds and lives of our own apart from each other to survive.  We are still not close but understand why.

    • #92
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    @Tuck

    It really depends on what the alternative is…

    The happiest day of my young life was the day my father told me he and my mother were getting a divorce.  I just wished it had happened when I was younger, the marriage started falling apart when I was 6 or 7, and they didn’t get divorced until I was 18.

    In the meanwhile it was all chaos.  While I can’t know that divorce would have been better, I know for sure that chaos was pretty dreadful, and my reaction to the news of their divorce says a lot, I think.

    So while I can’t know your situation, Denise, there’s a lot to be said for certainty, even if it’s a less-than-ideal certainty.

    • #93
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    @LucyPevensie

    Bad stuff happens to kids. Divorce is among the bad things that happen to kids. It feels worse to us because it feels as though it is something we can keep from happening to our kids, unlike, say, an illness (child or parent) or a parent’s death.  But sometimes (as in DocJay’s case) we simply can’t prevent divorce any more than we could have prevented another awful thing. In those cases, I think how we handle the impact on our kids is important. Do we teach them that they are resilient and that they can handle even huge adversity and survive? That we are tough enough to handle their pain and anger and that they can be honest with us even when their feelings are ugly? Denise, I am sure that you have done a great job communicating these things to your kids, much as you would have preferred them not to have to learn resiliency in this particular way.

    • #94
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    @DocJay

    The husband is going to counseling, no more affair.  He sort of thanked me when I saw him out with the kids(the smiling playful kids!), he may know his tougher path now is nothing compared to the harder one he was trodding.    His wife is a kind and decent person btw so the issue is his selfishness.   The grass is greener where you water it.

    • #95
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @TheRightNurse

    I dearly appreciate your honesty.  I did not have the fortune of marrying the man my daughter and I loved most.  We dated for a longer period of time with the assumption of marriage and acted  as if for a very long time.  That separation has done more damage than any separation she had from her birth father.  It is that distance that causes the distress… it’s the distance.  It is the hurt and the tears and then the indifference.  She hopes for siblings and for love for her mother.  But at the same time that she hopes for it… she almost knows and fears that all love is really temporary.

    That is the fear and the destruction of divorce and separation. It is the fear that unconditional love, as it was taught, is not truly that.  It is unconditional… until it is not.d

    • #96
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    @EricHines

    Divorce does hurt the kids.  But not divorcing can hurt the kids even more.  That’s a comparison that can only be made by the folks involved; each situation is unique.

    But staying together “for the kids’ sake” is destructive.  Try to stay together on the merits of the relationship, certainly; things usually aren’t as bad as they seem.  But sometimes they are that bad, and divorce is the better answer.  The kids know what’s going on, and they know when they’re the reason their parents are staying together and living unhappily. That’s a terrible guilt trip to lay on them.

    Eric Hines

    • #97
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @katievs
    Patrick in Albuquerque: 

    But the DECISION to have them is a selfish one. 

    I don’t agree with this either, and I can’t understand why you think so.  Maybe it’s selfish in some cases, but much more often it comes from love, which is never selfish.  

    • #98
  9. Profile Photo Contributor
    @TommyDeSeno
    Denise McAllister

    Tommy De Seno: You can’t put a universal good or bad label on these things.  Too many variables.  Too many outcomes.

    How the parents act – the constitution of the children, etc.

    Do your best.  No one can ask you for more. · 11 minutes ago

    I understand what you mean, I do…. but I do think there is a matter of right and wrong in these situations. · 19 minutes ago

    I don’t mean to minimize it.  You are correct there is a right and wrong, but don’t dwell on the right and wrongness of the split because it is over.

    The right and wrongness you have to worry about now is the kids and damn well better see to it. 

    But don’t beat yourself up.  It’s a hard hustle.  Do your best.   You know your kids better than anyone.  They may need more or less than others on the issue.

    • #99
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @JoALT

    Some journeys cannot be known until they are taken. Most of us started off with the best of intentions and dreams. Heck if we know how hard it is to raise children, how many of us would have the courage to have them?Who doesn’t want a happy everlasting relationship and a simple loving family? (Well, maybe liberals and their twisted “it’s my time now” mentality). 

    I salute your honesty and bravery Denise. I know first hand how hard it is to have a divorce, to raise a child in pain, to watch my spouse carry this endless guilt and how hard it is to be a stepmother. You made the best decision you could have made over a partnership you probably have only had 50% vote anyway. 

    Divorce is bad and I cringed when Dr Phil said ” children would rather come from a broken family than to be raised in one”. But Grace is an amazing gift. What is broken can be healed, what is ugly can be made beautiful. From the muddy swamp, the perfectly unstained lotus can emerge. And we are worth more than the lotus. 

    • #100
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @

    DocJay,

    Great news that your friend got counseling and decided not to “maim” his kids. It is amazing how one friend with truth can change things.

    • #101
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Tommy De Seno

    don’t dwell on the right and wrongness of the split because it is over.

    The right and wrongness you have to worry about now is the kids and damn well better see to it. 

