Children of divorceChildren of Divorce

Revised 12/31/19

I am often asked about children of divorce. Wives sometimes ask me, “do you think I should stay in a miserable marriage just for the sake of my kids?” This is a very loaded question. First of all, this question implies that marriage is in a perpetually static state… once miserable.. forever miserable. That’s the story behind the Walk Away Wife.

Research has proven that this belief is not only false, but it’s also dangerous to the mental health of your children.

Over the past three decades, science has unlocked the secrets of how to make a troubled marriage happy and successful. But as Michele-Weiner Davis points out, it isn’t magic. It takes work.

When you have children and you are unhappily married, you owe it to them to confront every obstacle and employ every resource to avoid dissolving your marriage. There are plenty of new age pundits who claim otherwise. But hear this loud and clear:

Once a marriage dissolves, so too, does the family… forever. Research tells us that children only benefit from divorce only in those situations where there is extreme abuse. It is estimated that only one third of the divorces in our country fit this criteria. In all other cases, children lose out on many different dimensions when their parents split. Even when the adults feel happier as a result of divorce, research shows that there is no “trickle down effect” in terms of how the children fare. Michele Weiner-Davis

 

The science says that your “personal growth” can be hell for your kids.

There are a few notable exceptions, such as systemic domestic violence, drug addiction, criminal behavior, and severe mental illness, etc.

But “conventionally unhappy” marriages can be turned around.  There is no virtue in suffering in silence. You can get action on your chronic issues.

Research on Children of Divorce

Children of divorce are one of the most carefully studied areas of social science. Don’t let anybody cause you to think otherwise. The science on this is settled. If you have children, divorce dissolves their family, upsets everything they rely on, and may set a bad example that they will carry into their future.

Once you choose to bring children into the world, divorce isn’t a solution to an unhappy marriage. Fixing it is. Michele Weiner -Davis

 Impact of Divorce on Children of Divorce by Age Group

Children of divorce go through predictable responses, according to the research. Knowing these differences can help you to anticipate the impact of your marital decisions on your children.

 Children of Divorce: Pre-Schoolers and Younger Children…It’s All My Fault!

 

Children of divorce under the age of 9 that tend to believe that they’re responsible for the breakup. They also tend to fantasize about their parents coming back together again, and their family life happily restored.

Attachment science tells us that pre-schoolers see their parents as the center of gravity in their emotional universe.

For young children to develop into healthy adults, they require focused attention, love, and security from their parents.

As a result of their sense of guilt and responsibility, pre-school children tend to be clingy and more anxious.

Divorced parents often notice that after the divorce, their pre-school children regress into bed-wetting, and seem to be incapable of completing simple tasks that once were easy for them.

Family therapists tell us that this is often a strategy that little children employ to attract their parents to come together around the set of symptoms that the child is presenting.

Children of Divorce: Young Adolescents and Teens… It’s All Your Fault!

Children of divorce between the ages of 9 and 18 years put the responsibility where it more appropriately belongs, but they tend to have strong resentments about it. These children of divorce have a higher capacity to think for themselves and are more independent.

They often feel betrayed and let down by their divorcing parents. They think that they can’t trust their parents to put their needs ahead of their own, and a sense of growing mistrust enters the relationship.

These are the children who believe that the best way of coping is to focus on taking care of themselves because that’s what the parents are modeling.

Typically, young boys show increased levels of aggression and disobedience, while girls will become more withdrawn and prone to anxiety. Perhaps in a regressive strategy, Girls of divorcing parents also tend to become sexually active earlier than their peers.

“You want a problem? I’ll show you a problem!” seems to be their defiant stance.

Children of divorce between 9 and 18 report feeling increased levels of stress, anxiety, and feeling alone and abandoned. Some also complain that they feel bitter, embarrassed, tormented, and feel a significant loss of self-esteem. Their feelings might lessen as they eagerly anticipate fleeing the nest, which is often a premature launch into early adulthood.

