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Distress of Divorce Shows in Many Ways

  • Dr. Wade Horn
  • 2002 21 Nov
Distress of Divorce Shows in Many Ways

When it comes to determining divorce’s effects on children, there is a paradox. Researchers generally have found that though divorce raises the risk that children will develop overt behavioral and emotional problems, such as dropping out of school, developing alcohol and drug problems or committing juvenile crime, most children of divorce do not exhibit such behavior.

At the same time, practitioners who work with children in clinical settings frequently find an association between divorce and long-lasting inner emotional distress. For example, Judith Wallerstein, in her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-year Landmark Study, found that children of divorce suffer great emotional distress over their parents’ divorce, the consequences of which only intensify as children age into adulthood.

What gives? Does divorce harm children or not?

A recently published study in the Journal of Family Psychology offers an important new insight into this question. In the study, titled “Distress Among Young Adults From Divorced Families,” co-authors Lisa Laumann-Billings and Robert E. Emery from the University of Virginia argue that researchers and clinicians have been viewing this question through different lenses.

For researchers, the standard for determining the effects of divorce is what Laumann-Billings and Emery term “objective indexes” of children’s maladjustment, things such as whether or not children of divorce drop out of school, become clinically depressed, get arrested or become pregnant as teenagers. Though children of divorce are at greater risk of developing these problems, most do not.

As Laumann-Billings and Emery point out, however, the absence of an observable behavior disorder is not the same as the absence of emotional distress. Indeed, by focusing on measures of overt harm, researchers may be missing evidence of the emotional pain frequently observed by practitioners in clinical settings.

To find out if this is the case, Laumann-Billings and Emery studied 99 college students whose parents had divorced and 96 whose biological parents were still married. To ensure they were not studying only well-functioning young adults and thereby biasing their study against finding evidence of overt behavioral and emotional harm, they also included a community sample of adolescents and young adults from primarily low-income families with divorced parents.

What they found was evidence for both views of divorce. Consistent with prior research, most of the young people from divorced households did not report symptoms of overt depression or debilitating anxiety. At the same time, however, they did report that their parents’ divorce had caused them great inner distress during childhood, and many said they continued to harbor “difficult feelings, memories, and ongoing concerns about their parents’ divorce.”

A quarter of these young adults, for example, felt their friends from non-divorced families had happier lives. Three-quarters believed they would be different people today if their parents had not divorced.

Moreover, and contrary to the view that fathers don’t matter much, these researchers found that one of the most prevalent sources of distress was the children’s distant relationships with their fathers. Many blamed their fathers for the divorce and were still angry with their fathers over this.

Even as young adults, many continued to report feelings of loss or disappointment that their fathers were not more involved in their lives. One-third of the divorced sample doubted their fathers even loved them.

The best outcomes were for those children who continued to have a close relationship with their fathers despite the divorce. Children who experienced the least distress had parents with joint physical custody.

What is important about these findings is this: If these researchers had only looked for overt signs of behavioral and emotional disorders, they would have concluded that neither divorce nor the absence of the father has significant long-term consequences for children. By looking for evidence of inner distress as well, however, they discovered just how profoundly these young adults missed having close relationships with their fathers.

Maybe parents should work harder at keeping their marriages strong and vital so that at least some divorces can be avoided in the first place. Then, perhaps, we won’t have to deal with either the overt disorders or the inner distress that all too frequently accompany divorce.

Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a clinical child psychologist, and co-author of several books on parenting including the Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book (Meredith, 1998) and the Better Homes and Gardens New Teen Book (Meredith, 1999).