Rarely is there anything in a child’s life that causes more harm than divorce. “Harm,” like “cripple” involves permanent injury from which one can never completely recover. “Hurt” is temporary. We say “He hurt himself on the playground” and we don’t worry much because we know that soon he’ll be okay. Divorce can actually kill you. A recent book discussing an 80-year study of human development (The Longevity Project) noted the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood is a history of divorce. Grown children of divorced parents die five years sooner than those from intact families.
It’s not hard to understand why divorce is so harmful. When parents divorce, children lose their family. And to kids, their family is virtually their entire world. The family is the incubator in which cognitive and emotional development are nurtured. The experience of being a child who wakes up to discover his parents are divorcing is not unlike, in its devastating anxiety, an adult’s terrifying experience of beholding an earthquake having obliterated one’s home. We adults minimize children’s suffering, because we “grown-up-ize” children. We assume that kids perceive and experience the world the same way we do. We imagine children can recover from trauma as quickly and with as little damage as we can. One divorced father told me his goal was to put his former wife into prison. When I pointed out the obvious – how harmful losing his mother would be to his preschooler, he blithely replied, “No, I have a girlfriend.” Divorce is permanently devastating also because children are still developing. We accept the fact that the younger the child, the less toxicity it takes to produce physical damage. Small amounts of alcohol can harm a fetus. Merely witnessing sexual or violent activities can cause youngsters serious trauma. A miniscule amount of radiation is all it takes to develop cancer in a child when an adult would escape unscathed. Further, most children of divorce never entirely abandon their “reconciliation fantasies” that their divorced parents will one day reunite. A teenage patient’s parents divorced when she was little. Mother and father both remarried and each had more children with their new mates. Well over a decade later, my patient still believed that her mother and father would one day remarry and everybody would be as happily together again. Divorce actually can be tougher for children to recover from than the death of a parent. Kids comprehend there is really no possibility they will be reunited in this life with a deceased parent. But children understand that the only thing preventing their family from reconnecting is the parents’ refusal to get back together. Kids deeply resent their parents choosing to divorce, but they are likely to forgive a parent for dying.
It has been the experience of many psychoanalysts that, for boys in particular, divorce can be a colossal impediment to their ability to master the internal controls necessary to manage aggression. Girls from broken homes often have problems with self-esteem, trust and intimacy. Girls and boys both find it harder to fully trust a partner in later life. Grown children of divorce are apt to identify with their parents and throw in the towel more quickly when their own marriages become stressful. When divorce is not a part of one’s own experience, it becomes a much less viable alternative.
But divorce is sometimes inescapable. When one partner is seriously mentally ill or chronically abuses substances and refuses to accept treatment, there may be no choice. Husbands and wives can develop “irreconcilable differences,” which make living together intolerable for everyone. However, there are ways to minimize the harm children experience when breaking up becomes inescapable: simple, common sense actions that demand no exceptional talent or professional help and no higher degree of self-sacrifice than required of the ordinary “good enough parent.” The single most helpful thing parents can do to safeguard the child is to maintain civil relations for the good of the children. Put the child first! Show by example that, while divorce is always a sad failure, it does not have to be terrifyingly destructive. My clinical experience has convinced me that young children especially need to remain in their home and school whenever possible and visit with the other parent. Truly caring parents will do what it takes to live nearby, so visiting does not become a hardship or just an occasional occurrence. Another of my patients deliberately rented a home within walking distance of his former house. His kids remained in their school and stayed close to their friends. They saw their father even more frequently than before. This patient is the “poster child” for the fact that it is possible and not supremely difficult to protect kids from the worst ravages of divorce. But it does require a willingness to modulate the gratifying feeling of hating one’s ex. As
I tell my patients, I am not unalterably opposed to divorce. But I am unambiguously pro-child. When kids are involved in a breakup, parents should try everything they possibly can before putting their children literally in harm’s way.
Reprinted from The Newsletter of the North Carolina Psychological Association