Other known effects of divorce on teens are chronic school issues stemming from behavioral problems. Bitter and angry children of divorce can become incredibly challenging to manage as they careen through their teen years.

But if you want to see sparks fly… prioritize your own emotional reactions over the emotional well-being of your children. Have a bitter and rancorous relationship with your ex. The higher the ongoing conflict between you… the more you compound the misery and pain of your children.

Long-Term Consequences for All Children of Divorce

Judith Wallerstein was the most exceptional researcher in the field of children of divorce research. She conducted an extensive and well-designed longitudinal study.

In one of the few close-up studies of its kind, Wallerstein carefully followed 131 children whose parents were divorcing over 25 years. The study of the children of divorce was her passion and her life’s work.

Judith had her detractors. She made some people uncomfortable. She was always having to defend her work by saying, “I’m not saying don’t get divorced, I’m saying, don’t ignore the long-term consequences.”

People harped on the fact that her subjects tended to be more economically well-off and better educated. (As if data from more economically disadvantaged and less educated families would somehow improve the research conclusions…)

What was most compelling about Wallerstein’s study was that she also studied a comparison group of children from the same communities whose parents did not divorce. This study showed how divorce impacts the thinking and emotional life of children of divorce, creating more tentative interior models of relationship compared with similar children who grew up with the benefit of intact families. Despite the best intentions, kids and divorce are difficult to handle with skill.

Her careful work tells us that the most significant negative impact of divorce echoes through time, 15 to 25 years into the future.

Here are a Few of Her Research Findings:

  • Only about 45 percent of children are relatively unimpacted after the divorce.
  • Over 40% are struggling. They are anxious, worried, frustrated, critical, and doing poorly in school.
  • Half of the divorced mothers and 30 percent of divorced dads were still rageful and contemptuous toward their former partners.
  • Most children said they had no idea how intimacy between a couple should work.
  • Less is less. Divorced parents offer their kids less sensitivity, less time, and less discipline. Divorce, like physical illness, encourages a narcissistic self-involvement, even in the best of parents.
  • Many parents are unable to form healthy boundaries with their kids. They share far too much of their personal lives with them. These kids become emotionally activated and more vulnerable to depression and rage.
  • Research tells us that most divorced parents blow it. Despite their best intentions, they are often chaotic, poorly organized, and utterly incapable of responsible parenting. Divorce is significant trauma, and it’s had to bring your best self forward when you’re howling in pain…but your kids need you too.

As parents continue to act out, it sets up a vicious circle that inhibits the healthy emotional development and functioning of the children.

“The children of divorce tended to do well if mothers and father, regardless of remarriage, resumed parenting roles, putting differences aside, and allowing the children continuing relationships with both parents. The problem is that only  a few children had these advantages. Judith Wallerstein.

Children of Divorce Were Studied by Other Researchers As Well

Another critical researcher, E. Mavis Hetherington, is a developmental psychologist. She also conducted an extensive longitudinal study, following 1,400 families, with a population of 2500 kids over 30 years. Here are some of her findings:

  • About 25% of children of divorce develop acute emotional problems, as compared with only 10% from intact families.
  • A whopping 75% of adult children of divorce express the belief that divorce is an entirely appropriate solution to being unhappily married… even if you have kids, while only 40% of adults raised in intact families agree. A family history of divorce normalizes divorce.

Children of Divorce in a House Divided

Researcher Elizabeth Marquardt conducted a fascinating piece of research that focused on what happens to children of divorce who are shuffled back and forth between two households. Marquardt led a research project involving 1,500 young adults from age 18 to 35.  She split these subjects into two groups; the children of divorce, and the children of intact families.

