The statistics are shocking. For years we have heard the divorce rate is 50%. It is taken for granted that divorce has become the norm and changing spouses is a dating site’s delight. If everybody stayed married then how would all those dating sites stay in business? Women marry in hopes of that elusive ‘white picket fence’ and programming from early on. Men marry because they think they’re supposed to. A telling line, by Neil, in the movie, He Is Just Not That Into You, says it beautifully:“People who get married are not to be trusted. You know why? Because if you were legitimately happy, honestly you wouldn’t feel the need to make a big show out of it. You wouldn’t have to broadcast it. They do it because they’re insecure and because they think that getting married is what they’re supposed to be doing now. And so they’re lying to themselves and they’re lying to others”. Not all men feel this way (my hats off to you, and I welcome your responses and insights for those women who sincerely want to meet someone like you). Nevertheless, some stay married, and many more do not.
People without children can pick up the pieces, chalk it up to experience, dust off, move on, marry again, become monks, have affairs, or just stay single. What if they have children?
Below is a compilation of a small portion of statistics on how children are affected by divorce:
“Divorce increases the risk of interpersonal problems in children. There is evidence, both from small qualitative studies and from large-scale, long-term empirical studies that many of these problems are long lasting. In fact, they may even become worse in adulthood”.
Half of all American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Of these, close to half will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage.
Teenagers in single-parent families and in blended families are three times more likely to need psychological help within a given year.
Compared to children from homes disrupted by death, children from divorced homes have more psychological problems.
A major focus of the scholarly literature on divorce is the grouping of common reactions of children by age groups.
· Preschool (ages 3-5): These children are likely to exhibit a regression of the most recent developmental milestone achieved. Additionally, sleep disturbances and an exacerbated fear of separation from the custodial parent are common. There is usually a great deal of yearning for the non-custodial parent.
· Early latency (ages 6½-8): These children will often openly grieve for the departed parent. There is a noted preoccupation with fantasies that distinguishes the reactions of this age group. Children have replacement fantasies, or fantasies that their parents will happily reunite in the not-so-distant future. Children in this developmental stage have an especially difficult time with the concept of the permanence of the divorce.
· Late latency (ages 8-11): Anger and a feeling of powerlessness are the predominate emotional response in this age group. Like the other developmental stages, these children experience a grief reaction to the loss of their previously intact family. There is a greater tendency to label a ‘good’ parent and a ‘bad’ parent and these children are very susceptible to attempting to take care of a parent at the expense of their own needs.
· Adolescence (ages 12-18): Adolescents are prone to responding to their parent’s divorce with acute depression, suicidal ideation, and sometimes violent acting out episodes. These children tend to focus on the moral issues surrounding divorce and will often judge their parents’ decisions and actions. Many adolescents become anxious and fearful about their own future love and marital relationships. However, this age group has the capability to perceive integrity in the post-divorce relationship of their parents and to show compassion for their parents without neglecting their own needs.
The overburdened child phenomena: approximately 15% of children interviewed at the 10 year follow-up point in a 15 year study showed significant effects from taking on the role of holding a custodial parent together psychologically. In a change that goes deeper than a simple reversal of the care-taker role, the child oftentimes becomes responsible for staving off depression and other threats to parent’s psychological functioning, at the cost of their own needs.
In many circumstances, the children kept secrets from one parent about the other, even if they weren’t asked to, to circumvent conflict. In other instances, children from divorces were more than twice as likely to be explicitly asked by a parent to keep a secret from the other parent.
In its worst form, divorce is used as a threat, and it becomes a form of psychological abuse. Either party can use it as a threat in order to manipulate the other person. Over time, the threats may lose their impact and the spouse may stop taking them seriously – along with the one making the threats. By that time, however, great damage would have been done to the trust that is vital to any successful marriage.
We’ve read just a few of the statistics of how the children are affected. What about the real life situations; what really happens behind closed doors.
Here is one woman’s story (in part).
“Our first child was both a joy and a distraction. The love flowed through this bundle of pink. The gifts poured in and the baby slept in our bed for 2 years. I swept so much disgust under the rug that my cleaning lady thought the dog was hiding. My husband handled his disgust in more creative ways: road trips with his buddies, longer than usual nights at the office, silent meditation retreats where phones were taboo, and he kept his desk locked. But we both persevered and sometimes “the good times flowed”. Both of us were really hoping that the marriage would last.
