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Divorce's Toll on Children
By Karl Zinsmeister

Originally, notes family historian John Sommerville, marriage arose to create "security for the children to be expected from the union." Yet nowadays "the child's interest in the permanence of marriage is almost ignored." During the divorce boom that began in the mid-1960s, divorces affecting children went up even faster than divorces generally, and today most crack-ups involve kids. Since 1972, more than a million youngsters have been involved in a divorce each year.

The result is that at some time before reaching adulthood, around half of today's children will go through a marital rupture. Most of these youngsters will live in a single-parent home for at least five years. A small majority of those who experience a divorce eventually end up in a step-family, but well over a third of them will endure the extra trauma of seeing that second marriage break up.

The typical divorce brings what researcher Frank Furstenberg describes as "either a complete cessation of contact between the non-residential parent and child, or a relationship that is tantamount to a ritual form of parenthood." In nine cases out of ten the custodial parent is the mother, and fully half of all divorce-children living with their mom have had no contact with their father for at least a full year. Only one child in 10 sees his non-custodial parent as often as once a week. Overall, only about one youngster in five is able to maintain a close relationship with both

Joint child custody receives a lot of publicity (it is now allowed in about half the states), but it remains unusual. In California, where it is much more common than anywhere else, only 18 percent of divorced couples have joint physical custody. Most divorced children still live solely with their mothers.

"For most men," sociologist Andrew Cherlin notes, "children and marriage are part of a package deal. Their ties to their children depend on their ties to their wives." Studies show that remarriage makes fathers particularly likely to reduce involvement with the children from their previous marriage.

Even when divorced parents do maintain regular contact with their children, truly cooperative child-rearing is very rare. Most often, research shows, the estranged parents have no communication or mutual reinforcement. As a result, mother and father frequently undercut each other, intentionally or not, and parent-child relations are often unhealthy.

A series of interviews with children of divorce conducted by author/photographer Jill Krementz illustrates this phenomenon. "My relationship with my parents has changed because now my mother does all the disciplining," says 14-year-old Meredith, "and sometimes she resents it-especially when we tell her how much fun we have with Dad. It's as if it's all fun and games with him because we're with him so little." Ari, also 14, confides, "I really look forward to the weekends because it's
kind of like a break-it's like going to Disneyland because there's no set schedule, no 'Be home by 5:30' kind of stuff. It's open. It's free. And my father is always buying me presents." Zach, age 13, reports "whenever I want to see my other parent I can, and if I have a fight with one of them, instead of having to take off.I can just go eat at my Mom's house or my Dad's."

Other youngsters feel torn in two after a divorce, particularly in cases of joint custody where they must physically bounce back and forth between two houses. "It's hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye all the time," says one father. Gary Skoloff, chairman of the American Bar Association's family law section, explains that "joint custody was going to be a great panacea, the ultimate solution.. But it turned out to be the world's worst situation." The lack of a stable home has proved so harmful to children that several states, including California where the practice was pioneered, have recently revoked statutes favoring joint custody.

Fear and Loathing of Divorce Among the Young Children's view of divorce is unambiguous: it's a disaster. In 1988, professor Jeanne Dise-Lewis surveyed almost 700 junior high school students, asking them to rate a number of life events in terms of stressfulness. The only thing students ranked as more stressful than parental divorce was death of a parent or close family member. Parental divorce received a higher rating than the death of a friend, being "physically hit" by a parent, feeling that no one liked them, or being seriously injured.

The "fairy tale" believed by adults, says University of Michigan psychologist and divorce expert Neil Kalter, is that if they simply present new family set-ups to their children in a calm, firm way, the children will accept them. Actually, he says, that "is seen by the kids as a lot of baloney." Among the hundreds of children he's worked with in setting up coping-with-divorce programs for schools, "there are very few who have anything good to say about divorce." "Children are generally more
traditional than adults," agrees Judith Wallerstein. "Children want both parents. They want family." If children had the vote, she says, there would be no such thing as divorce.
Indeed, Gallup youth surveys in the early 1990s show that three out of
four teenagers age 13 to 17 think "it is too easy for people in this country to get divorced." Go into a typical high school today and ask some students what their most important wish for the future is and a surprising number will answer "that there wouldn't be so many divorces." Young Arizonan Cynthia Coan has lots of company when she says, "as a child of divorce, I cannot help but hope that the next generation of children will be spared what mine went through."

