David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (2003, 2004, 2005) of the Institute for American Values believe that the cumulative effect of divorce has eroded the foundation of American society. They believe the impact of the no-fault divorce policy has made it far too easy to divorce and contributes to a culture that is comfortable with divorce. In addition, the modern/postmodern preoccupation with individualism and self-fulfillment places inevitable tension on marriage today as contrasted to values of covenant commitments and personal sacrifices. Also, unrealistic expectations, lack of egalitarian practices, loss of a community base to support family life, and the emergence of materialism as a dominant value take a toll on marriages. Clearly, there are a multitude of reasons, some direct and some indirect, some conscious and some unconscious, some personal and some societal, that explain why people divorce.
The Process The divorce process can be a stressful and conflict-ridden time. Any
antagonistic or abusive pathology that has previously existed is likely to escalate during and immediately after divorce proceedings, increasing the threat of harm to the children. Divorce and custody proceedings are often accompanied by destructive and adversarial—even abusive—behavioral
patterns. The initial phases of divorce and separation are the most dangerous for domestic violence victims. Divorce tends to bring out the worst in partners.
From a legal standpoint, divorce is enacted on a specific date; however, the ending of a marriage typically stretches over several years. As both a public and a private process, divorce is a crisis-producing event. It involves the death of a relationship, and as with most deaths, pain and crisis are common by-products. Although both suffer immensely, generally the man is affected most negatively in the sociopsychological sphere and the woman in the economic.
The divorce process typically follows a four-stage sequence. The first stage is the period before separation, sometimes referred to as the emotional divorce or the erosion of love, which conjures up feelings of anger, disillusionment, and detachment. The second stage is the point of actual separation, which often is accompanied by bargaining tactics, sadness, regret, and depression. The third stage, the period between the separation and the legal divorce, involves legal issues, economic readjustments, continued mourning, coparenting arrangements, reorientation of lifestyle, and a focus on one’s own identity and emotional functioning. The fourth and final stage of personal recovery includes a restructuring and restabilizing of lives, opening up to new possibilities and goals. This time may include a “second- adolescence” phase of being single and being involved in the dating scene again.
The emotions people experience in the four stages of a divorce are like the emotions experienced during the stages of coming to grips with the death and dying of a spouse. Although the marriage has ended, the two individuals are still alive, however, and their relationship with their children has not ended, keeping them involved with each other after the divorce.
The Effects on Children It is no surprise that parents’ conflictual relationships negatively impact
children. In fact, divorce is a very common adverse childhood experience (ACE) that has long-term effects (Felitti et al. 2019). Divorce is reported to diminish psychosocial well-being in children. This diminished well-being tends to result in negative academic achievement (Potter 2010). Yu et al. (2010) found that marital conflict and divorce can affect the quality of the relationship between the mother and her children. The negative effect on
children’s development begins early, at the “in-divorce” stage according to Kim (2011). Afifi, Schrodt, and McManus (2009) discovered that children were emotionally affected by the fact that their parents talked negatively to their children about their divorced spouse. Children of divorce also experience more behavioral problems (Weaver and Shofield 2015).
There are factors other than divorce, however, that contribute to greater problems for children of divorce. For example, Vousoura et al. (2012) warn about the overall level of psychopathology in the family prior to divorce as a stronger contributor to childhood depression than divorce. Some research suggests that the economic effects of divorce have a greater effect on childhood mental illness than the disruption of divorce (Auersperg et al. 2019; Strohschein 2012).
We acknowledge that when there is a high level of violence in the home, divorce sometimes saves lives and the well-being of children. All things being equal, however, we believe children need and deserve to grow up in a family with two parents who love them and who love each other. Research on two-parent families documents the positive advantage this arrangement gives to children (Waite and Gallager 2000; Haskins 2013; Wilcox 2014). Since divorce hurts the relationship between parents and kids, it must always be a drastic last resort. Children must be a priority so we can protect them and provide the attention they need when divorce does occur. The covenant commitment extends to our children, a biblical truth that corresponds to the finding that when children experience a positive attachment with their parents, they have fewer adjustment problems and adjust better at each phase of their parents’ divorce and eventual remarriage.
The crucial question is, What is in the best interest of children? The long- term impact of divorce on children has been debated for the past forty years. Some researchers are more optimistic than others about the adaptability and resilience of children, while others point to the negative effect that divorce continues to have on them. Up until the late 1970s, there was some attempt to downplay the negative effects of divorce on children. This attitude was based on research suggesting that children may be better off in a happy one- parent home than in an unhappy two-parent home. The home supposedly became a more stable, less disruptive environment once the neglectful or abusive father or mother was removed.
At this time, research indicates that children from divorced homes fare worse than children from intact homes. However, the reason for this can be
debated. One view is that the real harm to children comes from a conflicted marriage, in which children have experienced trauma created by the psychopathology of their parents. In support of this view are Robert Gordon’s (2005) findings that the direct negative effect of divorce is more short term, with children of divorce appearing less harmed after long-term adjustment. Gordon believes that the impact of divorce on children is fleeting and that the long-lasting psychological problems displayed by children of divorce in adolescence and adulthood reflect more the preexisting marriage and the continued conflict between ex-spouses. Lisa Strohschein (2005) reports that even before divorce, children whose parents later divorce exhibit higher levels of anxiety/depression and antisocial behavior than children whose parents remain married. She did note, however, that there were “divorce specific” increases in anxiety and depression. Another study (VanderValk et al. 2005, 533) reports “a further increase in child anxiety and depression but not antisocial behavior associated with the event of parental divorce itself.”
