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Families Facing Divorce

Perhaps the troubles in your marriage are so severe you have either decided to divorce or are seriously considering taking that step. You may be asking yourself: Is divorce the right decision for me? How will divorce affect me? How will it affect my children? Should I decide to divorce, what can I do to help protect myself and my children from its negative consequences?

This publication is designed to help answer these questions. It gives ideas that will help you make informed decisions about divorce and make the transition easier for your children and yourself.

Divorce and Adults

Reactions of adults to divorce aren't uniform. Some describe the divorce experience as a psychological earthquake, even a nightmare, while others describe it as stressful, unsettling (but easier than expected) or relatively painless. Some even experience joy when they split up. For most adults, however, divorce is a very stressful, painful experience. The emotional and financial costs of divorce to spouses, children and society are enormous. Sadness, anger, hurt and loneliness are among the normal adult reactions to the divorce. If the divorce experience is painful for you, it will take some time to adjust to it. Men usually have a more difficult time adjusting to the pain caused by the divorce than women. Most researchers agree that the first year or so following divorce is generally the most difficult for adults and children.

Expect to experience a variety of mental, emotional and physical reactions to the divorce. You may find yourself worrying a great deal and becoming more anxious and depressed. You may experience changes in sleeping and eating habits or changes in your use of alcohol and medications. You may become physically sick more often and have more frequent visits to the doctor. Your job routine may be disrupted. You may ask yourself, "Why did this happen to me?" and be troubled by feelings of failure and lower self-esteem. You may feel emotionally attached to your former spouse for some time after the divorce. You may even secretly hope for a reunion. Absent parents may miss being with their children on a daily basis.

Family routines will likely be disrupted and disorganized. Routines such as mealtime, bedtime, shopping, cooking, doing laundry, getting up and off to school and work may be irregular. It will take time for you and your family to establish a new pattern.

Expect your social ties to change. You will likely lose some friends, confidants and frequent contact with some relatives. You may feel more lonely. Expect your social life to be disrupted. It will take from one to three years for things to adjust to where you like them.

If you are the custodial parent, the financial consequences of divorce can be devastating, especially if you have few job skills or are working at a lower paying job. The spouse with child support obligations (usually the man) may be financially stressed, too. Financial problems are made worse if you have children and the nonresident spouse doesn't meet child support obligations. You may need to get help with your finances from a trained professional. You may also need to get training to increase your job skills.

Expect to experience intense sadness and depression, but if you find yourself considering suicide, get help immediately! from a professional counselor or trained clergy person. NEVER keep thoughts of suicide a secret.

What can you do to help yourself adjust to divorce? Take better care of yourself than you usually do. Get regular exercise and eat nutritious meals. Ask family members and friends for help. Perhaps they can help you with the children or other household needs. Talk with others about your feelings, especially those who have been in your situation. Identify people you can talk to in an emergency. If you have children, get them involved in doing household chores such as vacuuming and dusting. Older children can take on more responsibility, such as making dinner. Renew yourself by taking classes or developing a new skill. Plan activities for fun with family and friends.

While it takes time to adjust to divorce, the negative consequences diminish sooner or later for most adults. If the pain you are experiencing is greater than you can bear, seek the help of a professional counselor or trained clergy.

Consequences of Divorce on Children

Adults may view divorce as a way to increase happiness and well-being. Most children, however, are moderately to severely distressed when their parents' marriage comes apart. Some are devastated. Children have the greatest difficulty adjusting to divorce when their parents are fighting with each other and are not being good parents.

Eventually most children adjust to the negative consequences of divorce, but some can suffer long-term harm. Negative effects of divorce are found in children of all ages, but are more common and severe among young children. Boys have a tougher time adjusting to divorce than girls. Regardless of the custody arrangements, the active involvement of both parents will help make the adjustment to divorce easier for children.

Children whose parents have divorced experience a variety of emotions including fear, loneliness, guilt and anger. These feelings are normal reactions and parents should allow their children to have them. However, sometimes it's the "good" child who is not acting out who may be suffering most. Children may also attempt to "protect" parents by not expressing their fears, hurts and anger.

Younger children often feel they "caused" the divorce, especially if kids seem to be the center of the parent's fights. School-aged children will likely have difficulty paying attention and performing well at school. Some of them may over-perform at school.

Children may withdraw, become more dependent, or be unhappy and depressed. They may be less outgoing, have fewer close friends and spend less time with them. They may be anxious, aggressive or commit delinquent acts.

Statistics indicate that young women from divorced homes are more likely to marry at a younger age and to be pregnant at that time. Adolescents may become more active in dating and sexual activity, or they may withdraw from relationships altogether.