You'll sometimes hear the claim that divorce doesn't hurt children as much as conflict in a marriage. This is not supported by the evidence. "For kids," reports Kalter, "the misery in an unhappy marriage is usually less significant than the changes" after a divorce. "They'd rather their parents keep fighting and not get divorced." Even five years later, few of the youngsters in Wallerstein's study agreed with their parents' decision to separate. Only ten percent were more content after the split than before.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the alternative to most divorces is not life in a war zone. Though more than 50 percent of all marriages currently end in divorce, experts tell us that only about 15 percent of all unions involve high levels of conflict. In the vast number of divorces, then, there is no gross strife or violence that could warp a youngster's childhood. The majority of marital break-ups are driven by a quest for greener grass-and in these cases the children will almost always be worse

Many mothers and fathers badly underestimate how damaging household dissolution will be to their children. A 1985 British study that quizzed both parents and children found that the children reported being far more seriously upset by their parents' separation than the parents assumed. Despite the common perception that the best thing parents can do for their children is to make themselves happy, the truth is that children have their own needs that exist quite apart from those of their parents. One may argue that a parent should be allowed to rank his own needs above those of his children (though this is not the traditional understanding of
how families should work). But one ought not cloak that decision with the false justification that one is thereby serving the children's best interests.

Wade Horn, former commissioner of the U.S. Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, illustrates how parents can be deluded in this way: Families used to come to me when I was practicing psychology, seeking advice about how to divorce. They would say, "We want a divorce because we really don't get along very well any more, and we understand that our child will be better off after we divorce than if we stay together." Rarely, if ever, did I hear a family say, "We're having conflict, but we have decided to work as hard as we can at solving our problems because we know that children of divorce are more disturbed than children of intact
A major reason parents are making this mistake is because that is what
some authorities and many ideologues in the cause of family "liberation" have been telling them. "For years experts said, 'Once the initial trauma wears off, kids make adjustments,'" complains psychologist John Guidubaldi, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. While it's true that kids make adjustments, Guidubaldi notes in the Washington Post, "so do people in prisons and mental institutions. The pertinent question is: Are those adjustments healthy?
And the weight of the evidence has become overwhelming on the side that they aren't."

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children

The longer-term effects of divorce on children are something we've learned a lot about over the last decade. Guidubaldi, who orchestrated one of the large studies documenting these effects, concludes from his work that "the old argument of staying together for the sake of the kids is still the best argument.. People simply aren't putting enough effort into saving their marriages." Family scholar Nicholas Zill points out that "if you looked at the kind of long-term risk factors that divorce creates for kids and translated them to, say, heart disease, people would be startled."

In the early months after divorce, young children are often less imaginative and more repetitive. Many become passive watchers. They tend to be more dependent, demanding, unaffectionate, and disobedient than their counterparts from intact families. They are more afraid of abandonment, loss of love, and bodily harm. A significant number-in some studies a quarter-say they blame themselves for their parents' smash-up.

