Can Divorce Actually Help Kids?

by Sean Grover

Zoe, a shaggy-haired thirteen-year-old with sad eyes, glares at me, arms folded, and jaw set; a therapy hostage if I ever saw one, deposited into my office by her parents against her will. Parents exert their executive power when it comes to therapy, so I don’t expect Zoe to cooperate, especially during our first tumultuous session. To kids like Zoe, therapy is an insult; like their parents are declaring they’re psycho. And that’s a big deal for any kid to bear!

Zoe, however, is different. Zoe offers me a deal.

“I’ll be in therapy with you only if you promise one thing.”

“Sounds exciting. “

“But you have to promise…okay?”

“What am I promising?”

“…I want you to convince my parents to get divorced.”

I was flabbergasted by her request, but it opened my eyes to something I had never considered.  When marriages turn toxic, can divorce actually help kids?

The Evolution of Divorce

Back in the day, divorce was about as popular as cancer. Heads shook, tongues clicked; divorce was evil and selfish, and mostly, it tarnished your family’s reputation. And if you did get divorced, you certainly weren’t thinking of your children.  The message being sent for decades: Keep the family intact by any means necessary.

Today, with over half of all marriages in the United States ending in divorce, it’s clear that times have changed. And while you may argue, and rightfully so, that parents divorce too quickly without even attempting to work out their differences, there are many kids out there like Zoe who see divorce as their salvation.

And it’s not difficult to understand why this is so. Zoe suffered on-going humiliation in public, in school, and in front of her friends due to her parent’s combative relationship. The verbal abuse she witnessed her mother suffer at the hands of her father never let up.  Zoe struggled with chronic headaches, depression, and ongoing weight problems. After meeting with Zoe’s parents and witnessing their sneering contempt for each other, I understood Zoe’s request.  If I could barely stand them for thirty minutes, what must it be like to live with them?

Kids forced to endure loveless marriages and tolerate emotional or psychical abuse day after day, bear the full brunt of their parent’s failed relationship. In such cases, staying together “for the kids” is a cruel joke and absolute torture for the biggest victims of family dysfunction. It’s the kids who will suffer the most damage in the end.

How do they suffer? There are temporary as well as ongoing consequences. Here are just a few:

Chronic Tension

A parents’ relationship leaves an emotional imprint that never fades. A natural part of children’s development is internalizing both their parents; that’s why parent’s behavior toward each other has such a profound impact on kids. When parents are consistently quarreling, their kids internalize their conflicts. Rather than feeling soothed or comforted by their parents, they feel tense around them, even during peaceful times. On-going tension produces serious emotional, social, and physical ailments in children.

Poor Sense of Self

As James Dean cried out to his bickering parents in Rebel Without a Cause, “Stop it! You’re tearing me apart!” the war between parents takes root inside children’s minds. The strain eats away at them and leaves them with little internal or external peace. It also prevents kids from developing a solid sense of self and puts them at odds with their own impulses. For example, they long to be loved but reject closeness; they yearn for friends but choose isolation; they will have great intellectual or creative abilities yet sabotage their own efforts. The external conflict between their parents eventually becomes an internal conflict within themselves.

Fear of Intimacy

Children raised by battling parents have great difficulty trusting others. Intimacy triggers the traumas they suffered when witnessing their parents’ destructiveness, so they avoid true closeness to steer clear of getting hurt. If they manage to establish an intimate relationship, they remain exceedingly secretive, cautious, or guarded. When conflict arises, they’re most likely to bail out of a relationship too quickly or reenact their parents’ conflicts with their own partner.

Mood Problems

Warring parents produce children who struggle with serious mood problems, such as depression, anxiety, even paranoia. These problems, left untreated, can result in such serious conditions such as bi-polar and borderline personality disorders. At the root of their problems is a profound lack of hope. They learned at an early age to abandon optimism and expect the worst. Sadly, they mature too quickly and lose out on their childhood.

Before You Consider Divorce

Ending a marriage is a brutal undertaking for everyone involved. Divorce should only be an option after all efforts to save a relationship have been exhausted. So before you call your lawyer, here are a few suggestions:

Couples Counseling

Couples counseling works best when it teaches parents how to work through their conflicts without resorting to emotional warfare (see the article Hate Me in a More Loving Way: A Couples Guide to Better Arguing). It also gives ill-tempered parents a place to work through their differences rather than expose their kids to them. The goal of couple’s therapy is to enrich communication and enhance intimacy. But be warned, couples therapy can be treacherous. The wrong therapist can spell doom for your marriage. Gather trustworthy recommendations, take your time, and interview several therapists. Make sure you both agree on the therapist you choose, otherwise he or she will become just another bone of contention.

Individual therapy

Nothing stirs up unresolved childhood issues like marriage. Too often, couples have unrealistic expectations of what marriage will bring or solve for them, and become disillusioned when they discover that good marriages take work. So before you blame all the problems in your marriage on your partner, get some help for yourself.  A skilled therapist can help you identify problems that stem from your past and are resurfacing in your relationship.

Support Groups

The best outcome of group work comes from sharing your feelings and discovering that you’re not alone.  Hearing about other couples’ struggles, the difficulties they face, and how they work through them, can bring much-needed relief. It also provides you with a community of people who can inspire you with new choices in your marriage.

Bad Marriage or Healthy Divorce?

Divorce, like marriage, is something that you should never enter into recklessly. Depending on the maturity level of the individuals, a divorce can lead to positive or negative outcomes. While separating can reduce tension and conflict in children’s lives, a hostile divorce that drags on for years damages kids even more.

What happened to Zoe? Within a year after her parent’s divorce, her depression lifted; she went from failing school to being on the honor role. She also had her first boyfriend and became socially outgoing. Years later, when her parents started dating other people, she was comfortable with it and was amazed at how much better life became for everyone.

Can divorce help kids? It all depends. Whatever your situation, ask yourself what choice is in the best interest of your children. After all, they are the most vulnerable and will be the most affected by your decision. There are no quick fix solutions for a troubled marriage, but there certainly are plenty of opportunities to get help.