How will my divorce affect my child? A lot of parents out there are asking this question and unfortunately there’s a problem with the answer.
The problem is that the ‘answer’ doesn’t really exist. The professionals don’t know. Two of the leading experts in the field, Judith Wallerstein and E. Mavis Hetherington seem to give very different research based answers to this most fundamental question. In Wallerstien’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she contends that divorce damages children significantly, both in the critical years post divorce and into adulthood. But in Hetherington’s For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, she states that most children of divorce become well adjusted, thriving adults.
What I really dislike about the research are the generalizations that tend to get tossed around by experts as evidence of our damage. Statistics, such as we tend to get lower grades, attain lower education levels, have higher rates of incarceration, drug abuse and alcoholism, will suffer more broken bones and illnesses, and have a difficult time maintaining long lasting, healthy marital relationships. All of those things may very well might be true, but reading them usually prompts an oppositional response such as, “I was divorced five years ago and my child’s grades haven’t gone down at all” or, “My parents divorced when I was seven and I’m happily married today”. And those oppositional arguments bring forth the premise that as long as children and grown children don’t fall into those generalizations propagated as the definitive evidence of emotional damage, then it must follow that there was no damage from divorce at all. Not only is that entirely false, it doesn’t get us anywhere.
I would prefer to look less at the surface and get more to the heart of the matter. What does divorce do to a child? Really?
I believe that divorce is a trauma for children. And for those who would argue that an amicable divorce isn’t, I would respond that it doesn’t really matter how softly the button that drops a bomb gets pushed. It doesn’t matter if the person dropping it waggles peace signs or sings Kum By Ya. It doesn’t matter. The trauma still happens. The ‘amicable’ part really only helps reduce the aftershocks. But that trauma affects us to our core. It alters the fabric of our very being. And like any trauma survivor, we develop coping mechanisms to navigate our survival. That is the biggest difference between children of divorce and children of intact families – we have had to find coping mechanisms unique to our situation. And it is our coping mechanisms that will mitigate how long we remain victims, as well as if or how we transition into survivors.
I believe there are two core issues that children of divorce struggle with. The issues of trust and attachment.
Trust, because everything that we trusted since we were born: our parents, our family, our home completely and unexpectedly changes and we have absolutely no power to prevent it. Attachment, because we are expected to accept the loss of our family, often times the relative loss of one parent, sometimes the loss of our home and simply move on. I think almost every other emotion we have can be traced back to these two issues. Anger, because we couldn’t trust what we thought we could. Sadness because we didn’t want things to change. It all goes back to the core. And it is the coping mechanisms we develop when confronted with these emotions that determine how healthy our response will be.
Some will develop particularly toxic coping mechanisms. They might hurt everyone around them so as to not feel alone in their pain. Others can form rather helpful coping mechanisms. They feel powerless and out of control so they find something like school or sports that they can focus on, control the outcome of and excel at. According to Heatherington, 25% of us develop severe psychological problems. I think the psychological health of the child previous to divorce has the biggest impact on how well they will cope in both it’s wake and aftermath because the healthier one is psychologically, the healthier their coping mechanisms will tend to be.
These are some of the coping mechanisms I employed:
Trust – I found growing up that I was always making contingency plans. I never knew when the bottom was going to fall out of whatever I was doing, so I was always considering alternatives. This was sometimes perceived as being well prepared, and other times perceived as scheming. And since the only thing I could really count on was me, I wanted to control whatever I could and I became fiercely perfectionistic. My anger runs palpably under my surface and although I control it as well as I control anything else, it’s still there. Lying in wait.
Attachment – I am intensely independent. Being physically and verbally affectionate with my parents or siblings makes me uncomfortable. Being close emotionally with others is very difficult. I prefer to hold everyone at an arm’s length. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to become an adult so that I could form a family of my own, to create attachments which I could relish in and enjoy. And now that I have those, they are the cornerstone of my life. I don’t really know who I am. I not only disassociated with others, I also disassociated with myself. When asked a question, I usually spend less time contemplating my actual answer and think almost entirely about how I should answer. Because meeting expectations and not letting anyone really see me, makes me feel safe.
Am I a thriving healthy adult woman who got good grades, completed College, has a career, has friends, got married, had children and owns a home? Yes. Does that mean that my parent’s divorce didn’t affect me? No, of course not. I still feel those aftershocks of divorce, even thirty years later. Some of those affects, I have embraced. I was able to funnel some of my issues in a positive way. Into a positive coping mechanism. Some of those affects I am working to change because the coping mechanism no longer produces the result I’m looking for.
How does divorce affect children? Ask me, because I think I may have the answer.
It turns them into survivors.