A small study conducted some years ago by University of Hawaii psychiatrist John McDermott sorted preschoolers who had been involved in a divorce a few months earlier into three categories. Three out of 16 children were judged to have weathered the initial storm essentially unchanged. Two of 16 became what he called "severely disorganized" and developed gross behavior problems. The rest, more than two-thirds, he categorized as "the sad, angry children." They displayed resentment, depression, and grief, were restless, noisy, possessive, and physically

In Judith Wallerstein's landmark study, almost half of the pre-schoolers still displayed heightened anxiety and aggression a full year after their parents' divorce. Forty-four percent "were found to be in significantly deteriorated psychological condition." All of the two- and three-year-olds showed acute regression in toilet training. They displayed unusual hunger for attention from strangers. Older pre-schoolers had become more whiny, irritable, and aggressive, and had problems with play. Wallerstein's study also returned to its subjects five and 10 years later,
and the collected results are quite staggering. In overview they look like this: initially, two-thirds of all the children showed symptoms of stress, and half thought their life had been destroyed by the divorce. Five years down the road, over a third were still seriously disturbed (even more disturbed than they had been initially, in fact), and another third were having psychological difficulties. A surprisingly large number remained angry at their parents.

After a decade, 45 percent of the children were doing well, 14 percent were succeeding in some areas but failing in others, and 41 percent were still doing quite poorly. This last group "were entering adulthood as worried, underachieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women." In addition to their emotional problems and depression, many felt sorrow over their childhoods and fear about their own marriage and childrearing prospects. About a third of the group had little or no ambition at the 10-year mark. Many expressed a sense of powerlessness,
neediness, and vulnerability. Most of the ones who had reached adult age regarded their parents' divorce as a continuing major influence in their lives.

It should be noted that the 131 children in the study experienced divorce in what Wallerstein and associates call the "best of circumstances." Most of their parents were college educated, and at the beginning these children were achievers in school. None of the participants was initially being treated for psychiatric disorder. Most of the families were white and middle class; half regularly attended church or synagogue.

Even in families with all these advantages, divorce wreaks havoc among the young. Summarizing her findings on the offspring of broken marriages, Wallerstein has written that "it would be hard to find any other group of children-except, perhaps, the victims of a natural disaster-who suffered such a rate of sudden serious psychological problems." Other long-term studies reach similar conclusions. "Divorce," says psychiatrist McDermott, "is now the single largest cause of childhood depression." Marital disruption, quite clearly, can wound children for years.

A Catalogue of Behavioral Changes

Let's look more specifically at some of the changes in behavior that affect children of divorce. John Guidubaldi and Joseph Perry found in their survey of 700 youngsters that children of divorced parents performed worse than children of intact families on 9 of 30 mental health measures, showing, among other things, more withdrawal, dependency, inattention, and unhappiness, plus less work effort. Divorced students were more likely to abuse drugs, to commit violent acts, to take their own life, and to bear children out of wedlock.

A University of Pittsburgh study in the late 1980s found that there were 30 percent more duodenal ulcers and 70 percent more suicide attempts-both symptoms of serious psychological stress-among children who had lost a parent. In Wallerstein's middle-class sample, one-third of the girls with divorced parents became pregnant out of wedlock, and 8 percent had at least two abortions. Two-thirds of the girls had a history of delinquency, and almost 30 percent of the boys had been arrested more than once.

The National Survey of Children showed that more than 30 percent of the individuals whose parents separated or divorced before they were eight years old had received therapy by the time they were teenagers. Divorce-children are two to four times as numerous in psychiatric care populations as they are in society at large. In fact, more than 80 percent of the adolescents in mental hospitals, and 60 percent of the children in psychiatric clinics, have been through a divorce. And what is being treated in most cases is much more than just a short-term reaction: the
average treatment takes place five years after their parents' marital breakup. At the fully adult age of 23, middle-class women whose mother and father had divorced were three times likelier to have a psychological problem than counterparts from intact families, according to a massive multi-year British study.

