The Effects of Divorce on Children

Marsh Fightlin - Divorce


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.

© Marsh Fightlin. All Rights Reserved.

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36 thoughts on “The Effects of Divorce on Children”

  1. Good grief, Susan! What has anyone in this thread done to deserve the kind of treatment you’re dishing out? Everyone here has their own experiences and opinions, just as you do. How ’bout not judging them for simply speaking their minds on a very delicate subject? The only one doing any judging here is you.

  2. To Susan,

    It’s unfortunate you misinterpreted my statement. Never intended to be hostile towards anyone, let me assure you. I was only commenting on my personal experience with a great many divorced couples. And I still can’t think of an exception to my comment and yes, there are exceptions. I just don’t know them. Had I known you and the charitable way you handled your ex, I couldn’t have made my blanket statement. You would have been someone to emulate. God bless.

    1. Mr. Steele, my experience at women’s shelters is that the ones who have been in their abusive marriages the longest are almost invariably Catholics to the point that it’s a tragic joke. The saddest part is how many are estranged from the Church because of the judgmental attitude towards divorce they experience there. It’s real. It’s horrible. It’s common. The Church really needs to get it head out of the sand on domestic abuse. Anyone interested would do well to read, “Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft. It’s a real eye opener.

  3. To Susan: Thank you for sharing your story. I don’t think anyone here is judging you. We are just sorry that divorce is so prevalent. In Mr. Steele’s comment, he does say that “there are, of course, exceptions.” You are definitely one of those. I am sorry you suffered so much at the hands of your ex-husband. There are many individuals who try to stick it out in bad marriages for the sake of the children. Unfortunately, it takes both parents to want to make it work. As you know first hand, one parent cannot heal the marriage. I hope you and your children find healing and peace. I know I am commenting rather late, but I hope you see this and know that we are not talking about you or people like you.

  4. I feel that the family unit is the fundamental building block of society. A good building block builds the best society. You can still build with a building block that is less than perfect, but it is not as strong, and can be damaged when a storm hits.

  5. p.s. Same to all of you who are so superior on this site. The Lord Himself would never speak to anyone the way some of you do. And by the way, to the author, The couple in the “Thin Man” series did have a son. So much for your expertise.

  6. My parents, married 25 years, divorced when I was 21. I have suffered some of these same effects, including fear of commitment and difficulty enjoying things (waiting for the other shoe to drop), even though I was an “adult” when my parents divorced. My sister (not a Catholic), has suffered even more of the effects including four divorces and a daughter who is now being raised by her father as a result of the last divorce. Just like the sin of abortion, the sin of divorce is evidence of evil at work in the world. I’m not saying that there is NEVER a reason for divorce (abuse, for example, cannot be tolerated) but our society’s laissez-faire attitude towards it has done all of us great harm.

  7. What is it with Psychologists? In reality anyone that wants to understand the effects of anything orientated towards human behaviour should study the Human Heart. My parents divorced in the 80’s it affected me immensely but intamcy issues were not a problem in fact it was the opposite. Firstly, I knew that when I would get married I would want it to work for the benefit of my children and that my children would need a stable loving environment to flourish. Today’s version of a stable loving environment from what I have seen within the majority of families involves no discipline and spoiling children the old classic of striving to give children the materialistic requirements that the parents never had whilst ignoring the primary neccessity of love. It amazes me how few parents and how few children ever state that they love each other and I’m not talking about this disneyified love that has infiltrated society I talking about the true definitions of love (there are 4 in Greek). Whilst I was at School during and after my parents divorce feeling completely pissed off with the world every day it was my headmaster who luckily spent the time with me trying to help me get through it. This man was a Roman Catholic Priest and at the time I couldn’t see that he was such a positive influence but after about twelve years of leaving school it occurred to me that had it not been for him I most probably wouldn’t have made it to where I am today. He was not a psychologist but he truely did understand the human heart. Too much today people with problems head of or send their children off to a psychologist and yet I firmly believe that having a chat with a Roman Catholic priest is the best place to seek help.

