What Are The Long-term Effects Of Parental Divorce On Children?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

What Are The Long-term Effects Of Parental Divorce On Children?

Part 2 of a series: Children’s Adjustment To Parental Divorce: The Role of Conflict

Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty are children of divorce. For years, researchers have identified the damage divorce inflicts on the lives of children. In recent decades, many studies have examined the impact of parental divorce on children into adulthood. However, when my daughter Tracy and I first decided to write a book about daughters of divorce in 2009, we were struck by how few articles there were on this topic – at least available to readers on the internet or at bookstores.

My own research on this topic, conducted at the college where I teach, supports the view of renowned researcher Paul Amato who examines the impact of divorce utilizing the resources and stressors model. In sum, Amato concludes that parental divorce, like other major events, can have detrimental effects to the degree that it engenders other stressors but that these negative effects can be minimized by the addition of resources and protections. Those resources include: parental closeness, open communication, competent parenting by both parents, and low conflict among family members.

My findings support Amato’s perspective that an increase in parental conflict after divorce is a stressor for children into adulthood. In Towards a Resources and Stressors Model: The Psychological Adjustment of Adult Children of Divorce, I also note that gender, financial hardship, and a parenting plan which limits access to both parents are risk factors impacting an offspring’s vulnerability to divorce. This blog will explore both risk factors and protective factors drawn from my own research and other experts.

Let’s face it, divorce is not just a single event whose impact stops once the papers are signed. Yet adult children of divorce tend to be the forgotten ones, because our focus tends to be on parents and children. Authors who specialize in studying adults raised by divorced parents conclude that such adults  have much strength – but they also have challenges to overcome. For instance, Susan Gregory Thomas, the author of In Spite Of Everything: A Memoir writes “I think the generation X has been defined as the divorce generation, and about half of us grew up as latchkey kids, so we’re well trained in making our own meals from age six and letting ourselves into our houses after school and basically being little adults.” Thomas makes many excellent points: young adults today are clear eyed realists, practical, self-sufficient and self-directed. However, she also mentions that they tend to be cynical – especially about commitment and marriage.

What are some of the challenges faced by adults raised in divorced homes? In his book, Adult Children of Divorce, psychologist Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D. writes “The dynamics faced by children of divorce do not end when you turn eighteen years old. In many families these dynamics continue well into adulthood. Some divorce family’s replay the divorce over and over again at holidays, special occasions, and even at the routine times when a child (now grown) speaks to one parent in the presence of the other. These dynamics can take their toll on you as they continually exert their influence.”

Other researchers, including myself, have written extensively about how parental divorce can cause young adults (especially females) to suffer from wounded trust and to have shaken faith in love. Every person harbors a desire to love and be loved, but the problem for many daughters of divorce is that they fear they won’t be loved and cared for, that their partner will not have their best interests at heart.

Many of the women I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce were extremely self-reliant – working hard in school, holding down multiple jobs, and managing life on their own. However, most of the over 200 women noted that while autonomy is surely positive, it can also rob a woman of the love and intimacy they deeply desire.

While daughters of divorce may be more vulnerable to wounded trust than males, many authors have noted that both men and women raised in divorced homes tend to have unrealistic expectations going into marriage. In some cases, they may be unaware of the damage done by their parents’ breakup decades before, and they may be looking for their partner to heal them.

This could be one of the reasons why Paul Amato found that adult children of divorce have approximately double the odds of divorce compared to adults raised in intact homes. Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the memoir In Spite of Everything, describes how her own divorce occurred even though she was determined not to divorce because she harbored unrealistic views of marriage – not having a template of a healthy marriage to follow.

If you grew up as a child of divorce, you might find yourself asking: Why am I afraid of conflict? Why am I waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during times of success? Or, why am I afraid of commitment? The late Judith Wallerstein who studied the same sixty families over twenty-five years, concluded that while divorce doesn’t have to be universally detrimental to children it can cause them to harbor powerful ghosts from the past that impact their ability to have a positive mindset about intimacy that can lead to relationship issues later on. While her research has been criticized due to her case study methodology and conclusions, Amato states that there is validity to her findings if we look at them as having a moderate rather than severe impact.

Certainly most parents who split have reasons for hope since researchers have found that only a relatively small number of children of divorce suffer from serious effects. E. Mavis Hetherington’s results from her landmark study of 1,400 divorced families found that the short term effects of divorce – anxiety, anger, shock, and disbelief are overcome by the end of the second year. Researchers such as Amato and Hetherington have consistently found that high levels of parental conflict during and after divorce are associated with poorer adjustment into adulthood.

In summary, Amato’s stressors and resources model makes a lot of sense and gives us a working framework for examining the long-term impact of parental divorce on children. The stressors that are engendered by parental divorce can be damaging but the protections afforded by lower conflict, and competent co-parenting can reduce the negative effects of parental divorce over the long run.

In the next and last part of this three part series, I will address: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce. I would love to read your comments and questions to this blog or series.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”

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