    But don’t beat yourself up. 

    You’re right about getting past it. The thing is, when you have done something wrong, you can’t ever really get past it without the forgiveness and grace I spoke of—and these can’t be presumed upon or demanded. You can ask. You can plead. But they have to be given. Healing can’t come without them. Do you know what it is like to thirst for grace? There is no longing in the human soul like it.

    • #102
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Joan of Ark La Tex:  But Grace is an amazing gift. What is broken can be healed, what is ugly can be made beautiful. From the muddy swamp, the perfectly unstained lotus can emerged. And we are worth more than the lotus.  · 4 minutes ago

    Yes, it is a beautiful gift.

    • #103
  14. Profile Photo Contributor
    @TommyDeSeno
    Denise McAllister

    Tommy De Seno

    don’t dwell on the right and wrongness of the split because it is over.

    The right and wrongness you have to worry about now is the kids and damn well better see to it. 

    But don’t beat yourself up. 

    You’re right about getting past it. The thing is, when you have done something wrong, you can’t ever really get past it without the forgiveness and grace I spoke of—and these can’t be presumed upon or demanded. You can ask. You can plead. But they have to be given. Healing can’t come without them. Do you know what it is like to thirst for grace? There is no longing in the human soul like it.

    As I understand it, you have to:

    1. Be sorry for what you did;

    2. Be resolute in not wanting to do it again;

    3. Ask for forgiveness;

    4. Do a penance.

    The Lord will grant you all the grace you need.

    I’ve been there.  I recall at a point in my life feeling like I had to do the above several times over the same sin.

    God will get you there.

    • #104
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    @CorneliusJuliusSebastian
    Denise McAllister

    Merina Smith: Your kids are lucky to have such a mother.  

    No, I don’t think so. · 1 hour ago

    You should not say such a thing, Denise.  They are lucky. Thank you for writing what is clearly a very emotionally charged and dfficult piece.  This needs to be on the Main Feed.  I’ve had soem real struggles in my marriage.  Many times considered chucking it.  Have not done so for the reasons stated herein.  Thanks for reminding me of what I already knew.  Hang in there.  You are a gem.

    • #105
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    At some level all parents want to keep their children wrapped in cotton wool – and it breaks their heart when they find that they can’t.

    I really appreciated the article – and take heart Denise.  Divorce is bad for kids, but so is living in a miserable home.  Peace and good will to you and yours.

    • #106
  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CorneliusJuliusSebastian
    10 cents: Gloria Hurd,

    I give you the benefit of the doubt that all you want is for Denise to have peace. You are trying to share some tough love. It is coming off bad because it sounds like you are setting yourself above her. We all struggle with things in our pasts so are you sharing from experience of how you overcame a similar difficulty or are you sharing ideals that should be followed? Do you not also have regrets? If so, how have you dealt with them.

    Gloria Hurd: Joan of Ark La Tex:   

    I’m a stranger who asked questions with a sting…. 

     

    Second.

    • #107
  18. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CorneliusJuliusSebastian
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: This doesn’t have to do with divorce, per se, but I just read this impossible-to-summarize article titled “MECHANISM, PUBLIC REASON, AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ORIENTATION  How the debate over “gay marriage” has been shaped by some ubiquitous but unexamined presuppositions” that couldn’t be more on point to the topic of “selfishness” and childbearing if it had been written in response to this and, frankly, every other thread on the main feed right now.

    It’s blowing my mind.

    katievs, you must read it. Same for you Patrick in Albuquerque.

    I want people to talk to about it!

    And yes, I will try to make a thread out of it on some level. · 10 hours ago

    Wow.  THANK YOU I missed this Crawford piece.  Please do write a post about it.  This is an impressive contribution to the debate, along with George, et al.’s stuff over at Witherspoon Inst.

    • #108
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque

    You don’t leave your boy.

    My father split from my mother and me almost 70 years ago.  My earliest memory is of him getting on a train to go off to WWII. Think of that, I was three years old and I remember it to this day. While away he made the decision to never come back to my mom.  Because of that decision I had no contact with him until he came back from Europe when I was 14.

    So Is Divorce Bad For Children? My personal experience says yes. In all outward ways my life has been very successful. But there are not-so-good things about me that (perhaps) only I know. Given some introspection, it’s easy for me to believe that they are traceable to him leaving me for all those years.

    When he was in his last years, he gave me an explanation for his departure. It was an expression of pure selfishness. The result for him was that he never really had a son.

    My mantra: you don’t leave your boy. And if you decide to have a child, be damn well ready for the responsibility.

    • #109
  20. Profile Photo Inactive
    @katievs
    Patrick in Albuquerque

    In today’s secular, birth control-ized world people make the decision whether or not to have children. For heteros, one partner (often the woman) feels a need, often a self-focused need. The other can go along or not. If he/she goes along, I’ll grant you it could be out of selfless love. But it can also be out of self-interest; eg, “I’m better off being with this person than not.”  If the choice is to not go along, the relationship often breaks up which, from the standpoint of any possible children, may have been the best.

    You can give credence to my scenarios or not.