  8. Amazing…A deep cord was struck here…..As a child of divorce in the 50’s when no one divorced, and the Msgr of our parish told my (converted) mother to get a divorce from my (raised Catholic Dad) because he came out of WWII angry, alcoholic, and physically abusive…They were divorced…My best friend whose mother had been divorced and remarried was the only person besides my mother who had been divorced….It was not common..and as I learned as an adult the whole community ( including our little Catholic parish) did not think my sister, brother or myself would succeed, but would be majorly in trouble…….My mom went to work when women stayed home…She was the bravest, strongest person I have ever known (my age of 5)…Took the bus at a remote stop and after work stopped at the local grocer and carried the grocerys for our dinner up a hill and about 1/4 mile home…I only mention this because I am so proud of her strength and devotion…and I remember her coming thru the door exhausted and in her always sweet way headed for the kitchen and made dinner…About (my) age eight she could call home and have one of us put the roast or kidney bean/hamburger..scalloped potatoes on for dinner…So…what’s my point???…Well…There are so many children starved for love ..Really…People think because they figure ‘it’ out or they ‘find’ a solution or ‘happiness’ everyone else including their children ‘find’ it also…. I’m too polite to assign a word to this naive arrogance….Children suffer way beyond the ‘time’ of the separation/divorce…Most of the time the children think they have failed to ‘keep’ the marriage/family together…They blame themselves…poor little critters……..OK…….. What kids really miss (we are talking major life lessons) is something my older sister pointed out to me (after we were grown and having had children and were successful in the secular world) every child needs to understand the dynamics of the interaction between the two sexes…how to touch, hug, interact…We had not learned how to touch, HUG, interact and as a result we have all been successful in the secular world (contray to expectations) but are basically sterile in the world of honest and deep love….Sad isn’t it… May god have mercy on all of these children and I know He loves us… My faith has been the only thing that has saved me…….. God Bless you…Dont give up !!!!!!

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  10. Dear Mr. Fightlin

    I wonder if this effect is the same with children of sexual abuse?

    I have a good reason for asking.

    Thank you for your information

    1. The effects of childhood sexual abuse are indeed lifelong, although I do not know if they are psychologically the same as non-abused children of divorced parents. I used to be a teacher (adult business education) and most of my students tended to be single (never married) mothers who were high-school drop outs. The majority were poor, had 2-3 children by different fathers, and suffered low self-esteem which the school tried to remedy by teaching them good job skills so they could improve their earning capacity. The day after Ophra Winfrey revealed she as a child had been molested by her stepfather, our class discussion revealed, to everyone’s shock, that all 28 of my dear students were sexually abused. They all said that they had never told anyone (through fear or shame) and had been told that they “had asked for it” by their self-justifying manipulators, and felt guilty and soiled. I told them that no matter how it had happened, that innocence was of the soul, not the body, and that before God they were pure and unspoiled children, and he knew how they suffered. I told them that their abusers (almost all step-fathers, their mothers’ boyfriends, —most jobless, alcoholics, or addicts of one sort or another) had probably been abused, and they were just repeating it. I told them that I loved and respected them and they weren’t at fault and that they were wrongly made to feel guilt for their own violation. We all hugged each other and cried, and agreed that we would never speak of this outside that room that day. Funny thing; many of the students which had been struggling with their grades soon afterward seemed to do much better in all their classes. I think you can see the dynamic here. All these grown-up abused children were too poor ever to afford “counseling or psychiatric therapy” but I have no doubt that God was at work in our classroom that day to begin healing them. I had not realized how prevalent sexual abuse of children was until that day. It seems (I hope I am wrong) a hidden epidemic in the slums.

  11. I very much agree with most of the article. After separating for ten years and trying, as a Catholic, to hold the marriage together, she divorced and married a high school friend. It is hard to prove cause and effect, but I see the impact on my two children, now adults. I believe the lack of intimacy, waiting for the next shoe to drop, etc. are real in children of divorced parents. I wish with all my heart that spouses would do everything possible to hold families together and wait for God’s Grace to triumph. All too often, one or both of the parents decide for themselves and their “happiness” while risking the happiness and well being of the children. I wish “no-fault” divorce never came into being and that spouses stood by “till death do we part.”

  12. I totally agree with James. I was 17 when we six kids were told by our parents that they were divorcing and I cried like a baby. After that I saw that the only reason was that they were both being selfish and prideful and not selfless. So they divorced. I married and my belief of faith and trust in God through the most holy catholic church is what is holding my marriege together. My husband suffers from the effects of his parents divorce and the way he acts out he sometimes verbally lashes out at me, I suffered this for over 10 yrs, and had to constantly tell him to get help and talk to someone and that we are not our parents, this is our marriage and I love you. His stbborn pride would not seek help so I turned to the one I could trust and that was Jesus and Mary, finally my husband confronted his parents of all that pain he buried deep inside since he was five years old and our marriage strengthened. Married 21 years now and many people kept telling me to leave, however, I had trust that God would see how much I loved Him and the institution that He created that He would send His blessings of healing on us and through my suffering, He answered my prayer! I’m so glad I did not give into the “easy way out attitudes” of so many people in this world. I love my husband so much and I want so much for him to experience the unconditional Love that God has for all of us if we just choose to make small sacrifces to stick in there and bend the knee to the One that made all of us and everything and ask Him to keep our marriage together, cause we cannot do it without His help.

