Medical Branch Clinic, Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Fla.

J Am Board Fam Med. 2001;14(3) 

In This Article

How Much Is Divorce To Blame?

For generations the prevailing thought was that it was essential to maintain an intact family and intact home for the sake of the children. Many parents endured the sacrifices of a loveless marriage to avoid the financial and social consequences of divorce. It was the expectation that parents would sublimate their own needs for those of the children. Few questioned the intuitive logic of this premise. As research matured, the model of divorce switched from that of an acute crisis to a more longitudinal view of the changes within a family. Newer findings indicate that many problems precede the divorce itself, and that the effects on the family are often closely related to the level of conflict between the two parents.

Approximately one half of the behavioral, academic, and achievement problems of school-age boys were clearly detectable in the 4 years before the parents actually separated.[9] The changes were shown in decreasing scores on standardized math and reading tests, as well as parent and teacher reports on school performance and behavior. For girls, the problems were similar, but to a lesser degree. Witnessing marital conflict between the two parents can have deleterious effects on children. The stronger the degree of conflict, the greater the effect. Conflicts involving the child directly, conflicts in which the child feels trapped between the two parents, and conflicts involving witnessed physical violence have been shown to be more harmful.[1]

Parental conflict models aggressive behavior rather than civil interaction to resolve disagreements. Children can become so involved in supporting one parent against the other that they lose their role as children and retain grudges that were never theirs in the first place. Parents involved in a high-conflict relationship are often distracted from their roles as parents by the amount of energy and time they expend warring with each other. They are less emotionally available to the children and less effective as parents.[7] Fathers in particular often withdraw from their children as they retreat from the conflict.

Parents who are openly hostile to each other are more prone to direct part of their anger and dis-satisfaction at their children. They are more likely to use negative disciplinary techniques that rely on anxiety and guilt and to apply discipline erratically.[9] These misdirected emotions can be exacerbated when one or more of the children physically or behaviorally (words, expressions, gestures) resemble the hated spouse and serve as substitute targets.[10] The scope and severity of adjustment problems of the children of high-conflict marriages are strikingly similar to those reported for children of divorce.

Research is bearing out the hypothesis that the long-term consequences of divorce depend on the level of marital conflict before the divorce and the level of ongoing conflict after the divorce. Children in high-conflict marriages had the most psychological disturbances and children in low-conflict marriages, the least. Children of divorce had disturbances midway between these other two groups.[9]

When the conflict level was high in a marriage, divorce was associated with a positive outcome. The children were better off 8 to 12 years later than children whose parents continued their high-conflict marriages. Children of high-conflict marriages had serious adjustment problems and poor parent-child relationships at the time of the divorce. Divorce can result in better long-term adjustment when the divorce and separation reduce the conflict and take the children out of the middle. With time the reduced stress apparently outweighs the other consequences.

Conversely, divorce in a high-conflict marriage might generate more stress on the children when the divorce fails to resolve the conflict between the parents. In these cases, parents are often involved in ongoing litigation concerning child support and visitation as well as frequent arguments about minor issues. Too frequently these parents leverage the children against the other parent or choose to express their anger through or to the children on a regular basis. The children remain stuck in the middle with no ability to escape the battle.

An unexpected finding from the study of divorcing families involved low-conflict marriages that ended in divorce. Children of these marriages had more adjustment problems than their counterparts whose parents did not divorce or those in high-conflict marriages that did divorce.[9] It could be that when conflict is low in a marriage, the divorce is unexpected by the children. These children suffer the loss of resources, decreased parental attention, parental absence, and the financial hardships without a compensatory gain to offset the negative consequences.

The Failed Divorce

When two married adults find that they are unable to meet each other's needs to such a degree that they choose to divorce, it should come as no surprise that they would continue to fail to meet each other's needs after the separation. When the unmet needs are so severe that they generate hostility and conflict between the spouses, these unmet needs will often continue to generate the same responses after divorce. A useful label to describe this situation is a failed divorce. A divorce has failed when the conflicts of the marriage are never resolved. The divorced parents continue to fight, argue, and battle. Bitterness and distrust persist. Often these parents are so absorbed in their own emotions that they fail to have any insight into how their behavior affects their children. When separation occurs, parents feel good about themselves by projecting unresolved feelings of disappointment and failure onto the former spouse. Even misbehavior by the child might be attributed to some deficit in the former spouse's parenting. Under the circumstances of ongoing strife and parental pathology, frequent visitations might not be in the best interests of the children, as each contact between the parents only escalates the conflict to which the children are exposed.[4]

It is extremely important for these parents to learn that their relationship as parents must continue regardless of whether they are divorced. Their relationship must evolve into some sort of mature interaction if the children are to develop appropriately. The parents of children of divorce continue to be their parents for life. They must refuse to depreciate the other parent to their children. They must refuse to use the children as pawns, and they must absolutely avoid placing the children in the crossfire of two adults spoiling for a fight. The parents must see the value in attending to the needs of their children, even when their own adult lives are in turmoil. They must continue to set limits, enforce bedtimes, assign chores. If both parents are to be involved in rearing the children, they must learn to co-parent with some consistency. If they do not, they could add failed parent to the list of failed marriage and failed divorce.

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