No matter how it is perceived, divorce is without a doubt known to be one of the most traumatic and life changing experiences one can go through. According to statistics provided by the American Psychological Association in February 2018, about 40% to 50% of married couples in the United States divorce (Harrington and Buckingham). Many families across the world, not just in the U.S., are torn apart through marriage; these broken marriages heavily affect children and impact their life in many ways.
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Although divorce is perceived in many negative ways, to children it may be recognized as an escape from an aversive environment and at times is deemed necessary (Amato). Children are better off living with a single, divorced parent than to be forced to suffer through the toxic marriage of their parents.
Advocates of couples staying together feel that divorce has numerous lasting negative impacts on children. Following the end of a marriage, children are reported to to struggle with a variety of psychological, social, as well as academic problems (Marquardt). On Talk of the Nation, an American talk radio program based in Washington D.C., guest Professor Hetherington of psychology at the University of Virginia states her findings on families of divorce. She states, “About 10 percent of children in non-divorce families suffer serious social, psychological, emotional or academic problems. This compares to about 20 to 25 percent in divorced or remarried families” (Talk of the Nation). Children may not always recognize or be aware of the depth of conflict between their parents, so to them divorce can be a massive blow that comes out of nowhere (Marquardt).
Many children of divorce express some form of externalizing or internalizing disorders. Externalizing disorders are displayed through being antisocial, aggressive, having noncompliant behavior and lack of self-regulation, low social responsibility, and diminished cognitive agency and achievement (Hopf). These children also have an extremely high chance of experiencing lower academic performance; many drop out of school (Hopf). Other possible negative effects include the risk of teenage pregnancy, the abuse of alcohol or drugs, etc. (Hopf). The psychological problems are the most harmful and traumatic effect to children of divorce. It reshapes their sense of self and changes them. One major impact of divorce is that it makes children insecure. Children were reported to have a sense of loss and anger at their parents; their greatest fear was that of abandonment (Wallerstein).
In addition to that is the constant fear of loss, for example losing significant relationships with friends, family members, and especially the nonresident parent (Hopf). In regards to the non-resident parent, for the child it means the loss of the family, and for that loss there is no substitute (Wallerstein). This fear of loss resides not only in childhood but especially into their adulthood as well; Wallerstein reported that from her studies, “the happier one was, the better their life, the better the job, the better their love life, the better their relationship, etc, the more frightened they become that they would lose it all”. This is clearly related from the fact that divorce can be an unexpected and earth-shattering decision to a child’s life (Wallerstein). “From their point of view, everything was going well and BOOM — the floor fell out from under them”, states Wallerstein. Due to that experience, it is understandable why a child would never fully trust another person. As upsetting as it is to say, however true, a child of divorce may never trust another person will be there for them, will love them, will be dependable and will love them forever (Wallerstein). Those children are just left with fear, fear that that person won’t be there in the morning. Betrayal and abandonment strikes fear in their hearts and will forever shape who they become.
The major impact of divorce is really in the child’s adulthood. Children of divorce feel like divided selves; it changes them. Divorce divides and shapes children’s identities well into young adulthood; it frees the adults at the expense of forcing children to grow up too soon (Marquardt). The early reaction of children after a split occurs is very painful, but it fades after a few years if the family is reasonably functioning. The major impact of divorce on the child truly hits when the man-woman relationship moves center stage (Wallerstein). After examining her research and findings on the effects divorce has on children, she concluded that children “not only identify with their mother and father as people, as it is generally accepted, but they clearly internalize the relationship between them”.
A child spends their whole life observing the relationship between their parents; they see all the details. It is a tremendous source of knowledge for any growing child (Wallerstein). In the child’s view their parents decision to divorce means they have failed; as the child grows up and is in search of a relationship, that fear of failure is powerful (Wallerstein). In many cases that fear is what aids in difficulty to keep a possibly stable relationship, or it causes that person to drive others away entirely for fear of getting hurt. Children of divorce, in fact, are themselves more likely to even divorce in their future once in a relationship (Marquardt).
