Over the years there have been a plethora of studies and research projects designed to examine the effect of parental divorce on children. Researchers and health care specialists have tried to answer such questions as whether it is better for the children if parents avoid divorce even if it means living in a “bad marriage”, the classic example of “staying together for the children”, or if divorce is a better alternative for all involved. Is the effect of divorce more pronounced for younger children versus older children, or vice versa? If parents choose divorce, what is the best plan for visitation and custody?
For every study or case that supports “staying in the marriage”, there is another that would support the opposite. For every case where a professional reasonably demonstrates that it would be better for the children if the parents remained married there is most likely another who could reasonably argue for divorce. The main reason these questions are so hard to answer is that there are so many factors affecting children that it is impossible to identify which are specifically related to the divorce itself. For example, divorce often results in a change of living arrangements, school placement and socioeconomic status.
How are we to separate the effect of these changes on the child from those of the divorce itself? If a child’s parents divorce at the time a child is moving from elementary school to middle school and there is a drop in grades and social functioning, is it possible to relate this to the divorce or is it more closely related to the difficulty of adjusting to the changes of puberty or changes in school structure that occur at this time?
Despite all this confusion, there are some things we know with some certainty. Yes, divorce does have an impact on children. It is a significant event in their lives and as a result has a significant effect on them. It also is well demonstrated that unresolved marital strife and conflict have a negative effect on a child’s adjustment. This appears to be true whether parents remain married or if they divorce. If divorce effectively reduces parental conflict it may be more positive than continuing a marriage that maintains high levels of parental conflict.
One problem that I have observed in my years of work with children and families is that parental conflict not only often survives divorce but also can indeed thrive in divorce. Situations in which parental conflict remains high through the separation or where the circumstances of the separation become used as additional fuel to fire the parental conflict clearly appear to have the most significant impact on compromising a child’s positive adjustment. As is the case in most situations it appears that the more significant issue is not the specific decision parents make about whether or not to divorce but how they put that decision into action. Once again, the way we travel the road is more significant than the specific road we choose to travel.
In my work as a psychologist and in my personal life as a husband and a parent, I strongly support the goal of helping parents learn how to resolve conflicts so that they can remain together in a positive and healthy marriage.
In cases where this is not possible, however, the best course of action is to help parents to effectively use divorce as a means of reducing conflict rather than as a means of punishing one another and continuing the battle. This too often is the case and appears to have the most severely negative impact on the children involved.