Schooling is another problem area. Children exposed to divorce are twice as likely to repeat a grade, and five times likelier to be expelled or suspended. (Fully 15 percent of all teenagers living with divorced mothers have been booted from school at least temporarily, according to the National Survey of Children.) Even in Wallerstein's middle-class sample, 13 percent of the youngsters had dropped out of school altogether. Barely half of Wallerstein's subjects went on to college, far less than the 85 percent average for students in their high schools. Wallerstein concludes
that 60 percent of the divorce-children in her study will fail to match the educational achievements of their fathers.
Children of divorce also frequently have problems with sexual identity. In most studies, boys seem to be harder hit than girls. Pre-school boys tend to be unpopular with male peers, to have difficulty gaining access to play groups, to spend more time with younger compatriots and females, and to
engage in more activities traditionally considered to be feminine. Young boys tend to be more vehemently opposed to the divorce, to long more for their father, to feel rejected by him, and to feel uncertain about their masculinity. They are more likely than girls to become depressed and angry. Many later have problems developing intimacy, and build lifestyles of solitary interests and habits.

For girls there is a "sleeper effect"-beginning at adolescence, seemingly well-adjusted individuals often develop serious problems with sexuality, self-control, and intimacy. Kalter found higher rates of substance abuse, running away, and sexual activity among girls who had been through divorce, particularly when the father had departed early on. Wallerstein found that a "significant minority" of girls expressed insecurity, anger, or lack of self-respect in promiscuity, some gravitating to older men or a series of aimless sexual relationships. "I'm prepared for anything. I
don't expect a lot," said one 20-year-old. "Love is a strange idea to me. Life is a chess game. I've always been a pawn."
Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia has found that girls have special problems when their divorced mothers remarry. She has also shown that the pattern of low self-respect and sexual precocity among girls with a divorced mother does not hold true among girls living with a solo mother due to death of the father-apparently it is active alienation from the father, more than his simple absence, that causes the disturbance. This
fits well with psychologist Erik Erikson's view that it is less deprivation per se that is psychologically destructive than deprivation without redeeming significance.

Wallerstein points out that teenage girls often view their absent fathers with a combination of idealization and distrust. The idealized father that the young adolescent girl imagines is the exact opposite of the image that later becomes prominent in her mind as she grows older-namely, the father as betrayer.. Because daughters of divorce often have a hard time finding out what their fathers are really like, they often experience great difficulty in establishing a realistic view of
men in general, in developing realistic expectations, and in exercising good judgment in their choice of partner.
Researcher Conrad Schwarz has hypothesized that children who are allied only with their same-sex parent (as a girl growing up with a divorced mother would be) tend to hold a chauvinistic and alienated view of the opposite sex. Conversely, he suggests, children growing up with only
opposite-sex parents (like boys living with divorced mothers) tend to have problems with gender identity and self-esteem. One study that fits this hypothesis found that college-age women who had experienced divorce in childhood were more prone to see men as unfeeling and weak than counterparts from intact families.

Female children of divorced parents are more likely to choose "inadequate husbands" and to have marital problems of their own. They are substantially likelier to have extensive pre-marital sexual experience and twice as likely to cohabit before marriage. They are more frequently pregnant at their weddings.

And both male and female children of divorce see their own marriages dissolve at significantly higher rates than counterparts who grew up in intact families. Partly this is attitudinal: One eight-year study of 1,300 men and women found that people who had watched their own parents divorce were much more tolerant of the idea of divorce, and that this tolerance translated into increased marital break-up.

The other thing that childhood divorce encourages, of course, is the avoidance of marriage. "My mom got remarried and divorced again, so I've gone through two divorces so far. And my father's also gotten remarried-to someone I don't get along with all that well. It's all made me feel that people shouldn't get married," 14-year-old Ari explained to Jill Krementz. Divorces involving children thus set a whole train of losses into motion, transporting unhappy effects not only over the years but even across generations. And not even children fortunate enough to live in stable
homes are wholly insulated from the turmoil. As writer Susan Cohen observes:

Although I am not divorced and live in a conventional nuclear family with a husband and two children.divorce has been part of my daughter Sarah's life since she was two or three. Divorce is in her books, on her television programs, in her lessons at school, in her conversations with her friends, and in her questions to me.

