For some, getting a divorce feels like loss of a dream that causes an immense feeling of confusion, anger, fear and even hopelessness. While others see it as a life’s second chance with promises of greater freedom, happiness and possibilities. Not one divorce is alike. While some divorces may be the kindest and most necessary decision couples can make, many are not. They are done prematurely and reactively. Couples frequently cite “for the sake of my child(ren)’s best” as the justification for divorce, but in many cases, it is actually centered on them and their own sake.
Dealing with marital relationship issues is complex and can be frustrating. Many divorcing couples often feel that they have lost the fundamental sense of love, trust, respect, interest and even safety in their spouse. They have reached the point of believing that their marriage has totally unredeemable. Hope is slipping away from their grasp, and therefore, divorce feels like the only viable solution. Can divorce truly solve your relational problems?
Studies found that dissolving your marriage does not always necessarily resolve your relational problems. Although couples can terminate their role as husband and wife, they cannot undo their role as parents of their children. Therefore, divorce process, unless it is done properly, would only cause couples deeper hurt and resentment than what they’d anticipated. Many couples often are not briefed enough about the real cost of divorce until they lived through it. Here are some important findings about the hidden costs of divorce:
1. Prolonged Emotional Distress
Many couples hope that divorce would alleviate their emotional distress. However, divorce process often intensifies the feeling of rejection and humiliation. If not handled with care, the process can feel like the pouring of gasoline on the burning anger and resentment. More often than not, divorce worsens the circumstances (of course, there are exceptions!). Researchers found that a year after divorce most families are still in crisis, struggled to put their lives back together and their emotional distress had not subsided. Statistics vary, but it normally takes between 2 to 5 years for the majority of divorcing adults (1/2 of the men, and 2/3 of the women) to start feeling better with their self-esteem, self-confidence and the quality of their new lives, but a large minority did not. Years after the divorce is finalized, many mothers still feel angry, fathers struggle with guilt, and children feel hurt, abandoned and betrayed by the parents’ divorce.
Custodial parent typically experience greater challenges in juggling parental and work responsibilities as a single parent under more constraint financial circumstances. This is especially true for mothers. Feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted, mothers often struggle in nurturing and being available for their children’s needs.
Parents typically report that diminished in work performance, an inability to concentrate, health problems, anxiety, irritability, and sleep disturbances accompany the breakup. Parents also feel insecure in dating, and there is an increased rate or sexual dysfunction in men. Many parents also report increased smoking, drinking, and drug use after divorce.
Studies show that in the 3rd year following the divorce, there is little to no father-child interaction in many cases. The practical difficulties in accessing father-child interaction in post divorce environment, apprehension and lack of competence in parenting skills contribute to the gradual disengagement between fathers and children. It is not uncommon, fathers feel powerless, helpless and resentful about this whole set up. In the end, children are the ones who experience the ripple effects of their parents’ emotional distress, unavailability and incompetence.
2. Children Pay A High Price
Feelings and voices of children of divorcing parents were often unheard. Rarely, they were consulted. Few really seemed to understand the reasons for the divorce. Researchers showed that only one in ten children experienced relief when their parents divorced. Divorcing parents often do not know how to communicate the issues clearly and directly, but convince themselves that whatever makes them happy (e.g., exciting new love affair or job/location change) will also have “trickle-down” effects on their children. Yet, sadly, the reality shows a different picture.
Children of divorce, especially young ones, were found to experience an emotional downward course following the divorce. They would likely experience separation anxiety symptoms due to fear of losing both of their parents and worry that parental love won’t be available when they need it. “If Dad (or Mom) left, won’t Mom (or Dad) go away too?”, they suspect.
In their silence, they would internalize the situation and blame themselves for the break up of their parents’ marriage. As it is common with children, they would keep their fear and confusion inside and embracing the feeling of badness. They tie it up with their identity thinking, “Maybe if I had been good, mom and dad wouldn’t have gotten a divorce.”
Young children initially would show sleep problems, difficulties in their school performances and peer relations. Studies found, after five years, 1/3 of the children were doing well, but more than 1/3 were significantly worse off than before.
Younger children of divorcing parents also tend to indulge in reunification fantasies – “I could help them to get back together!” Even teenage children would cling to the hope that their parents would heal their marriage either consciously (by taking on heavy emotional responsibility trying to reconcile the parents) or unconsciously (by demonstrating physical, emotional or behavioral disorders such as, problem with the school/law, substances abuse. These behaviors are also used as a coping mechanism to deal with their emotional chaos.
At the ten-year follow-up, children who had seemed to be adjusted quite well, began to show serious problems in their teenage years or early twenties – called sleeper effects. These problems included clinical depression, anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, anorexia, self-destructive behaviors, risk taking, substance use/abuse, promiscuity and relational trust issues.
NOTE: Not all divorce produces or causes maladaptive and dysfunctional children. As it’s alluded earlier, some divorce is necessary. It, however, is important to consider that the stake is high.
3. Divorce Does Not Automatically Resolve Couple Relational Issues
High conflict and hostile couples often seek divorce as the way to end their marital war. Unfortunately, many are under the illusion that their lives after divorce are simpler, and their conflict will come to an end. Studies indicate that some parents continue to be Angry Associates (feel angry almost every time they communicate with each other) and others deteriorate turning into Fiery Foes (where they keep each other at a distance and non-communicative, yet they cannot prevent conflict from erupting intensely at any chance of interaction. The intensity of their hostility makes these couple often rely on a third party, such as lawyer, therapist, friend to settle their continued battles).
Parents will always be parent for their children. Regardless the divorce, children still need their parents to stay involved in their lives, thus it is inevitable that parents are required to relate with each other in civilized and respectful manner. Without effective emotional management and communication skills, this goal is often unattainable for divorcing couples.
Divorce does matter to you, your children and your loved ones – no matter how much positive buffer you try to provide. Certainly, a proper divorce is still better than a reactive and litigious one. Yet at the same time, it does not negate the painful reality that a divorce leaves emotional pain in your children.
The desire for divorce can be a constructive “wake up call” for distressed couples to start taking their relationship more seriously and to seek the necessary help. The investment couples put in working through their troubled relationship often yield much better, long term benefits than taking a short-cut exit of divorce.