The Words of Divorce: Change, Conflict, Contact, and

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By Kim Oppenheimer, Ph.D.

Divorce is a process, not an event.  The phases of divorce involve emotional separation, which is always the first stage, followed by physical separation, the legal process, and perhaps another relationship.  The last three phases do not necessarily occur in predictable order.  The legal process may begin before physical separation, and a new relationship may start at any time.  The person who communicates his or her decision to divorce is psychologically and emotionally way ahead of the spouse who receives the bomb shell; even if all signs were present that the couple was co-existing in an unhappy marriage.  Divorce creates multiple adjustment issues for parents and children.

For parents, heightened anger and conflict, feelings of abandonment, betrayal, anxiety, diminished communication, and sadness for one or both spouses are common.  Grieving the loss of the marriage and the hope for a lifetime together is normal.  Emotions are often intensified by the separation and adversarial nature of the divorce process. When people are required to file affidavits and other documents in support of their positions, this process can exacerbate and perpetuate conflict as a result of each party describing their perspective of the relationship, and the causes and consequences of its breakdown.  This may create enemies out of spouses who were otherwise getting along quite well. Thus, for some couples, conflict begins after the separation.

High conflict between parents, irrespective of marital status, has a negative effect on children.  A large body of research indicates that children have more psychological problems when their parents have conflict either during marriage or following divorce.  Most psychologists agree that children function best in a happy, stable, two-parent home, but children are better off living in a happy divorced family than a conflict-ridden married family.  In fact, interparental conflict is the most predictive risk factor for psychological problems in children regardless of whether the parents are married or divorced.

High conflict couples are those who continue to engage in negative ways with their ex-spouse long after the divorce. They argue over financial issues, custody and access to the children, and child-rearing practices.  Their tactics vary from avoidance to aggression.  As opposed to those who have good co-parenting relationships or even those who are merely cordial, high conflict couples have high rates of litigation and re-litigation, have high degrees of anger and distrust, cannot communicate about the children, may try to alienate the children from the other parent, and may be emotionally or physically abusive.  When this occurs, children are in the middle of conflict and feel torn between both parents.

Most parents resolve their anger, conflict, and sadness two to three years following divorce. One reason for the lengthy period of adjustment is that divorce is a transition, a process, not an event.  Everyone in the family has to adapt to multiple changes.  For example, following divorce, one parent generally leaves the family home.  In many cases, but not always, this is the father.  The parent who stays in the residential home may be challenged by having to take over all the tasks of running the household when they previously may have been shared.  One person may have to find work after years of staying home with children.  The spouse who leaves the marital home deals with establishing a new household routine, and even though he or she may have wanted the divorce, often deals with the loneliness and isolation of not having family around.  For the children, when one parent leaves home, the child becomes part of two households instead of one.  So, divorce divides the former family system and creates family subsystems.  Oftentimes, the child is the only common link between them.  Parents need to be cautious not to place an unfair burden on children by having them act as mediators or messengers, as they are also adjusting to dealing with two homes instead of one.

In addition to conflict, which has a negative impact on children, the other predictor of a child’s adjustment to divorce is contact with the non-residential parent.  Contact with the non-residential parent can be thought of in terms of the total amount of involvement the child has with his or her parent, this includes not only how much time parents and children spend together but the quality of their interactions.  Especially for boys, a relationship with Dad is crucial to long-term adjustment.  For boys and girls, the total amount of warmth, support, and involvement from both parents is correlated with well-being.  If there is too little of this type of contact from either parent, there may be future problems in personal adjustment and interpersonal relationships.

I am often asked is there a better time to get divorced in terms of the effects of divorce on children.  The answer is no.  The child’s developmental stage affects how the child interprets, processes, and adapts to change in the family structure.  Young children display stress differently than adolescents.  Fortunately, the vast majority of children are resilient, and after a period of adjustment, do quite well following their parents’ separation.  Many parents think they will just hang on until the kids go to college.  The distress this creates for a young adult in many ways may be worse.  When kids go off to college, they need a home base to which they can return.  This allows them the security to be more independent.  If they are worried about what is happening at home, it interferes with their ability to focus on school work, make friends, and make good choices around personal safety.  Also, if parents’ divorce right after they leave home, most kids feel betrayed.  They think their entire childhood has been a lie.  They also feel in some way they failed because they were obviously the glue holding the family together.

In general, happy parents make happy kids.  If parents are resilient and cope well with the changes, children will as well.  For parents, develop a self-care plan.  For example,

  • Maintain a routine.  The predictability and structure of daily life can help you and your children feel in control at a time when so much is out of your control during the divorce process.
  • Take care of your health.  Eat well, get enough rest, and exercise on a regular basis.  Avoid drinking alcohol to excess.
  • Maintain or develop a support system.  Research shows that social isolation increases feelings of depression.  Family and friends are extremely important in helping you cope with the normal feelings of loss that accompany divorce.
  • Talk about your feelings.  Bottling up your feelings can lead to anxiety, depression, and physical problems.  Share your thoughts and feelings with trusted others.  Daily journaling will also serve as an outlet, and will also help you see how far you have come when you look back to the time when you first started the transition of divorce.
  • Seek professional help.  If you feel overwhelmed, numb, or are having difficulty performing your role responsibilities, seek the assistance of a therapist who can help you maintain perspective and work through the loss of your marriage and help you re-define yourself.  If you and your spouse are engaged in a high conflict divorce, a professional who can coach you through the legal and emotional process is can be important.

For helping your children adjust to the changes in their lives,

  • NEVER put them in the middle of any conflict between you and your spouse.
  • ALWAYS speak positively about their Father or Mother.  The children are half of each of you.  If you speak negatively about the other parent, they hear your words as part of them is unacceptable.
  • Maintain your role as parent.  Do not try to be your children’s friend.  In this time of transition, they need to feel that someone is in charge and they do not need to feel that they need to take care of you.
  • Maintain their routine as much as possible.  Children need to feel that life will remain normal for them.  Otherwise, they become anxious and insecure which may manifest in behavioral or academic problems.
  • Take care of yourself.  Parents who cope well with life’s challenges teach their children resiliency.