Indeed, divorce is in the very air our children breathe-with lasting significance for their later views of love, families, and life. Most divorces are voluntary agreements between two grown-ups, and thus nobody else's business, right? Wrong. Millions of Americans are dragged into marital collapses entirely against their will-children first and foremost, but also lots of aggrieved mates. In most divorces, one spouse is seeking to dissolve the marriage despite the reluctance and opposition of the other. One important study of 52 families found that only a single couple had reached the divorce decision by mutual agreement. Interestingly, the victims of easy divorce often include even those persons who thought that a divorce was exactly what they wanted. "The vaunted independence of the liberated and the divorced often turned out to mean loneliness and penury," writes Sylvia Ann Hewlett, summarizing the
surprise finding that greeted scholars, feminists, and family law specialists in the aftermath of the no-fault revolution. Psychologist Diane Medved, who started out as a divorce defender, eventually concluded that "the process and aftermath of divorce is so pervasively disastrous-to body, mind, and spirit-that in an overwhelming number of cases, the 'cure' is worse than the 'disease.'"

I originally thought that staying together in turmoil was more traumatic than making the break, that striking down taboos about divorce was part of our modern enlightenment.. As I shifted my professional focus to divorced individuals, the truth was difficult to avoid. Often in tears, the divorced people I talked with described fantasies of an ex-spouse returning, or confessed to guilt over abandoning a once devoted mate.. And they mourned a part of themselves never to be recaptured-the family unit now destroyed. I'd ask, "Looking back, do you think you could have made it work?" .Each side would conclude: "Knowing what I know now, yes, we could have made it work.

We hear often about unhappy marriages. We hear a lot less about these unhappy or reluctant divorces. And there are many-one University of Virginia study found that two years into divorce, about two-thirds of former marriage partners thought the break-up might have been a mistake and that they should have tried harder to resolve their conflicts. As Medved points out, "divorce may well be the only recourse where there is drug or alcohol addiction, physical abuse, extreme emotional cruelty, or permanent abandonment." But most severed marriages, apparently, bring more heartache than relief.

Some of the most dramatic evidence for this comes from Judith Wallerstein's ten-year study of divorced middle-class families. Her "single most startling finding" at the ten-year follow-up? "In most families the divorce had eventuated in an enhanced quality of life for only one of the divorce partners.. Their former spouses either experienced significantly diminished quality of life or were living in conditions
that, on balance, were equivalent to the stresses and gratifications during the failed marriage." In only one-tenth of the divorces she investigated had the quality of life improved for each of the former partners, and in fully a fifth "both of the former marital partners were living in a significantly worsened situation." Roughly another tenth found one spouse in unimproved condition and the other worse off.

A full decade after the marriages Wallerstein studied had ended, "anger rooted in the sense of having been exploited and rejected remained high in 40 percent of the women and in close to 30 percent of the men." Strikingly, "the incidence of very angry adults at the ten-year mark does not differ markedly from that at the marital rupture." Even remarriage "often failed to diminish their antagonism." At Wallerstein's five-year follow-up, 29 percent of the children were still regularly exposed to intense parental bitterness, and 31 percent of the men and 42 percent of
the women had not achieved "psychological or social stability."

Though most of Wallerstein's subjects were reluctant to see the links between their marital breakup and their unhappiness, "feelings of hurt and humiliation remained intensely painful, and capable.of evoking vivid memories and obsessive thoughts" even ten years later. "Fierce angers continued to be played out over the entire decade through competition for the loyalty of children and ongoing stress over the children's contact with the other parent."

One final piece of evidence that easy divorce is no panacea even for adults: During the two decades after no-fault divorce swept onto the scene, the percentage of married adults describing their marriage as "very happy" actually fell by more than 10 percentage points. In an era where escaping marital discord became easy rather than hard, common rather than rare, the proportion of our population experiencing a high level of marital satisfaction dropped below a majority for the first time.
Meanwhile, the probability of men and women reporting that they are in a poor marriage increased.
We also have good surveys measuring life satisfaction generally during the easy-divorce era, and they show the percentage of married persons
reporting they are "very happy with their lives" falling by a fifth. (At the same time, satisfaction among single persons was holding constant or rising.)

