Divorce

While a divorce can end a marriage, it doesn't allow a couple to escape from their painful, devitalised and destructive relationship.

A divorce affects you for the rest of your life in ways you can never imagine.

While legally divorce is a single event, psychologically and emotionally it is a chain of events. It is an extremely stressful life experience that involves enormous lifestyle changes, financial hardships, relocations and emotional traumas that are spread out over time. It is a process that forever changes the lives of the couple and all those involved in the breakdown of the family.

Dr Paul Pearsall suggests that "divorce is almost always a disaster. The emotional and psychological drama of divorce has become one of our most common socially transmissible diseases."

Divorce is not the answer
The effects of divorce
Divorce and children
Divorce and parenting
Facing the truth

Divorce statistics for Australia, for the year 2000

   49 900 people got divorced
   52.7 per cent of all divorces involved children under 18
   There were 49 600 children affected by divorce
*taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics


 Divorce is not the answer

Therapist Michelle Weiner-Davis in her book "Divorce Busting" suggests three reasons why divorce is not the answer:

  1. It doesn't solve the problem it's meant to solve. It doesn't provide you with an escape from the relationship by immediately dissolving the emotional bonds between you. Nor does it stop you from blaming your ex-partner for all your unhappiness. And it certainly doesn't put an end to the debates about custody, access, maintenance or child rearing issues.

  2. Divorce only creates a whole new set of problems, like money problems, problems of acute loneliness and feelings of depression, remorse and failure.

  3. Divorce hurts children of all ages. Children are the real losers. They lose their family, their security and their protection. Their parents move away. They sometimes get split up from their siblings and their loyalties to family can become extremely confused.

The effects of divorce

Many leading family researchers are acknowledging and documenting the long term effects of divorce on adult and childhood development.

Dr Judith Wallerstein in her twenty-year study of the effects of divorce reports that there are only a few winners in divorce. Most are losers.

She found that the winners are likely to be males in their thirties and forties who have established careers, are at the peak of their earning power and are financially secure.

The biggest losers are women with young children who have no medical insurance or child support, and older men and women experiencing a decline in their standard of living. Women with established careers can often have great difficulty after their divorce, dealing with loneliness, trying to create a separate and substantially revised sense of identity and struggling not to depend on their children for emotional support and nurture.

Wallerstein discovered that divorce generally affects women much more than men, with women experiencing more dramatic changes and suffering the greatest economic and social loss.

Even after ten years, fifty per cent of women and thirty-three per cent of men in her study were still intensely angry at their former partner.


Divorce and children

It's usually the children who are the primary victims of divorce. They are profoundly affected by a decision in which they have no say, but it impacts them for the rest of their life.

  • Fifty per cent of children in Wallerstein's study who experienced the divorce of their parents when they were eight years of age or older were not emotionally and psychologically well adjusted as adults.

  • Nearly two-thirds of children feel rejected by one or both parents.

  • Up to sixty per cent of teenagers over the age of eighteen suffer in their educational pursuits and resent the lack of emotional and financial support needed for them to experience a smooth transition into adulthood.

  • Teenagers, especially girls, are most vulnerable to their parents' divorce. It seems they experience a belated reaction, denying feelings which come back to haunt them in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Wallerstein discovered that a child's fundamental attitude about themselves, marriage, society and relationships in general can be permanently changed by the divorce and by events experienced in the early post-divorce years.

Most children feel fear, powerlessness and loneliness at their parents' separation. Feelings of continued attachment to one or both parents often become jumbled up with feelings of shame, anger and bitterness.

The most common fear for children, especially if they were young at the time of the divorce, is sudden abandonment. For most of them divorce does not come as a relief to their unhappiness even when they have been living in a high conflict family.

Sixty-six per cent of them experience a high incidence of anger, intense loneliness and a diminished sense of self-esteem, with many engaging in acting out behaviours as a way of giving expression to their pain.

Divorce and parenting

Divorce also drastically changes the nature of the parent/child relationship. Both parents must adjust to a very different child rearing situation. The fact that over seventy per cent of children end up living with their mothers often means that their relationship with their father tends to be stressful, ambiguous and impoverished.

Mothers who have custody of their children tend to establish a new relationship with them in which they frequently overburden them with their feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear and rage. Some even go so far as to develop an alliance with the child (typically a nine to eighteen year old daughter) for the purpose of taking revenge against the non-custodial father.


Facing the truth

When you stop and analyse the far-reaching effects of divorce on individuals and their family networks, you wonder if it really is the answer to the problems so many families are facing today. Perhaps it is time we all stopped and faced the truth about divorce. Is it really the solution to the traumas associated with the breakdown of marriage? Is divorce the only way to solve the problems of marital conflict or the inability of a couple to deal with their differences?

Author and therapist Frank Pittman suggests that "our experiment with abolishing marriages has not worked very well for either the adults or the children, but it is the adults who don't seem to realise it. I don't know of anyone with divorced parents who doesn't see the divorce as the most central experience in their lives."

The potential health, relational and behavioural risks associated with divorces are a very high price to pay.

Maybe couples in distress would be better off seeking professional help together to deal with their differences. It is possible to learn ways to more effectively face up to the shattered dreams and expectations and find release from the hurt and pain experienced in the relationship.

References

Brandes, Jack S., "Journal of Marital and Family Therapy," April 1990
Hetterington, E., Mavin and Tryon, Adeline S., "His and Her Divorces," Networker Nov/Dec 1989
Pittman, Frank quoted in "Charting Rough Waters," by Kristan Nord, Network Nov/Dec 1989
Wallerstein, Judith S., and Blakeslee, Sandra, "Second Changes," Corgi Book, 1990
Weiner-Davis, Michelle, "Divorce Busting," Summit Books NY 1992

Written by Dr Bryan Craig
Director of the Family Ministries Department, Seventh-day Adventist Church, South Pacific

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