The children of divorce were under the age of 14 when their parents split up. She focused on their “inner feelings” in a survey. Here are a few of her findings:

  • Children of divorced parents are more likely to feel torn and conflicted being shuffled between two households with often conflicting values.
  • As a rule, most parents keep poor boundaries. They were asked to keep secrets about the goings-on in these different homes. These self-preoccupied parents offered little or no moral guidance.
  • These kids became increasingly dependent on their peer group and siblings for emotional support.
  • Children of Divorce suffered measurably more feelings of loss, loneliness, isolation, and grief than children of intact families

The Inconvenient Truth of Children of Divorce

In the late ’80s, Marquardt and Wallerstein endured a firestorm of criticism from a culture that did not want to hear this sad news about the effects of divorce on children. They supported each other in the press and declared unequivocally that many adult children never recover from the often “cataclysmic” impact divorce has on their development.

Our culture loves to portray divorce as a second chance for happiness for adults, but the children of divorce have a profoundly different experience.

Wallerstein endorsed Marquardt and her research. “Her observations are right on target,” said Wallerstein. “These children have a sense of living in two different worlds. They grow up with difficulty in feeling whole.” 

Wallerstein and Marquardt contradicted a cultural norm, comforting afflicted children, and afflicting comfortable divorcing parents. A cottage industry of third-rate detractors emerged to oppose them in the media, but they had no science behind them, only narcissistic polemics.

The Benefits of Emotion Coaching

A little over 20 years ago, John Gottman developed the concept of meta-emotion and styles of emotional discourse. As a result of this research, he developed the idea of Emotion Coaching.

Emotion Coaching is a specific quality of parental engagement, and it is particularly impactful with children of divorce.

Parents who display an accepting attitude toward their children’s emotions, while acknowledging the reality of their feelings, and verbally coaching them to understand, describe, and ultimately cope with their feelings were buffered against the emotional upheavals of their parent’s divorce.

Research with preschoolers, elementary school-age children, and adolescents has demonstrated that Gottman is right. Emotion Coaching has a positive impact on children of divorce. In a 3-year longitudinal study, Katz and Gottman (1997) found that parents’ emotion coaching beliefs buffered preschool-age children from the negative effects of their parents’ distress.

Emotionally coached children of divorce tend to adapt better. They acquire a better understanding and regulation over their emotions. They also exhibit fewer behavior problems and internal symptoms.

Children of Divorce Become Parents Themselves Eventually

Some divorces are unavoidable, and may even be necessary. Emotion-coaching can help your kids acquire the resilience they need to get through. But unnecessary divorce may set your kids up to anticipate a future failure when they eventually cross the developmental threshold into their own romantic attachments.

Children of divorce become conflicted, tormented, and gun-shy. As adults, many tend to flee commitment at the first sign of trouble. If they have kids, the same maladaptive pattern can repeat, echoing into future generations, long after your unhappy marriage is over and forgotten.

Are you on the edge of divorce? You can turn it around. We can teach you how to rein in negativity and stop fighting in front of the kids. We can even teach you how to fight fair, even if your parents never showed you how.

Science-based couples therapy is 70-90% effective. But it takes courage and guts to turn around a difficult situation. Book an online assessment today.

Learn More About Improving Your Marriage and Preventing Divorce

Research:

Gottman JM, Katz LF, Hooven C. Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: Theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology. 1996;10:284–291. []

Gottman JM, Katz LF, Hooven C. Meta-emotion: How families communicate emotionally. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 1997. []

Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. W W Norton & Co.

Katz, L. F., & Gottman, J. M. (1993). Patterns of marital conflict predict children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Developmental Psychology, 29(6), 940–950. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.29.6.940

Marquardt, E. (2005). Between two worlds: The inner lives of children of divorce. Crown Publishing Group/Random House.

Wallerstein, J. S., & Blakeslee, S. (1989). Second chances: men, women, and children a decade after divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields.

Wallerstein, Judith (21 Sep 2000) “THE OPEN MIND: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce”. PBS.

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. Science-based couples therapy is 70-90% effective. But it takes courage and guts to turn around a difficult situation.

    Cheaters have neither courage or guts. They have shame, and pass their shame to their children.