    1. A cross is hard to bear and God Bless you for hanging in there and loving your husband who was hard to love at times. I see myself in your letter, but I left my first husband. My faith was immature and my own parents divorce had weakened my own resolve. So many people think they will have a great new life after divorce, but all couples have problems. Pope Benedict just talked about how lack faith in a marriage hinders the commitment to stay together.

    2. Texie: Thank you for your witness. It really blessed me today, as I struggle with a spouse who focuses on his “feelings.” I went through TWO divorces with my parents and I know the pain that children feel from that abandonment. I pray the Rosary that my husband will see the light someday.

  13. The core of marriage is commitment and faithfulness. The rise of divorce has been concomitant with the rise of birth control, which makes it easier to conceal both fornication & adultery.

    However divorce is also concomitant with the loss of faith as evidenced by the fall of churchgoing in the mainstream denominations, and the rise of those who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (These are most often the same people who cohabitate, or in old-speak, “live in sin.”) Had there not been widespread societal loss of faithfulness and trust in God– as evidenced by diminished churchgoing– the knock-on effect of the loss of faithfulness to one’s spouse would not have resulted in “the sexual revolution” , its 3 tragic children: birth-control, promiscuity, divorce; and its 2 terrible grandchildren, abortion and euthanasia.

    Lifelong faithfulness in marriage is too challenging for most people UNLESS strengthened by active faith and authentic reliance on God– it takes Three to make a successful marriage. Not for nothing was falling away from authentic religious faith and worship of the One true God likened to fornication, adultery and divorce in the Old Testament– they have, ultimately, the same cause.

    1. My parents were part of the “lucky 2%” who used NFP and still divorced. So I wouldn’t lay all the blame at the feet of contraception. It is why I have always been very skeptical of those who promote NFP as “divorceproofing” a marriage.

      This was in the mid-1980s at the height of the “if you aren’t happy in your marriage, then you should get divorced” era. Even the priest told them if they couldn’t work out their problems to get divorced.

      As a child of divorce, I can relate to many of these things, especially waiting for the other shoe to drop and anxiety/depression issues.

      Unless there is a seriously dangerous/abusive situation, stick together for the sake of the kids. You might even grow to like each other.

  14. Mary C. (Petrides) Tillotson

    Thanks for this article. In “It Takes A Village,” Hillary Clinton pointed out that the people who support traditional family values (pro-life, against homosexual “marriage,” etc.) are oddly silent on the issue of divorce. Perhaps it is, as Marcus Allen Steele says, because the genie is out of the bottle and we’re trying to prevent other genies from getting out of their bottles.

    I think part of the solution is promotion of marriage as a good – both societally and personally – and better preparation for marriage before the vows are made. I think if more young people saw solid marriages, they’d have a better perspective of what they were getting into (sacrifice required, lifelong commitment, yes it really is possible, etc.). A friend of mine, who is engaged, told me that our generation doesn’t need to hear that marriage is hard; we need to hear that it’s possible. I think she is on to something.

    1. In “It Takes A Village,” Hillary Clinton pointed out that the people who support traditional family values (pro-life, against homosexual “marriage,” etc.) are oddly silent on the issue of divorce

      You fight the current battle, not the one that is already lost; when they’re both bad, you fight the one that is the worst.

      The “you don’t complain enough about divorce” accusation is in the same vein as “pro-lifers don’t care about children after they are born” and “you’re loud about opposing abortion, but not contraception.”

      Notice how they don’t talk about how those folks are also “oddly silent” on sex before marriage and getting married in the first place. Not as much to stand on, since those are similarly simple, large issues. As Mr. Fightlin points out, there are situations where the parents shouldn’t stay together; the complaint is more along the lines of “why will you not pick this fight that I think I could win more easily?”

      Radical redefinition of marriage and treating children as disposable is a bigger problem than the devaluing of marriage. Getting people to view sex as important enough to commit to someone in marriage is a bigger problem than a specific, though devastating, aspect of state law– as the researcher found, people do recognize marriage as important, even when there’s the potential landmine of “no fault divorce” in the thick grass.

