You may remember the old joke about the elderly couple who come into a lawyer's office to arrange their divorce after 60-plus years of marriage. After learning that the aged duo are indeed serious and want only to be rid of each other, the lawyer says, "Pardon my asking, but if you guys are so unhappy with each other, why didn't you come to see me sooner?"
Their reply: "We wanted to wait until the children died."
Despite its gruesomeness, this gag usually gets a good laugh. But for some--the children of divorce--the laugh is bittersweet. The unhappy truth that emerges from the latest research is that in the long run, divorce is beneficial for the mismatched spouses, but intensely disturbing to the kids. For them, our soaring divorce rates are little comfort. In 1960, the number of marriages in the United States outnumbered divorces by nearly four to one; by 1970 it was three to one, by 1980 only two to one. The persistence of the divorce boom has enabled scientists to complete a substantial volume of research on the effects of divorce on children, including several long-term projects tracking their subjects into adulthood. Results vary by group, sex and age. But it now seems clear that:
--The effects of divorce on kids, ranging from the mild to the disabling, last much longer than psychologists anticipated; and
--Negative effects can be muted, and children can survive with healthier psyches, if the parents keep their hostilities under control, pay attention to their kids, and generally refrain from behaving like jerks.
Researchers have ceased to study divorce as a discrete event but see it rather as a complex process that starts before the actual separation and continues through successive disruptions: changes in residence and economic status; loss of the non-resident parent; adjustment to parental dating; remarriage and the introduction of stepfamilies and sometimes half-siblings.
Meanwhile, access to the custodial parent--usually the mother--is curtailed as she goes back to school or to work, is disabled by her own depression, alcohol use or despair, and reactivates (in many cases frenetically) her social life.
"For kids, the misery their parents may feel in an unhappy marriage is usually less significant than the changes (the children) have to go through after a divorce," says Neil Kalter, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who has spent several years developing support groups in public schools for children of divorce. "They'd rather their parents keep fighting and not get divorced."
The first two years following separation are generally considered the crisis period. Unfortunately, this is often the time at which the parents, preoccupied and consumed with their own life changes, are least able to help their children. These effects go on for years as the child continues to react, his family circumstances combining with the normal difficulties of growing up.
Judith Wallerstein and Joan Berlin Kelly, authors of "Surviving the Break Up: How Parents and Children Cope with Divorce," found that few of the kids in their follow-up survey agreed with their parents' decision to divorce--even five years after the parents separated. (These results are part of the researchers' continuing study of 144 middle- and upper-middle class California children of divorce.) In a 10-year follow-up, published last month in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Wallerstein reported that among the 38 young people in the original study who were between 6 and 8 at the time their parents split, over half later viewed the divorce as "the central experience in their lives." A majority expressed "feelings of sadness or neediness, of a sense of their vulnerability," and were "burdened by intense worries about failure in present and future relationships . . . and by an overall sense of their own powerlessness."
Social, Mental Health
Several researchers have found that although divorce has no discernible influence on a child's academic achievement, it does affect his social and mental health. In a national survey of 699 children, John Guidabaldi of Kent State University and Joseph D. Perry of Tod Babies' and Children's Hospital (Youngstown, Ohio) found that children of divorced parents performed worse than children of intact families on nine of 30 mental-health measures, showing more dependency, more irrelevant talk, withdrawal, blaming, inattention, decreased work effort and unhappiness. Several researchers have observed that children of divorce are overrepresented among patients at mental health clinics.
Boys and girls, it seems, react to divorce in significantly different ways.