    We can teach you how to rein in negativity and stop fighting in front of the kids.

    BPD is not capable of emotional regulation. If they were capable. They wouldn’t have BPD. Limmerance is a nice way of saying BPD. Everyone creates PEA under the right circumstances. Not everyone destroys their family. Ruins their finances, and has chaotic relationships because of a little dose of PEA and lack of perspective control.

    1. While it’s easy to generalize about those who have an affair, ndbbm, it’s not helpful. At any point, when someone has had an affair, it takes guts to go to a couples therapist and courage to admit you took a wrong turn and are remorseful. Some people, you are right, simply can’t admit they did anything wrong by an extramarital affair, and choose instead to blame their spouse for “driving them to it.” Others never admit they are wrong, pointing to their own history of trauma. But atonement is a step that’s necessary for healing, and it’s also great when you’re a parent to say “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” And it’s never too late to start.

      It’s also a generalization to say that those with BPD aren’t capable of emotional regulation. It’s extremely challenging because it is part of their character, their personality, but anyone who is invested in the process can do the hard work of individual plus group work and improve. Are they never emotionally unregulated? Nope. And neither am I or most of us. But the process happens slowly as does the healing. Can their marriages or kids wait around for that to happen? Spouses have an option but unfortunately, their kids don’t. Read more about Borderline personality disorder and serial affairs.

  2. It is estimated that only one third of the divorces in our country fit this criteria. In all other cases, children lose out on many different dimensions when their parents split.

    How does the pyschology community reconcile that number with >75% divorces filed by females?
    His dues the pyschology community believe that females have greater EQ then men while they perpetrate this emotional hell on their children?

    Why doesn’t the legal community consider this gross neglect and abuse by the initiating spouse? Why isn’t infidelity and its attendant lying cheating and deceit considered criminal behavior and or domestic abuse of the children at a minimum?

    ??

    1. You are asking about the 1/3 of divorces that are as a result of extreme abuse such as drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, chronic philandering, and untreated mental illness. Because no-fault divorce is allowed in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia, it’s impossible to tell exactly why people do divorce. But let’s speculate a bit: Drug and alcohol abuse engenders dependency. It’s unlikely that the addict would initiate divorce. In the case of domestic violence, while it’s often extremely dangerous to divorce, but doing so is necessary for life and limb. Chronic philandering? Well, you’ve expressed your opinion about this in an earlier comment. And finally untreated mental illness, the emphasis being “untreated” is challenging to live with, especially if the individual refuses help. Personality disorders such as narcissism and BPD as well as passive aggression may not see their behavior as unacceptable, but it can be so challenging as to be unlivable. All of these issues fit the 1/3 definition. In the case of the other 2/3rds, it really is up to both of you to work hard to keep it together or seek professional help by a science-based couples therapist if you can’t. Emotional intelligence can motivate one spouse to refuse to live with another who simply refuses to engage with them emotionally, spiritually or physically. Women are the “keepers of the relationship” as Michelle Weiner Davis says, and can try to push for change but are often only taken seriously by their husbands when divorce proceedings begin. It would be great if more woman at that point would take their husbands up on their now willingness to change. If both have a pure heart, transformations can often happen, if “hard reasons” for divorce don’t exist in that marriage.

      1. I wasn’t expecting a reply, I was talking to the people reading these articles. Thank you for your time. Your BPD article is another step in the right direction.

        First this article espouses that D is only acceptable in triple A cases–do it for the children. Then you make an excuse for females in your reply to me, who destroy their children’s futures for emotional reasons, no Affair/Addiction/Abuse needed.
        75% of men are not triple A. They are beta at worst, ignorant at best. Females don’t leave Cobras. (Gottman)
        The emotional reason (temporary insanity-in the language of many psych’s) females leave is failure to control perspective.. Limerence. Just as society excuses women from emotionally violent behavior during their period, citing hormonal changes. Society doesn’t excuse men for bad behavior, even though they have 100-1000 x more testosterone then women.
        Show me a female WAW, and I’ll show you an affair. Show me 1 WAW without an affair and I’ll show you the exception that makes the rule.
        MWD as-if technique is not about remorse or atonement.
        More than 80% of post-divorce females still have contempt – years later. That does not speak to accountability or higher EQ.
        The % of contempt in males post-divorce is orders of magnitude less.