Our second child cemented the relationship or at least the eventual child support; three can’t live as cheaply as one. The fights got louder, four letter words were the vernacular of choice, someone threw a wine glass across the room, the kids cried more, the animosity was apparent to our friends, and my family’s words of wisdom were “I told you so”. But we persevered, bought a new house, attended school events, took vacations, and the family photo albums overflowed with pictures of what appeared to be a happy family. Maybe we really were. Guilt ran rampant, at least mine. Finger pointing was his MO. Again, both of us were really hoping the marriage would last.
Therapy was suggested. We made the rounds of the various therapists in town, all suggesting long-term commitments. Three sessions per therapist was enough for my husband. The therapists were relieved after the third session, and all the sessions were the last one of the day. I guess the therapists have their limits, too. Self- Help books were suggested instead; books don’t have ears. The best advice was to get a divorce and explain to the kids that they won’t find certain words in the Scholastic Dictionary.
It finally busted up. How could it not? We were never friends in the first place and hoping does not trump much needed skills to hold a marriage together. There was talk, there were threats, I did a good job of threatening to leave; in fact we had a 2 year separation and then reconciled hoping we learned our lessons, and there was disbelief on my part when he finally and suddenly moved out 3 years later.
Our lawyers had a field day. We went 15 rounds over who gets the kids, each claiming the other unfit, and another 15 rounds because there was a Prenuptial. Half a forest of trees was destroyed with all the paper being faxed back and forth.
Each of my children handled the divorce in different ways. My younger child did not want to talk at all, the stigma was and still is too hard to handle since all his friends have intact families. He exhibits behaviors that call for anger management, and takes his rage out on me now that he is older. The older child wore the pain in her face, buried herself in her books, and developed an eating disorder. The children were in and out of therapy over the years. One still is in therapy.
Things got complicated, when wife number 2 appeared within months of the divorce and she had her own children. The jealousy and need for Dad’s attention did not fare well with the new wife. And the blame went back to me. Both our grumblings were within earshot of the children. Then the children took sides. At times, when their father came to pick them up, it became a knock down; drag out fight to get the children out the door. At times the whole thing was my fault, I complained that nothing was ever good enough.
I kept a secret diary and he enlisted the neighbors to listen for arguing in the house and report back as to my fitness. Both of us quizzed the kids on what was happening in the other house.
Each of us still, after 10 years, park down the street when picking the kids up or dropping them off from the other’s house. Child support checks are invariably late, often hand delivered by the kids, and messages are sent through the children.
There was and still is a disparity in lifestyle. I ended up downsizing several times over the years and they travel several times a year. I dumped my stuff on the kids, scaring them into thinking I would be without money and without a home. Their father became more of a safe haven. I sequestered myself and stopped trying to date years ago. My kids became the parents, and told me to “get a life” it would make them feel less guilty.
I look back on the last twenty years, and live with the guilt of knowing I hurt the two people I love most in the world, and the lessons are as clear as day. Do not put the kids in the middle. Do not use them as pawns in a power struggle. Do not dump your problems on them. Do not let them know how tight money is. Take the high road and praise their father for all his efforts. Do not threaten divorce unless you mean it. Do not disparage his wife or girlfriend to him or anyone else. Do not let the kids hear you fighting with him on the phone. Neither parent should threaten to pull custody, children have a divine right to love and live with both parents.
For the dad’s out there, the best advice I can offer to you is, if you love your kids then be good to their mother. It costs less in the long run, literally and figuratively.”
This is one woman’s story. I am certain that many of you reading it can nod your heads and say, “that’s me”. There is the flip side, parents who have the mindfulness and foundation of friendship, to ease the pain of divorce for themselves and their children. I welcome feedback and your story as well. My first few articles will deal with the issues of divorce because I am meeting more and more kids, especially teens, which have experienced the break-up of their parents.
And to all parents, I leave you with this: treat the other with respect; it’s not about you as much as it’s about the kids. Encourage time with the other parent. You want your kids to learn by example rather than live your dysfunction. If you can’t show them the true meaning of friendship then show them the grace and civility you each deserve as human beings.