Yet another negative impact is the financial situation in which the family must go through; it in many cases causes poverty. Both marriage and divorce affect wealth because the consumption needs of two adults living together are less than the consumption of two seperate adult households (Zagorsky). In his Journal of Sociology, Jay Zagorsky states, “Divorce first lowers total wealth and then depresses future increases since individuals save at a lower rate”. The wealth effect of marriage is lower because many people who marry have children, which increases the household’s consumption without increasing the household’s income, leading to a decrease in savings (Zagorsky). Children are expensive. Divorce also causes many to reduce their income earning efforts (Zagorsky). Overall, many divorce cases take an extremely long amount of time and money to settle; this expense drives up yearly consumption and drives down savings (Zagorsky). The online legal guide Nolo Network conducted a survey in 2014 that found the average divorce costs over $15,000; most of this money goes to attorney fees and this lasts nearly eleven months (“Divorce”).
Although advocates of couples staying together argue that divorce harms children, studies show that conflict, rather than divorce is the key variable (Amato); divorce represents the better option if it can lessen the amount of conflict and negativity in a child’s environment (Hopf). It can in fact be more damaging to children when a toxic couple stays together. In 2002, Professor Hetherington, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, joined Talk of the Nation to share her research based from her observation of 1,400 families and 2,500 children (Talk of the Nation). She found that residing in a high-conflict family where the spouses are not fond of each other and try to undermine each other’s discipline, is very damaging to children (Talk of the Nation). The professor took away from personal interviews that many children wish of getting free of a high-conflict family, and that when a breakup does occur the children report a sense of relief (Talk of the Nation). A child is better off moving into a more amicable single-parent family with one supportive parent than to withstand an unsalvageable and toxic marriage (Talk of the Nation). To them, divorce may be recognized as an escape from an aversive environment (Amato).
Pro-divorce advocates strongly argue that children in non-divorced families are at high risk of developing behavioral problems. It is reported that children imitate their parents’ conflict resolution styles; a major effect of this is children modeling aggression or withdrawal in communication with others (Jekielek). Parental conflict is known to cause child behavior problems for it worsens parent-child relationships (Jekielek). The spouses become so consumed by their own problems that they disregard the needs of their children, often tending to turn cold towards them (Jekielek). Parents of high conflict simply do not have the energy to address the problems of their own children; they become withdrawn and hostile (Jekielek). This threatens a child’s sense of security and they are forced to bear witness to the practice of inconsistent and harsh disciplinary actions of their parents (Jekielek). A divorce helps secure a warm, supportive relationship with at least one parent for the child.
Furthermore, it is agreed by many researchers that most children are indeed capable of and hold the resilience to cope with the stresses and variables of divorce. The coping skills acquired by the child aid in the process of maturing into well-adjusted adults (Hopf). It is stated that a whopping approximated 75-80 percent of children are able to move on following a divorce and develop with no lasting psychological or behavioral problems (Hopf). In a study conducted by Paul R. Amato, there is also an estimate of roughly “42 percent of young adults from divorced families” scored higher on well-being than young adults from non-divorced families (Hopf). Divorce can be beneficial and presents children with an opportunity for a healthier, finer life.
Many underestimate the effects of conflict on a child. Those against divorce don’t completely think of the happiness of the children and what is at stake; the destructive behavior of parents is hurting their children beyond what anyone may think (Talk of the Nation). As Professor Hetherington agrees, “conflict between two parents is terrible”. Conflict in many cases is what sparks or worsens psychological problems for a child; these problems include mental disorders such as severe depression, anxiety, etc. On Talk of the Nation, guest speaker Julie speaks of her experience with the divorce of her parents. She explains, “it is not the divorce that is bad. It is the parental behavior”. In her case, she had an abusive, selfish father who did not care if he hurt his children in the process of trying to hurt their mother; that is the kind of thing that damages children (Talk of the Nation). Professor Hetherington’s response to that was that when a child is caught up in such destructive behavior, it is indeed better if one parent is shut out of the children’s lives (Talk of the Nation).
In addition to the benefits divorce provides to children, it saves two spouses from what can be a dangerously toxic marriage. Parents have every right and even the responsibility to get out of a bad marriage, but foremost they must think of the happiness of their children (Talk of the Nation). It is argued that people should work on their marriage “for the sake of the child”, however not all marital problems are salvageable. Sarah, another witness to a toxic marriage, spoke on Talk of the Nation. Her parents had been unhappy for a very long time and to her their relationship basically ended when she was very small (Talk of the Nation). She stated that living with parents who don’t get along posed a lot of challenges; she ended up walking away from her family with baggage regarding trust in relationships and abandonment (Talk of the Nation). Julie, along with many others growing up in families with unhappy parents reported the many threats of divorce; as children it was concerning, however as adults, they often wish they would have indeed divorced, “that it would have set a better example” (Talk of the Nation).
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