        Either everyone’s feelings matter, including the man’s and the children’s, or no one’s feelings matter. I once listened to a man ask his STBW, ‘doesn’t *child* get a voice? about a simple request from the child to spend time with Daddy. reply. NOPE!!!

        And that’s why men are checking out. They can feel the unspoken accusations of failure at every level.
        Media. Legal. Mental health professionals. I’m here to tell them, you didn’t fail. Your feelings are relevant! Her contempt is not OK!. the moment a woman rolls her eyes, or talks over you…. WALK AWAY!!! and never let her come back. she will try! 96% try! NO!

        What sort of support from society do you think a 6′ male gets when he has children with a 5’ triple A wife, who has no stop IRT triangulating authorities? Using false accusations and receiving no consequence, and either neglects the children or uses them as emotional or financial leverage? EVERYDAY CPS receives these. Is he in danger physically? No not hardly. Is he in danger emotionally, spiritually and financially?
        Does he save himself and abandon his children?
        You think her lies stop with him? (females never receive consequence for false reports in law enforcement. They are dismissed as ‘frustrated’ ’emotional’. the man is blamed. ‘what did you do to make her angry?’ The rage in narcissists and bpd is not the intimate partners fault. Really. It’s not. )
        Your science based therapy, is fantastic but it will not be able to participate in the necessary social change, until it makes use of that science to make Everyone’s feelings matter and require accountability. Daily headlines, mother of 3 arrested for false report of father abusing children, Custody removed.
        Science has all the evidence it needs for lawyers to make the case for traumatic damage to children in divorce. No one really cares ‘about the children. By the Numbers, your numbers, > 75% of women Do Not Care About Their Children. It’s a horrible thought, considering the two greatest predictors of a child’s success are 1) intact marriage 2) happy mother. Look at dating sites. Every woman’s profile says. ‘looking for someone to make me laugh’
        Its such a horrible thought, women refuse to even contemplate it. Deny Deny Deny. Blame blame blame. Victim Victim Victim.

        The gender and or demographic bias from the people who seek your services (women in upper middleclass marriages) is vivid in otherwise excellent articles. So are the reports about sociopaths (recidivism, cheaters) seeking ‘therapy’ for more productive ways of maintaining their lifestyle and appearance.
        When men stop acting beta, the return and time to return by the WAW is so predictable, it’s like watching NPC’s. I’ve facilitated it and watched it hundreds of times.
        When males add in desire motivators, the return timeline is shock inducing to the uneducated. When men are educated and become proficient… many become dis respectful and contemptuous … just like females.
        That is NOT the definition of EQ.
        That is the behavior of superiority and self-righteousness, covert narcissism.
        The attitude of hypergamy and secretive philandering.

        If females had higher EQ. the majority would educate, instead of dis respect. Females are the keepers of feelings, which is not equivalent to keepers of the relationship. Keeper of the relationship is a belief statement of superior positioning.
        Females wait for men to ‘move the R to the next level’. females Wait for men to ask them to get married. That is a receptive position, not inferior or superior position.

        If psychologists had higher EQ, they would focus on accountability and social consequences to the gene-rationally repetitious emotional abuse of children by either party. Not make diminishing excuses for emotional terrorism driven by the biology of females whose youngest child is 3.y.o and hormonally driven to looking for the next sperm donor (serial monogamy), or acting out destroying family spiritually, financially and emotionally, because of a minuscule squirt of Testosterone that bumps her levels a couple points, just prior to menopause.
        catalog and accept the gender differences. hold people accountable, regardless of their ‘feelings’. Drop the gender bias.
        Everyone’s feelings matter.

