Back in the 1970s, psychologists thought that the effects of divorce on children were minimal and temporary. It was assumed that, if the divorce was “civil”, the children would undergo a modest amount of upset and need for adjustment. Once they got used to the change of residence, school and access to their fathers, the impact of divorce on them would be over. This led to “no-fault divorce” and the popularization of the saying: “Better to be a child of divorce than a child of an unhappy marriage.”
These beliefs of social science professionals were forever shattered by the ground-breaking studies of Judith Wallerstein in the 1990s and after. Her studies were unlike earlier studies in at least two respects. First, she focused on what the children reported, not what the divorced parents reported. Second, her studies were longitudinal. That is, she didn’t limit her investigation to the time immediately after the divorce, but followed the children into adulthood and beyond. Her findings were astounding.
First off, the effects of divorce on children last well into adulthood. Even though, as children, they seemed to have “adjusted”, there is a mysterious sleeper effect that doesn’t become apparent until the child is in the stage of life that developmental psychologists call “intimacy”, usually in the early to mid-twenties.
Adult children of divorce are more likely than children raised in intact families to be fearful of intimacy. They are especially fearful of commitment, often remaining on the brink of marriage in cohabitation arrangements. Their thinking: “I don’t want to happen to me what happened to my parents.” If they do marry, they tend to fear and avoid having children. Their thinking: “I wouldn’t want to inflict on my kids what my parents inflicted on me.”
They even have trouble enjoying themselves. Most of them never saw their parents’ divorce coming. They remember that, as children, when they were enjoying themselves, their parents one day called them together and said, “We have something to tell you…” Now, as adults, when they are supposed to be enjoying themselves, they are waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop.
By every measure of flourishing known to social science, children of divorce do noticeably poorer than children raised in intact families: higher incidence of school drop-out, drug use, sexual acting out and teen pregnancy, need for the mental health profession and for anti-depressants.
This unhealthy situation is largely dependent on the prevailing divorce culture of our society. That culture, in turn, is largely determined by the redefinition of marriage that has already occurred. Our culture has already replaced the traditional view of marriage as oriented to the procreation and education of children with the romantic view of marriage as “two people who are very much in love.” This goes back a generation before the 1970s “no-fault divorce” to the Hollywood concept of “love-at-first-sight”, the glamorization of childless marriages and, implicitly, of marital contraception. (The “love-at-first-sight” concept is ubiquitous in Hollywood movies. Regarding childless marriage–I’m dating myself here–but think of the “Thin Man” series with William Powell and Myrna Loy.)
Certainly there are situations in which a married person, even with children, should separate from his or her spouse. I am not talking about such cases. But in the vast majority of cases, the question should not simply be, “What do I want?” It should be, “What is in the best interest of all those involved?” With what we now know about the impact of divorce on children, the answer should more often be the long, arduous road of marriage counseling, rather than the quick-fix of divorce.
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