While the marriages of John and Elizabeth Edwards, Mark and Jenny Sanford, and Tiger and Elin Woods have flamed out in a most spectacular and public fashion, most divorces I have witnessed (among both clients and friends) have produced far less drama. Nevertheless, debate rages over the lasting effects on the children of such dissolved unions.
In your mid and late twenties, weddings seemed to occur every other weekend; once you hit your thirties, everyone started having babies. If you're pushing forty or beyond now, a substantial number of your peers are likely divorcing now. Perhaps you are considering divorce, or in the process of it, and wondering how this will affect your kids.
In answer to the question "Does Divorce Harm the Children?" my therapist-answer is annoyingly equivocal: It depends. It depends on the precursors and circumstances; it depends on the psychological state of both parents before and after the divorce; it depends on the continued financial stability (or lack thereof) of both parents. All these variables ensure that no blanket statement about divorce and children will suffice.
In my opinion, it's not divorce itself that harms children; rather, it is all the unpleasant baggage that often accompanies it. But such baggage can accumulate regardless of whether or not a couple actually divorces.
Here is an example: After a divorce, many people feel like a failure. Feeling like a failure causes you to second-guess your own judgment as a parent. Your kids sense this, act up, and generally take advantage of the situation. Your confidence and self-esteem then erode as your self-fulfilling prophecy comes true. This decrease in confidence and self-esteem is but one example of "baggage."
However, if you are married to someone who constantly engages in verbal put-downs, this also takes a toll on your confidence and self-esteem, resulting in "baggage" and affecting your parenting. In some cases, for some individuals, a divorce may actually result in increased confidence and self-esteem - and better parenting.
Cause-and-effect assumptions are tricky - here is one that puzzles me. Regarding Elin Woods' alleged reluctance to divorce Tiger, a friend commented: "She wants a solid family life. She was a child of divorce and felt her dad slighted her." I don't get it. Would she have felt less slighted if her parents had remained married?
Here is another example of divorce "baggage": one parent denigrating the other to the children. But again, this can occur regardless of parental marital status. I believe that divorce may increase the frequency and intensity of other-parent-bashing, in part due to the zero-sum, adversarial paradigm in which divorce attorneys often operate. I've known quite a few couples who entered the divorce process fairly amicably, only to emerge from it as snarling enemies.
Feelings of animosity toward your soon-to-be-ex-spouse are understandable, especially if there was some deception that precipitated the breakup (like a secret love-child or a clandestine trip to Argentina). Therapist advice:
- Vent to friends, your mother, or a therapist, not to your children. Your ex is literally a part of your children, so when you put him or her down, it will likely feel to your children, on some level at least, that you are insulting them as well.
- Consider using a mediator when divorcing and settling financial and custody arrangements. A mediator can help create a more interdependent and collaborative environment than tends to flourish otherwise.
- If you were close enough to your ex to conceive (or adopt) children together, surely he or she has some good qualities that you want your children to emulate. Emphasize those when discussing your ex with your kids. As they mature, your kids will figure out the bad qualities on their own, without help from you. (One caveat: if there is physical or sexual abuse involved, or if you have discovered that your ex is a violent sociopath, your children's safety trumps anything else).
- Finally, remember that the only person's behavior you can truly control is your own. If your ex has regressed to adolescence, take the high road, and ten or twenty years down the pike, your kids will remember who truly had their interests at heart.