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“Unexpected” Legacies of Divorce Upon Children

Researchers recently found “unexpected” results at the conclusion of a 25-year study of the impact of divorce upon a large sample of children.
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Lori Denman-Underhill
Lori Denman-Underhill uses the power of the press to raise awareness about endless causes.

Researchers recently found “unexpected” results at the conclusion of a 25-year study of the impact of divorce upon a large sample of children. [1] The unexpected outcome involved what happens to children of even “good” divorces when they grow up and enter into committed relationships and parenting themselves.

A good divorce (as opposed to a bad divorce) has been operationally defined as one where “(a) the parents are able to settle their differences without fighting; (b) the financial arrangements are fair; and (c) the child has continued contact with both parents over the years that follow” (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004, p. 367). As a divorce attorney advising and helping clients through the process for 17 years these are the conditions judges work for in their custody, visitation and support orders.

Three findings were especially striking: 1. children of divorce aren’t going to college; 2. they lack a belief in their own ability to make and sustain intimate relationships; and, 3. they tend to avoid their parents when they grew up. These findings carry two implications for divorcing parents that reach beyond the important but relatively more surface goals of not fighting over custody or child and spousal support.

The first implication involves the impact divorce has on the parents’ mental concepts of love and relationships. Developmental psychologists point out that internal or mental “representation is a carrier of experience”[2] and a caretaker’s internal working model of attachment gets transmitted to the child.[3] This means that a parent’s traumatized views of relationships are caught like a mental virus by the child from the parent. Once established in the mind, a person’s internal working model of relationships triggers behavior patterns. These behaviors predictably undermine intimacy and trust. Parents often sense these problems and try to fix them by sending the kids to church. This remedy often creates more complications as well-meaning but untrained and unlicensed individuals start giving advice. A licensed therapist or psychologist with some background in attachment theory should be individually engaged for both the parents and the children.

The second implication of these unexpected outcomes emphasizes the sad fact that divorce disrupts children’s lives more than we realized. The research is clear that a college education predicts long term measures of well-being and that a divorce undermines the chances of children going to college. A divorce today disrupts has now been shown to negatively impact the lives of unborn grandchildren. [4] Divorced parents have the deck stacked against the child-centered parent they would otherwise want to be. They need help by way of a licensed therapist to stay focused on that primary role because their children’s well-being depends upon it.

The final implication involves a parent’s worst nightmare: children who grow up, because of the unresolved trauma of divorce – avoid their parents, avoid starting families and the parents never see their would-be grandchildren.

[1] Wallerstein, J. S., & Lewis, J. M. (2004). The unexpected legacy of divorce: Report of a 25-year study. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21(3), 353-370.

[2] Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E. A., & Collins, W. A. (2005). The development of the person: The Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York: The Guilford Press.

[3] Main, M. Kaplan, K. Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton, & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points in attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 50 (pp. 66-104). (Serial No. 209).

[4] Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child well‐being across three generations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(1), 191-206.