Your Marriage Can Be Saved #15: The Myth That Divorce Won’t Hurt Your Children

(Doty Cemetery, Monroe County) 

If you are married with children, contemplating divorce, and have been told that “divorce won’t hurt your kids – they will be all right,” stop! That is simply not true. The expert on “children of divorce” is Dr. Judith Wallerstein, professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of California-Berkeley. Years ago I read her ground-breaking longitudinal study of children of divorce, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study. I have handed out occasional copies to men and women who told me they were getting divorced and believed the kids will get through it just fine.

Read Wallerstein’s book to get the full picture. And, her work is cited all over the internet.

Wallerstein states: `The delayed impact of divorce in adulthood is a revolutionary finding and a stunning surprise. We thought that children would be able to work through issues related to divorce by the time they reached late adolescence or left home. We advised parents that if they refrained from fighting and arranged their schedules so that the children could see both of them often, then the children would do well. But these policies were based on adult needs and perceptions of divorce. We failed to realize that living in a post-divorce family is an entirely different experience for children as opposed to adults. The story of divorce is far more complex and the impact more far-reaching than we had ever imagined.”

Wallerstein discovered that growing up in a divorced family creates a consistent pattern of behaviors and expectations in young people when they set out to form their own adult relationships. Otherwise well-functioning adult children of divorce, now in their late twenties to early forties, must fight to overcome:

Expectations of failure, based on an “internalized image of failure;”

Fear of loss, due to earlier anxiety about abandonment by one or both parents;

Fear of change, since experience has shown them it is usually for the worse;

Fear of conflict, because it leads to explosions or the impulse to escape;

Fear of betrayal, because they have seen so much of it;

Fear of loneliness, sometimes leading to self-destructive choices in partners.

It’s not surprising that Wallerstein discovered that adult children of divorce lack a healthy “Couple Template.” They don’t have a model of what healthy marital partnership is. “They carry the template of the relationship between their parents into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment. Anxiety leads many young adults into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether. Ominously, they also say that they will not support their parents, especially their fathers, in old age.” (Cited here, as with the two preceding paragraphs)

Children of divorce have the deck stacked against them. Yet I have seen some of them grow into healthy adulthood in spite of this. I am especially impressed by a faith in God some of them acquire. This allows them to find blessing and a foundation rooted in God as an experiential reality. This compensates for parents who, in their divorce, cut the familial foundation out from under them.