This is astonishing-and sobering-evidence. There has never been any question but that easy divorce does a lot of social and third-party damage. But at least, we were promised, there will be the compensation of lightened and uncramped lives for the principals. People will go from bad marriages to good ones, from miserable circumstances to pleasing ones, from lovelessness to true compatability.

Now we learn that liberal divorce policy doesn't even reliably liberate. Karl Zinsmeister is TAE editor in chief. For Adults Too, the Divorce Cure Can Be Worse Than the Disease On the surface, the step-family would seem to be a reasonably good substitute for a child's natural family of both parents. The step-family has two adults present to provide guidance and care, one of them a natural
biological parent. And stepfamilies don't suffer the obvious economic disadvantages of the single-parent household. So it's quite striking to note that even where divorce leads children quickly into a solid step-family setting, there tend to be consistent problems.

"One of the consistent findings in research is that step-parenthood does not recreate the nuclear family," reports Frank Furstenberg. "It does not put the family back together again, in Humpty Dumpty fashion." Another expert, Sara McLanahan, says, "I think it has to do with parents being involved and monitoring what goes on in their children's lives. A stepfather is not worrying about Johnny as much as Johnny's natural father."

Strikingly, children from step-families have a behavioral profile much more like that of single-parent children than that of children from natural two-parent families. Data from the United States and England show that compared to counterparts in natural families, youngsters living in step-families are far likelier to have emotional and behavioral problems, to suffer ill health, to have difficulty with their studies, to drop out of school, to initiate early intercourse, to experiment with drugs and alcohol, to be exposed to violence, to get in trouble with the law. The Brady Bunch most step-families are not. Indeed, remarriage of a parent can add to, rather than subtract from, the stress on a child. The fraction of divorced children expressing "fear of
abandonment" is higher, for instance, when the mother has remarried than when she has not. It seems that triangular resentments among the natural parent, the substitute-parent, and step- or half-siblings are responsible for these additional disturbances.

A large study conducted in San Francisco found that approximately one out of every six women who had a step-father during childhood was sexually abused by him. Over comparable periods of time, this was dozens of times higher than abuse by natural fathers. And the kinds of abuse committed by step-fathers were more serious, the study showed. The same syndrome appears when investigators look at non-sexual kinds of physical abuse, and include step-children and step-parents of both sexes. One 1993 Canadian study, for instance, found that preschoolers living with a step-parent were 40 times likelier to become involved in a child-abuse case than preschoolers living with both natural parents.

Step-families may look like good economic substitutes for natural married-couple families, but their record shows they provide no reliable mass solution to the psychic traumas and other risks that divorce creates for children. Given that step-children must change many of their life routines, often move to a new residence, cope with fresh competition for their parent's attention, sometimes adapt to unexpected sexual tensions, and face many other disruptions, this probably shouldn't surprise us. And
it isn't only the young who often find step-families hard to adapt to. Step-parents too can find that loving someone else's child proves harder than expected. A classic study of family "blending" after divorce found that 33 percent of the divorced men and 44 percent of the divorced women studied were not affectionate toward children acquired through remarriage. Barely half of all parents in happy remarriages report having an "excellent" relationship with their children.

Some suggest that one reason so many children react badly to their parent's remarriage is because it intrudes on their fantasy of a natural-family reconciliation. More children secretly nurse such a dream than might be expected: One study found over one-fourth of divorced children hold onto the belief that "once my parents realize how much I want them to, they'll live together again." Another study found that even five years after the divorce, a majority of children still clung to hopes that their parents would re-unite. The aspiration often persists even in
cases where the parents have acquired new partners: "If they can get divorced once, they can do it again," is the wistful comment researchers hear.

-KZIt Takes a Marriage May/June 1996 Issue or is not responsible for any opinions expressed on this site.

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