    2. What is the point of fighting to make sure that the current definition of civil marriage

      “One man and one woman, children optional, for as long as both of us feel like it”

      must include “one man and one woman”?

      Don’t blame gay couples for radically redefining marriage. Straight couples long since beat them to it. A lot of the anti-gay marriage rhetoric sounds like scapegoating gay couples for the straight couples’ problems.

    3. Don’t blame gay couples for radically redefining marriage. Straight couples long since beat them to it. A lot of the anti-gay marriage rhetoric sounds like scapegoating gay couples for the straight couples’ problems.

      What you go looking for, you will generally discover.

    4. Re: Hillary: It might also have somewhat to do with their not looking very hard, in my humble opinion. Probably a little of both.

  15. Thank you. Very good piece. Not knowing divorce firsthand but seeing the consequences with so many of my friends, I’m amazed at the parent’s cavalier attitude in calling it quits. There are of course exceptions.

    And I can’t think of one example where one parent doesn’t demean the other, in subtle or not so subtle ways. The impact on the child, when they hear this sort of nonsense, must be crushing.

    I’m not quite sure how you get the divorce genie back in the bottle. Through reason? That doesn’t work very well if you’re asking people to put their self-interests on the back burner. And we certainly know from abortion that concern for the child is not a national ethic.

    1. I see couples put so much energy into “not hurting the kids” with their divorce. If, they realy don’t want to hurt the kids, put the energy in each other. So difficult to see throug each others hurt…

    2. I see couples put so much energy into “not hurting the kids” with their divorce. If, they realy don’t want to hurt the kids, put the energy in each other. So difficult to see throug each others hurt…

      Girl I know:
      placed in institution at age 1 due to physical issues
      Never expected to walk
      Institution was for mentally slow people
      High likely hood of cancer from genetic testing
      Not expected to amount to much

      Another girl I know:
      Graduated with high honors in computer science
      Married 28 years to same man
      Three grown children
      One married with grand child
      Survived cancer
      Bastion of her faith
      How she got her start:
      Loving caring family saw little girl in institution that did not belong there. She was eventually adopted by a loving Catholic family and became my wife whom I have been married to for 28 wonderful years!

      Don’t ever believe that God cannot make something of your life!

    3. I am amazed on a Christian website to see such hostile judgement. Mr. Steel, you say, “I can’t think of one example where one parent does not demean the other…” Out of the number of divorce cases in this country alone, how many have you seen that you claim such authority? You sound ridiculous to say such a thing especially to one such as me who after years of torment in an abusive marriage, followed by such excrutiating abuse during two years of divorce, to the point that two separate doctors told me independently that they thought my husband was intentionally trying to drive me to suicide, I sobbed in silence, never saying a word against their father to my children…never letting them see what he was doing to me. to the point, that they blamed me for the sudden poverty in which I found myself and my health destroyed. I still kept silent rather than blame their dad on whom they were so dependent. Now, nearly twenty years later, one child is a happy, woman with children of her own. The other has never found his way suffering the same abuse at his father’s hands that I did. By the way, had I not been severely abused in every way by my father as a very young child, I doubt I ever would have married a man like this. But, like my dad, he is a narcissistic sociopath, seemingly the nicest, most harmless and extremely successful guy in the world. Even my own family refused to believe me when I finally broke my silence to explain what was really going on behind closed doors. The point? Look to the millions of abused children who go unheard because our society will not acknowledge such horrific things happen, especially in such “nice” families and you will find abused spouses. Abuse perpetuates itself…espcially if its victim is afraid to leave, not supported in doing so and, then with a judge paid off by a wealthy husband finds herself unable to protect her children…struggles the rest of her life to undue the damage done to her children. When you, in your vast experience have studied all these cases, tell me then how you can pronouce judgement on what is a tragedy for all concerned. Before casting judgment and blame, look to the cause of so much of this pain…in MY experience, very few go into divorce without tremendous suffering before and forever after…and often desparate for their sanity and their lives in a world that refuses to see reality.

    4. Amen. The Catholic Church seems exclusively focused on maintaining marriages without any concern to the horribly corrosive effects of abuse. I came from a healthy family and had no context for what I experienced in my marriage. Fortunately, I finally ignored the advice of my pastors to “offer it up” and got out while I was still alive. I don’t know anyone who has chosen divorce in a glib or cavalier manner. I know several families where women and children are in danger because divorce is considered unthinkable. How many women and children suffer because of the Church’s blind eye to abuse?

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