Most researchers agree that the trauma created by the divorce itself and the resulting anxiety and uncertainty is harmful to children. A well-documented longitudinal study by leading divorce researchers Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly (2002) found that the changes in everyday life following divorce do have an initial negative impact on the children. The greatly altered behavior of their parents during and soon after divorce (dating phase) is a particularly difficult time. It takes most parents two or more years to recuperate from divorce, and during this time of adjustment both parents struggle with personal self-esteem needs. In the study, some spouses were prone to sexual acting out, vengeful deeds against the former spouse, emotional outbursts, periods of depression, and fearful concerns about their future and their finances. This period of transition takes a toll on the children because parents are often not available to help them make emotional adjustments.
Children also have adjustment problems in the first year after divorce, and they may exhibit acting-out or acting-in behaviors. Girls frequently recover in the second year, while boys may continue to have adjustment problems throughout adolescence, especially if they live with their mother in a single- parent home. Though dependent on her, boys go through coercive cycles and tend to be more aggressive and noncompliant. Single-parent mothers and daughters tend to become very close emotionally until the onset of
adolescence, which brings conflict over sexual behavior and individuation (Hetherington and Kelly 2002). When conflict between parents continues after the divorce, children are often caught in the middle. Paul Amato and Tamara Afifi (2006, 222) conclude that “research on divorce has found that adolescents’ feelings of being caught between parents are linked to internalizing problems and weaken parent-child relationships.”
The body of divorce research supports both views; namely, children are harmed by what transpires in unhappy and conflictive marriages, but they also suffer because of divorce itself. This means that both highly conflictual marriages and families and divorce have the potential to seriously harm children. The term double-exposure effect refers to how the divorce event and parental distress contribute independently to child and adolescent distress (Storksen et al. 2006). Regardless of the source of the harm, the evidence indicates that children of divorced homes are burdened more than children of intact homes.
Long- and Short-Term Divorce Adjustment Hetherington and Kelly’s longitudinal project, which spanned three
decades, led them to conclude that divorce should not be viewed as a momentary event but rather “as a lifelong process that has a continuing influence throughout the stages of divorce, single parenthood, remarriage, and stepfamily life” (2002, cover). They indicate that going through a divorce takes a toll on all family members because of the many changes, challenges, and losses they experience during that time. The years immediately before and after the divorce especially carry high risks in terms of emotional, personal, and health issues. It seems that the father’s absence is more disruptive to boys than to girls, and the father’s withdrawal from child- rearing may damage the child’s recovery.
Hetherington and Kelly report that by six years after divorce, over half of the women and 70 percent of the men had remarried, with over three-quarters of them believing the divorce had been the right thing to do. They contend that the vast majority of children of divorce (75–80 percent) are resilient and doing well. They criticize studies that take averages—for example, “20–25 percent of kids of divorced families have behavior problems compared to 10 percent of non-divorced”—because these studies capitalize on the “twice as many” but fail to point out that 75–80 percent are not having problems, and therefore the vast majority are doing well (Hetherington and Kelly 2002).
The evidence of both the long- and short-term effects of divorce has been documented well by Judith Wallerstein (2005) and her colleagues. They conclude that “stressful parent-child relationships in the post-divorce family together with the enduring effects of the troubled marriage and breakup lead to the acute anxieties about life and commitment that many children of divorce bring to relationships in their adult years” (401). Later in life, children of divorced parents seem to be at greater risk for divorce (Segrin, Taylor, and Altman 2005). Nair and Murray (2005) report that mothers raised in divorced homes had lower income levels and lower levels of education compared with their counterparts from intact families and were less likely to use authoritative parenting styles.
In light of the long-term effects of divorce, we would do well to heed Connie Ahrons’s (2004) suggestion that “good divorces” allow adults and children to continue to live relatively harmoniously as a family. She notes that divorce reorganizes a family but does not destroy it. In fact, many children of divorce believe that their parents’ decision to divorce was the right one, and most do not wish their parents had remained married. However, the ideal of a good divorce should be tempered by the study (Amato, Kane, and James 2011) reporting only modest support for the good- divorce hypothesis, with the greatest benefits being a smaller number of behavior problems among children and closer ties to their fathers. In other words, a good divorce means that children’s well-being is of paramount importance during the divorce process.
Best-Case Scenarios From a Christian perspective, we must ask what the best-case scenario can
be for spouses and children when divorce becomes a reality. Here we focus on conditions under which divorce is least troubling. It has been established that children adjust better when parents discuss the possibility of divorce beforehand and continue to discuss the situation after the divorce occurs. Obviously, the less hostility between the parents during the divorce process, the better the child’s adjustment. Divorced parents who maintain an affable relationship with each other and show continuous love and support of their children lessen the disruptive effects of their divorce. The quality of the parents’ postdivorce communication is essential to good adjustment in children.
Another key indicator of how well a child will adjust to divorce is the custodial parent’s effectiveness in the role of single parent. When custodial fathers expect obedience and good behavior and operate with mutual respect and affection, children do better. Giving in to children and trying to make up for the pain of the divorce leaves them less secure than when the father takes a clear leadership role. It is vital that the parent who has not been awarded custody spend quality time with the children.
Joint custody and split custody are two creative attempts to promote continued involvement by both divorced parents in the lives of their children. The results have been mixed, but for the most part when both parents take cooperative and mutual responsibility, the children fare better. This arrangement can work well when a couple maintains a good relationship, but it does not succeed when parents continually fight and have disputes over the children and custody arrangements. Although children in joint custody tend to exhibit greater self-esteem than do those in sole custody, primary custody by the parent of the same sex in most cases seems to be a more beneficial arrangement for the child.
In split custody, each parent assumes the care of one child (or more). It is sometimes reasoned that girls need to be with their moms and boys with their dads. However, sibling separation and the formation of parent-child coalitions may in the long run hurt rather than help the adjustment process.