        But let’s speculate a bit: Drug and alcohol abuse engenders dependency. It’s unlikely that the addict would initiate divorce.
        From your BPD article….
        One thing I find interesting about this research is the increased likelihood of affairs when there is alcohol abuse,
        Unless the addict found a fresh source of superior exploitation. You’ve never been married to an alcoholic woman; the #1 reason men actually file for Divorce. BPD goes hand in hand with substance abuse. Even your BPD article is told from the perspective of the husband who cheated with the BPD whore. Where is the article about being married to the BPD and trying to escape with your children, finances and sanity? Therapy for those men isn’t Hopeful. unless you consider hope a four letter word.
        Cobra males get bored and leave for new toys.
        What do you think Female Cobra’s do? No articles from Gottman about female cobras though. Gender bias.
        All addicts are self-destructive but many ‘functional alcoholics’ are Cobras.
        This is not the time or place, but my world view experience has taught me that passive-aggressive men have a big part in creating the environment where narcissistic behaviors in females amplify tremendously. I factor in the biological fact that females have a MUCH higher number of mirror neural pathways…. That does not mean they have a greater EQ.

        the 1/3 “documented mental health issues” says everything with the word ‘documented’ Personality disorders so rarely seek out help I feel fine saying Never. Ever here a personality disorder say ‘ I Won’t BE LABELED!! Do you think the majority of men can afford the +60k to prove personality disorder, in court and even then still have society/ judge say– kids need their mother? ruling in favor of 50/50 , so the personality disordered/ desire for power individual can continue leveraging the emotional health of the child?
        I wasn’t asking these questions for myself. Conflating EQ with the ability to camouflage (deceive) and manipulate doesn’t make it EQ.
        Unless that’s the covert way of telling men, she doesn’t like you anymore, because she is smarter and superior, ‘outgrown you’, and done using you, regardless of how that feeling affects her children.
        Society doesn’t mind using outliers in favor of treating all men as abusive predators, ( when DV calls are made the man always goes to jail. regardless of who called, regardless of who hit. Matter of Policy in all major cities) but refuses to ‘see’ true motivation and behaviors of the majority.
        Why a man wants to be with a woman who doesn’t like/respect/support/ softly start/ have any EQ whatsoever…. I’ll never know. But I can tell them, Your Feelings Matter. It’s not your Fault she is a WAW. It’s NOT your Fault she is a cheater. Lots of people go thru college without cheating on their exams or homework. Cheaters are criminals, by law in many states, even though they are un-enforced.
        P.S. I watched a TedTalk from M.W.D. Her exhaustion from having confined herself to her marriage was beyond ‘leakage’. it was Palpable. Females love the thought of ‘being loved’. They abhor the thought of -till death do us part- especially if you are to savvy for her to successfully sneak around on. That would require accountability, remorse and atonement. things that don’t feel ‘good’ and send the dysregulation spiraling to new heights of rage.

        1. You write: “Your science-based therapy, is fantastic but it will not be able to participate in the necessary social change until it makes use of that science to make Everyone’s feelings matter and require accountability.”
          Dr. K: Everyone’s feelings do matter in science-based couples therapy. No one gets to abuse anyone else in my office. Everyone learns to speak from their own experience and speak respectfully. What they choose to do once they leave, however, is their decision.
          You write: “Females don’t leave Cobras. (Gottman)” You mean women don’t ESCAPE cobras. It’s a terrifying life to live with a cobra and the violence is senseless and random. The only good news is that if you aren’t murdered in the act of leaving, many of these men will go on to find another victim. But leaving is very dangerous and requires a lot of careful planning.
          You are, however, correct that the justice system can be very unfair to men who are married to manipulative personality disordered wives. I’ve seen it. Maybe bring your comments to those blogs that talk about criminal justice. We just don’t do “Women Good/Men Bad” on this blog.

          Dr. K

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