Reality Check: The Impact of Divorce
The Effect On Children
Divorce has a profound effect on children of all ages. On separate occasions, I had two of my sons (in their early twenties) weep on my shoulder at the prospect their Mum and Dad were no longer going to be together. Whatever age children are when separation and divorce occur, it throws their lives into turmoil. Their world, as they have known it since birth, is suddenly torn apart, and they are powerless to do anything about it.
There have been a number of studies by various researchers on the impact of divorce on children. One landmark study (published 2000) by Judith S. Wallerstein, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce“, studied the lives of 131 children over a period of 25 years. The children who were all under 14 at the time the study began in 1971, and are now in their thirties and forties. The following is an excerpt from a review of Judith Wallerstein’s book by family law solicitor David Lutz:
“The first important point Professor Wallerstein makes is that the greatest majority of divorces occur within the first nine years of marriage. That being the case, 80% of the children involved are under the age of ten. The third, and very related point she makes, is that the family breakup and subsequent divorce is the single most significant event in a child’s life. Based upon the many interviews with these 131 children over a twenty-five year period, she comes to this conclusion: it affects the child’s interaction with other family members (of course), school work and friendships, dating, choice of marriage partners, whether or not to have children, choice of employment and relations at work, personality, and generally how children of divorce fare in society.
She says that children of divorce see the world through the fact that at a very early age they lost their family. They see the world very differently than their peers who grew up in intact families. She is able to make this comparison because she had a control group of children whose parents were not divorced who were the friends and neighbours of the 131 children.
Professor Wallerstein concludes that these children have great difficulty in relating to the concept of family, due to the loss of theirs. Because they did not have two biological parents rearing them, everything they had known in daily life to that point changed and, for the most part, changed for the worse.
The book, through examples and statistics, revealed that children of divorce at first blame both parents for the loss of family, regardless of who was at fault. The child is losing that which is familiar and because he or she is usually very young, the child often believes that his or her behaviour caused the dissolution of the family. The child believes this because the parents problems were not cognizant to the child. Parents, of course, have problems and concerns which a young child could not begin to understand. The child’s world when under age ten, is limited to eat, sleep, school, very limited responsibility and, most importantly, play. Someone provides food, clothing, shelter and organized activities. Families do things together even if in some families that time is limited.
When one parent is eliminated from the child’s life, the child’s whole world changes and the complex reasons for the breakdown are unfathomable. The child only has one image burned into her brain that will colour every personal interaction for the rest of her life: my family is gone” (emphasis mine). Quoted by permission: www.lutz.nb.ca – where you can read other family law articles.
Sober words indeed, and as judges often remind divorcing parents: Children are going to be more affected than they are. When Judith Wallerstein began her study the prevailing view was that though divorce was upsetting to children in the short term, in the long-term everyone would be happy. Her study showed how wrong this view was; hence the words in her title ‘The Unexpected Legacy’. A lot more could be said about the negative impact of divorce on children which I need not go into. An Internet search with the words “effect or impact of divorce on children” will show numerous articles and sad statistics. To those contemplating divorce I would strongly encourage you to take a reality check on the effect divorce will have on your children. Children’s lives and future usually take a second place as divorced couples restructure their lives. While we may divorce our spouse and pursue a new life with another mate we don’t in fact become ‘free’ of our first marriage since children are a constant reminder of the ‘one-flesh’ instituted by God. Therefore, in one sense at least, our responsibilities to our first marriage do not cease with divorce. So I would suggest persevering in a marriage for the sake of your children may be more honourable than is popularly advised (but where there is abuse see here). Putting the welfare of others ahead of your own is definitely a Christ-like principle.
It is commonly thought that every child needs a mother and a male parent. Yet studies show that children (and particularly boys) are better off when they have a regular and meaningful relationship with their biological father. Tragically, too often, children are separated from their father.
To those who did not want to divorce, this is not intended to add to your stress. However, while you may not be able to restore the family to what it was, you can reassure your children of this: you love them and they were born out of love, not conflict. (It is interesting to note, that while parents may divorce their mates, it is unheard of for them to divorce their children). While you would like, as much as they, to be a family again they need to face the fact it may not be. And while we all hope that our father or mother, husband or wife will stay faithful and love us, sin and hardened hearts may dash our hopes and dreams. This is where we can lead our children to (in their own way) put their ultimate hope and trust in God – our Father in heaven who loves us and who will never leave or forsake us. Finally, how you respond to the divorce will play a key factor in your children’s future life.
As for the economic effects I need not elaborate, for divorcees are inevitably worse off than married couples.
Often when couples experience crisis in their marriage they have, or are encouraged to, ‘a trial separation’. This is a huge mistake and makes no more sense than ‘a trial divorce’. The object of such a ‘trial’ is to ease the tension (which it inevitably does) but rarely, if ever, paves the way to reconciliation.
The Effect of Divorce On Other Relationships
The impact of divorce extends beyond the couple and their children to their parents, grandparents and church family who also have to struggle in their relationships with the estranged or divorced couple. Remarriage ushers in new and complex relationships with divided loyalties and responsibilities with the new spouse’s children and family. The ‘extended’ or ‘blended’ family, as it is now known, is rarely harmonious.
So I hope that what I have written here will help those who are separated, divorced or contemplating divorce to see things in a clearer perspective, avoid the snares that accompany divorce and in particular realise your most important relationship is your relationship with God and with Christ. I hope that wherever possible you might be encouraged to reconcile with your husband or wife for the fundamental reason that we owe nothing to anyone except to love one another (Romans 13:8).
Why Marriages Breakup
I believe that one of the reasons why marriages breakup is because of unrealistic expectations of marriage and our spouse. We often have expectations of our spouse, a sinner saved by grace as we are, to provide those deepest needs that in reality only God can provide. While it is natural to have expectations of our spouse it needs to be grounded in the reality that there will be times, perhaps many times, when they fail those expectations. This is not to say we should excuse or just put up with with sinful behaviour. First we need to draw on God’s love and grace in times of trouble and not make the mistake of trying to force our spouse to love us. Love cannot be earned or obtained. It can only be given.
The Role of a Christian Husband
Another reason tension and conflict arise in marriage is because of confusion over the role of a Christian husband in marriage. Tragically this God-given role has been both abused and confused – especially in his role as head and leader. The Role of a Christian Man by Alan Bailey brings much clarity on this subject where there is both abuse and confusion.
Yet all our resolve to love and forgive may not change an unrepentant spouse. This is why in such times we should get help from our church family, from mature Christians who love and are brave enough to confront a sinful spouse. I think one of the appalling failures of the modern church is its reluctance to effectively discipline members who continue in sin for fear of being labelled as unforgiving and legalistic. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that the church is to exercise discipline – for the sake of the sinning member, because the sin, if unchecked, will ‘leaven the whole lump’ and for the sake of the one offended (where the sin is against another member).
But is a legal divorce the answer to a difficult marriage and remarriage the natural and right way to find a new life and love? Is there a better way?