Medical Branch Clinic, Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Fla.

J Am Board Fam Med. 2001;14(3) 

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Consequences of Divorce

Consequences of divorce are difficult to distinguish from effects of situations closely associated with divorce. Marital conflict, separation, loss or partial loss of one parent, changes in social and financial status, single-parent households, and ongoing legal battles about child support and visitation can ensue. Blending families, which can include a stepparent or two, step-siblings, and children of the new union who are half-siblings, is also part of the extended process of which the divorce is only one isolated event.

The suddenly single parent must shoulder the full burden of parenting while dealing with his or her own feelings of loss and disappointment. Divorce represents a great loss for at least one spouse and frequently leads to personal dysfunction expressed in depression, aggression, somatic complaints, and sexual acting-out behaviors.[6] The dys-function can affect parenting responsibilities, which can be overwhelming. Some parents become overly close, inappropriately elevating the children to the role of companion to replace the lost spouse. Other parents become harsh, distant, and authoritarian as they direct the hostility they feel toward the children, doling out more negative and punitive discipline. Children might be unsupervised for long periods as parents work extended hours or re-enter the realm of dating. Some children are overburdened with household chores and rearing younger siblings. The parents can be so exhausted or so invested in their own situations that they have little left to devote to their children, which can lead to disruptions in affection, discipline, and even the daily household routines, such as meals and bedtimes. A hallmark of parenting after a divorce is that it is erratic and inconsistent.[7]

Financial consequences become clear as separated parents must maintain two households with two sets of expenses on the same income as before the divorce. Despite progress during the past decades, only 50% of single-parent households headed by the mother have child support agreements from the father, and only 50% of those receive the full amounts due. Twenty-five percent of the households with support agreements receive no money whatsoever from the noncustodial parent.[7] Custodial parents might immerse themselves in work or a second job to compensate for the financial shortfall. Children often view this behavior as abandonment.

Economic stress extends outside the home. Children are aware of their economic standing compared with those around them. Those who suddenly have less money for brand-name clothing or the unessential "needs" of the average adolescent feel as though they stick out like beacons. A move from a nicer to a more modest house or neighbor-hood shows everyone that their financial worth has changed.

Parental contact is also a casualty of divorce. Wallerstein and Blakeslee[2] found that an employed mother in a two-parent home is in contact with the children 25 hours a week. After the divorce, this number decreases to 5.5 hours a week. A housewife has her 45 hours a week before the divorce decrease to 11 hours a week after the divorce. The employed father's hours decrease from 20 hours a week in the two-parent home to 2 hours a week after the divorce.


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