    The scenario you paint is not a familiar one to me.  In my world, the desire for children is the natural development of married love.  Love wants to be shared.  

    And even where children are received as a gift from God and welcomed with great joy, parents understand that having them involves a lot of sacrifice.  They say yes anyway, out of love and generosity.

    • #110
  21. Profile Photo Inactive
    @katievs
    Zafar: At some level all parents want to keep their children wrapped in cotton wool – and it breaks their heart when they find that they can’t.

    Well, now wait a sec.  Surely you wouldn’t want to equate doing right by your kids with being overprotective?

    • #111
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque
    katievs

    Patrick in Albuquerque

     

    The scenario you paint is not a familiar one to me.  In my world, the desire for children is the natural development of married love.  Love wants to be shared.  

    And even where children are received as a gift from God and welcomed with great joy, parents understand that having them involves a lot of sacrifice.  They say yes anyway, out of love and generosity. · 12 hours ago

    I understand all this about you Katie.   :-)    Peace

    • #112
  23. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PatrickinAlbuquerque
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: katievs, you must read it. Same for you Patrick in Albuquerque.

    Yikes, today’s to do list!

    • #113
  24. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    I would not, Katie.

    Isn’t there a part of you that wants to keep your kids from all harm?

    I’m sure you know with your head that this is neither possible nor desirable, but isn’t there a small part of you that desires it anyway?

    katievs

    Zafar: At some level all parents want to keep their children wrapped in cotton wool – and it breaks their heart when they find that they can’t.

    Well, now wait a sec.  Surely you wouldn’t want to equate doing right by your kids with being overprotective? · 18 minutes ago

     It’s probably overprotective when/if you give in to that part excessively.

    • #114
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @GloriaHurd

    Joan of Ark La Tex:  Ms. McAlister furnished us with a timeline.  This has been recycling since 1999.  1999!  Picture yourself at 25 riding a bike on a dirt road.  You fall and get a nasty, deep elbow wound. Doc says clean out the gravel.  NO bandages.  It has to heal from the inside out.  Fast forward: you’re now 40.  You used bandages to protect the elbow wound, didn’t keep it open to the air.  The old wound is painful whenver there’s a storm.   

    I’m a stranger who asked questions with a sting.  (It was low using her children, but that’s where she lives.  They’re her heart.)  It sounded to me like she’s been replaying the same lousy movie for a decade and a half.  I wondered if it just might be possible that anger vented at some cranky broad  she’ll never have to deal with might open a different way for her to get at it, to heal.  She doesn’t need me to coddle her.  A new timeline of peace and reconciliation for her and her children would be worth some thinking me inelegant.  

             

    • #115
  26. Profile Photo Inactive
    @katievs

    Sheesh, Gloria.  What an ugly interpretation.

    • #116
  27. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MollieHemingway

    This doesn’t have to do with divorce, per se, but I just read this impossible-to-summarize article titled “MECHANISM, PUBLIC REASON, AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ORIENTATION  How the debate over “gay marriage” has been shaped by some ubiquitous but unexamined presuppositions” that couldn’t be more on point to the topic of “selfishness” and childbearing if it had been written in response to this and, frankly, every other thread on the main feed right now.

    It’s blowing my mind.

    katievs, you must read it. Same for you Patrick in Albuquerque.

    I want people to talk to about it!

    And yes, I will try to make a thread out of it on some level.

    • #117
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    @DocJay

    I read the article from Humanum. SoCons will lose this battle in public opinion and in the courts regardless of whatever anyone here thinks. The next battle will revolve around thought crimes and the prosecution of them if Obama gets the scotus stacked. Of course if that happens then I’ll be dead soon thereafter anyway, and our country won’t be worth a squirt of piss.

    • #118
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    @DCMcAllister

    Mollie—thank you for the link. I’ve read some of it and will read the rest tomorrow. I haven’t engaged in much of the discussion about same-sex marriage precisely because the objective epistemological and moral foundations have been cast aside. The issue here is moral relativism and the objective nature of femininity and masculinity, both objective forms that are necessary to the foundation of the family and society. At any rate, we’re on the slippery slope to chaos. So much to say, but more later, maybe when you write your post on this.

    • #119
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    @DCMcAllister
    Gloria Hurd:Joan of Ark La Tex:  Ms. McAlister furnished us with a timeline.    ….. 

    It has been a long time. Of course, I only gave you a tiny peek into my life. The bigger, more horrible story is probably unlike any most people have dealt with. Actually, I can pretty much guarantee that. That being said, my intention for the post was more to show that divorce is painful and bad for children, at least in my situation (though certainly not all situations are like mine, and I wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement for all). I just didn’t want Scientific American to get away with glossing over real pain, real suffering, real consequences. The outpouring of kindness in the thread to me directly has been a surprise (and a welcome one), but I know more than anyone that I don’t deserve it. It has warmed my heart, though, to the loving souls here on Ricochet. I know I’m undeserving of it, of the grace these noble people have shown me. I’m quite unworthy (I know that better than anyone). I am humbled.

    • #120
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