divorce is so common in our society today that it’s a shame people don’t do it more carefully. Too often it’s just another stage of self-deception, doomed to disappointment — an out of control emotional process, the dark side of falling in love. Though occasionally mature people can agree that they’ve grown apart and need to go in separate directions, and occasionally there are couples who bring out the worst in each other and really need to separate, for the most part divorcing couples are fueled by anger, projection, and blame. Divorce brings out our strongest feelings of anger and rage. What’s interesting is that the rage feels good. It’s righteous indignation. It comes out of very basic needs to protect our own self esteem, as a way of saying it’s not my fault, it’s his/her fault.
The “Father Knows Best” family, with Dad the sole wage-earner and a marriage that lasts a lifetime, is now down to about five percent of the total population. The divorce rate is currently about 49%, and seems to have leveled off at that point after rising for the last twenty years; but it shows no sign of declining. Of children today, about 45% will go through a parental divorce. More than twice as many children of divorce compared to those from intact families will see a mental health professional in their later lives. In a national sample, men and women who were 16 or younger when their parents divorced reported significantly higher divorce rates, more work-related problems, and higher levels of emotional distress than those who grew up in intact families.
A great deal of the reason why divorce is so difficult on children is that parents are so caught up in their own needs in this intensely emotional process that they are no longer able to function effectively as individual parents, to say nothing of the effect of the breakup of the home on the children. I have a list of all-too-common reactions of parents during divorce.
Parents who see the child as a pawn or symbol in the divorce power struggle. If Johnny cares for me more than her, that proves I’ve won. This is what many custody battles are really about, despite parents’ protestations that they have their child’s best interest at heart. Kids are extraordinarily sensitive to parental hypocrisy and will feel that whatever genuine unselfish love is there is tainted, selfish and probably false. They may feel this even without expressing it; for their own self protection, they may get good at playing parents off against each other; but they develop a warped sense of human relationships.
Parents who have to withdraw from the child into taking care of the self. Mom may feel abandoned and defeated in the divorce process and has to put energy into restoring her self esteem, as well as perhaps having to earn a living. Dad may feel uncomfortable with the children, guilty because he sought the divorce. We see a number of young adults who come in with a range of problems, mainly a lack of identity, self destructive actions of one sort or another. We find that many of these have come from divorced families, have been the kind of kid who seems unaffected by the divorce. I think they have been aware of parents’ vulnerability, have decided unconsciously to stifle their own needs, and have grown up with a false front — looking competent but feeling deeply needy and inadequate, and without the permission to bring those feelings into conscious awareness.
Parents whose neediness turns to the child. They become depressed as a reaction to the divorce and use the child as a sibling or caretaker. This is typically mom but it can be dad; it’s whoever spends time alone with the children. It’s hard for single parents, it’s hard to spend afternoons, evenings, and weekends with the kids and not abdicate the parental role — and it feels good, is immediately gratifying, to get into “girl talk” with the adolescent daughter, to act like “best friends,” to reveal your own doubts and uncertainties. The trouble comes later, when you have to put your foot down, to say be home at midnight or else. The daughter doesn’t want to hear this from her best friend — and this feeling is justifiable. You can’t use your child as a confidante when it suits your needs and then try to be an authority figure when that’s convenient.
Parents who blame the child. This is a common scenario between moms and sons. Mom may feel abandoned, may carry an intense rage for the no-good bum who left her, may resent the child’s needs, and if son looks like father, acts like him, or misses dad, the son may become the target for mom’s rage.
Parents who endow the child with the power to make the parent happy. The parent’s self esteem depends on doing a good job with the child. So you have parents who spoil their children, who can’t say no or set limits, or parents who push the kids into being models of the social graces, or into being successful at things the parent, not the child, desires.
Parents have to be able to feel good about themselves regardless of their child’s behavior. Otherwise the child has a tremendous weapon to use against parents — most unfortunately, this usually has self-destructive consequences, as when the child messes up in some dramatic way.
Parents who feel so guilty about the divorce that they constantly look to the child to undo the guilt. The child must be made to be happy at all times and so is catered to, not disciplined. The scenario is similar to the one just mentioned. The child will comply at first, because compliance is immediately rewarded, but will eventually rebel. If you recognize yourself here, get some help. Talk things out with a trusted friend, your clergyperson, or a mental health professional.
Divorce is the hardest thing most people go through in life; there is no shame in needing help with it.