The financial consequences of divorce can be devastating for children. If a drastic decrease in income occurs, children may experience many negative changes at once. For example, divorced single mothers may need to move to more affordable housing and seek full-time employment. As a result, children may lose their friends and feel abandoned by both parents. Children of divorce are more likely to go without adult supervision if their custodial parent has increased demands at home and the job. Children without adult supervision are at risk for a variety of behavior problems.

Long Term Negative Effects of Divorce on Children

Little is known about the long-term effect of divorce on children. The research is not always consistent. Some studies show that children of divorce are more prone to end their own marriages in divorce. This may be because children of divorce see divorce as a way to deal with marriage problems. Another view says that the marriage problems leading up to the divorce, like intense fighting between parents, presented a poor example of how marriage should be, which then carried over to the next generation.

Some studies show that some children experience negative consequences well into adulthood. They may experience less happiness in life, less contact with both parents (especially father) and more marital problems. Females appear to experience more of these long-term effects than males. As they enter romantic situations, young women may become extremely frightened of either committing themselves to another or being betrayed by their partners. Some young adults still view themselves as "children of divorce" and continue to feel angry and deprived.

The Positive Side

There may also be positive effects of divorce that emerge in time. If there has been intense conflict between parents or abuse in the home, freedom from conflict may bring great relief, although conflicts may still remain unresolved. Children of divorce eventually may learn to be more independent, help out more with household chores and be less likely to see tasks as "men's only" and "women's only." Children may eventually develop strengths such as increased positive social behavior, sensitivity to the feelings of others and increased ability to cope with stress. Adolescents may show greater maturity, a sense of responsibility, self-confidence and have a greater feeling that they can control what happens to them. As young adults, they may have a more realistic view of marriage and may work harder to make their marriage successful.

Things to Think About When Considering Divorce

Research suggests that divorce may be the best option for children and parents when there is intense conflict in the marriage. Research also shows that children do better in two-parent families. It's evident that far from solving all of one's problems, divorce usually creates new ones. Married couples today too often call it quits when the going gets rough.

You may be wondering if getting a divorce is (or was) the right decision for you. You may benefit from thoughtfully answering the following questions:

In what ways are you contributing to your marital problems?

Is your contribution to the marriage problem a long-standing personal problem or something that happens in this relationship alone?

How willing are you to change? Have you tried to change?

How would your spouse answer the above two questions?

Have you undergone at least 10 sessions of competent marriage counseling?

Are you trying to get away from your spouse or are you running away from yourself?

Is your marriage really bad or have marital circumstances simply revealed to you things about yourself and/or your spouse that you prefer not to face?

Have you done everything in your power to make your marriage what you want it to be?

Have you tried or considered a trial separation?

Is divorce in conflict with your religious beliefs and, if so, how will you reconcile the two?

Have you given yourself time to get away and quietly contemplate your decision?

All things considered, do the benefits of divorce outweigh the costs, emotionally and financially, to yourself and your children?

Helping Children Adjust to Divorce

The following ideas may help you reduce the negative consequences of divorce on children:

Help your children share and deal with their feelings. Let your child have his or her feelings about the divorce. He or she may shout and throw tantrums, but these reactions are normal. If the parent(s) deny them or belittle them, children are denied the opportunity to work through their feelings about the divorce. The children need time to grieve the loss of a family and you need patience as they adjust to a new one.

Children often need reassurance in the following areas. Parents will want to take time to deal with these topics:

It's not their fault that the parents are getting a divorce. They could not have prevented it. There is nothing they can do to change the situation.

Both parents will continue to love their children and be involved in their children's lives.

The children's lives will change because of the divorce. Discuss what those changes will be.

The children do not have to choose between parents. Living arrangements have been discussed. Children know they will spend time with both parents.

Parents may still have disagreements from time to time, but the conflict is between the parents and the children don't have to take sides.

The children may be upset, sad or depressed sometimes. They understand that the parents will be there to listen and help them deal with their feelings.

The children may be embarrassed by the divorce. They understand that it's okay to tell their friends about the divorce; it's not a secret and they are not bad for talking about it.

The rules may be different for each parent. The children know the basic rules for each home.

You may want to check off each of these topics as you discuss them with your children.

Maintain good parenting. Children need love, nurture and consistent, positive discipline. Resist the temptation to be so self-absorbed in your emotions that you neglect or mistreat your children or make excessive demands of them. You may benefit from taking a parenting class especially tailored to divorce situations. Take especially good care of yourself so you will be free to be a more effective parent. However, remember that your children need to be a specific focus of your growth efforts in order for your improved well-being to benefit them.

Maintain a stable routine. Children, especially younger ones, need a predictable routine. Keep your day-to-day work and home life going. Celebrate all birthdays, outings, or special events involving your children. Keep changes to a minimumif possible, keep children in the same home, school and neighborhood. Go out of your way to keep your child in contact with your ex-spouse's relatives.

Manage the conflicts between you and your former spouse. Parent conflict is devastating to children. Get the skills necessary to work out your disagreements in ways that will benefit your children. If necessary, take a class to learn conflict management skills.

Children may complain to one of you about the other. Seek to understand their complaint and then encourage them to discuss the matter with the other parent without interfering or judging. Avoid belittling your former spouse in front of the children. Remember that your child knows he or she is made up of equal parts of both parents. Anytime you express hostility for the other parent, your child may feel you are also hostile to him or her. Instead of criticizing, point out the positive characteristics of the other parent. Don't use your children as weapons against each other.

Avoid using the children as messengers; instead, speak directly to each other, in person, by phone, or by letter. Try to see your post-divorce relationship as a cooperative business partnership with the best interests of your children as the top priority.

Respect one another's different parenting styles. Support one another in your roles as parents and positively encourage the children in their relationship with each of you. Respect each other's boundariesdon't intrude into each others' homes and private lives without being invited. If you decide to change your parenting agreements, do so in writing. Sign and date the new agreements. Each of you should retain a copy to prevent misunderstandings.

If either of you decide to enter into a new relationship that will affect the children, inform the other parent. Both of you need to make an honest effort to help the children understand and adjust to the new relationship.

When parenting problems or differences arise, deal with them privately as parents. If you can't resolve your conflicts on your own, get help from a trained family mediator or family counselor.

Help children maintain positive relationships with both parents. Children need stable, loving relationships with both parents. Both of you should be responsible for raising the children. This is the ideal for children and should be pursued, unless one parent has problems that place the child in danger. Shared custody arrangements are best for children when all parties agree and parents are willing to work hard, sacrifice and cooperate. Fathers are more likely to be involved and maintain support payments when there is shared custody. However, if parents are fighting, this arrangement can be intolerable. If you choose single custody, it's important to set up a consistent and dependable arrangement for children that gives them adequate contact with both parents.

Regardless of the custody arrangement, parents need to stay involved with their children. Aim for custody arrangements that allow children to spend substantial time with each of you. Encourage contact through visits, letters, phone calls and cassette tapes. Information from school can be sent to both parents' homes and children can be encouraged to share schoolwork with both parents. Visit with a skilled family counselor or skilled family attorney for additional information on custody arrangements.

Nonresident parents need to keep their parenting commitments. If parents allow other things, like work or personal interests, to intrude on that time, children will get the message that they aren't very important to their parent. Be sure to tell children about the specific plans so they know when they will be where. Parents can make the transition between homes easier by planning an activity to do just before they make the change, like a walk in the park, a board game or eating a treat.

The nonresident parent is sometimes tempted to overindulge children he/she doesn't see very often. Playing Santa or not being consistent with discipline or expectations can be damaging to parent-child relationships and to the child's development. Children need their parents to provide them with clear and consistent guidelines. Visits that focus on love, caring and time together are more effective for building a relationship than special treats or lax discipline.

Establish a support network. A support network consisting of family, friends and community resources can provide emotional and practical help for children during divorce and during their life in a single parent home. Grandparents can play an especially important role. Religious organizations can help. Quality child care centers and schools can provide a nurturing, structured, predictable environment for children.


If you are divorcing, the most important thing to remember is the best interests of the child. Children need both parents regardless of whether they divorce or not. Children need parents who function well, are not in much conflict and who maintain relationships with them.

For further reading...


Salk, L. (1978). What every child would like parents to know about divorce. New York: Harper and Row.

Wallerstein, J., & Blakesee, S. (1989). Second chances: Men, women, and children after a decade after divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields.


Brown, L. K., & Brown, M. (1986). Dinosaur divorce: A guide for changing families. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Ricci, I. (1980). Mom's house, Dad's house: Making shared custody work. New York: Collier Books.

Copyright 1999 MSU Extension Service

By Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., Family and Human Development Specialist
The programs of the MSU Extension Service are available to all people regardless of race, creed, color, sex, disability or national origin. Issued in furtherance of cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, David A. Bryant, Dean and Director, Extension Service, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717.

Submitted by: Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., *

4-May-2004 Hits: 493 Rating: 0 Votes: 0 Rate It

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