The Psychology of Separation and Divorce: Know and Limit The Damages!

I have learned the following during my work as professor of psychology and a practicing psychotherapist. I first authored this post in 2012. I hope that my repeating it in 2021 will be a service to my readers.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 12/22/21

I recommend that you do your best to avoid separation or divorce by entering therapy sessions with a skilled and experienced marriage counselor. I do not advise that you let serious relationship problems continue for long periods without resolution, thinking that they will not affect your children adversely. They most probably will most likely cause emotional problems for your children.

If a divorce or separation is inevitable, a good marriage counselor will be able to help you to minimize the damages to your children.

In all such matters maximizing benefits and minimizing harm to yourselves and to your children should be your main focus: Both in the short and in the long-run.

The following are some of the problems that occur when children are involved in separations or divorces. It is your responsibility to decide if any of these damaging events are happening within your own family and what you will do about them.

The Kids:

1. Kids often act-out to gain the attention they miss because parents are angry, depressed and withdrawn. Their bad behavior not only gets them attention, but it brings mom and dad together to solve the problems. This reinforces the kids’s bad behavior and often adds to the conflict between their parents. Things get worse.

2. They often obsessively immerse themselves in activities that take their minds of the misery that they see and feel in their home. Music, video games, friends, sex, drugs, rock and role, self-abuse, etc. (Much like adults do when they are depressed and anxious).

3. Each kid’s personality is different, so each is likely to develop their own unique problems. One may become hyper-involved in pleasing others, giving love and affection, trying to make others happy, taking responsibility for trying to stabilize things…being inauthentic. Another may just withdraw and become mute and emotionally blunted. Another may become the angry oppositional one. In rare cases, some will consider suicide. Children often suffer depression, anxiety, school under- achievement, anger problems, concentration and memory problems. If they are being treated for ADHD, it is likely to grow worse and their medications may need to be adjusted. They may need counseling and medication for depression.

4. Many develop some method to escape the bad vibes or feelings in their house. They may stay away with friends, stay out after curfew, and in other ways withdraw and become unavailable.

5. Kids often take sides in parental conflict and this further damages them and the family, even after separation or divorce. They can become alienated from not only one, or both parents, but also from one set, or both sets of the grandparents, and other extended family members involved.

6. Kids sometimes become overly attached to one parent or both parents, at the expense of their own social and emotional development. They become the male or female nurse for a parent and their emotional care-taker.

7. When the father withdraws from the family, both sexes (but more often the boys) attempt to dominate the mother. This causes the father to take the role of the disciplinarian and then the parents frequently fight over the father’s more stronger disciplinary style. This teaches children how to get parents sidetracked into fights and gives greater control to the children. This can increase in severity until the that child or adolescent is thought to need to live with the father, or outside authorities need to become involved.

8. Once the separation or divorce has happened, kids frequently play one parent against the other to get what they want. This probably was already happening, but it can intensify after the split. Kids tend to take advantage of a lack of communication and the conflict problems between parents.

9. Kids often side with the parent who is the most fun, who’s rules are more lax, who have more money and who buys them more things, etc. Sounds bad, I know, but even good kids are naturally self-centered under some conditions.

10. They often request to live at the fun house and avoid the disciplined house. They may try to switch back and forth as the parents get tired of their actions and begin to clamp down on them.

11. Much of the damage done to children will only be seen in the future, when they enter their own relationships. Too often the psychological deficits present in their family of origin play-out like a video tape in their own new family lives. Sometimes the trauma of their parent’s problems cause them to be anxious and reticent about committing to solidify intimate relationships of their own.

All of these things either brings their parents together to cope with the problems (this can reinforce the problems and thereby worsen them) or it causes more conflict between everyone (again, worsening the problems).

The parents:

1. Parents dealing with the stresses of a dysfunctional marriage often turn to drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, or outside relationships, to emotionally cope (blunt, distract, escape or avoid) their distress.

2. Frequently a “third party” enters the equation. It can be an actual sexual affair or only an emotional attachment which involves a fantasy of how “wonderful it could be with someone else”. An actual affair, or a fantasy, is devastating for several reasons. Nothing old and troubled can compare with new “love” and it is difficult for a troubled reality to compete with a fantasy. When an affair occurs individuals frequently emotionally invest heavily in it, because if they do not it is easy to feel it was a “cheap and unprincipled” thing to do. If they see it as “true love”, “special”, “legitimate”, “wonderful” and “meant to be”, it eases the conscience for many.

However, the facts are, these relationships, started during a troubled marriage, most often do not work out after the separation or divorce occurs. Approximate divorce rates are 50% for the first marriage, high 60’s for the second and 74% for the third marriage.

Subsequent marriages (or cohabitations) are less likely to work than the first one, because adults commonly do not change what it is about themselves that contributed to the ruination of their past relationships. The additional strains of new step children, remaining responsibilities to their biological children, the new mate’s increasingly revealed imperfections, conflict with extended family members and unresolved ex-spouse/partner problems all contribute to these negative outcomes.

3. Separated or Divorced parents frequently bring new (or old) lovers into the lives of their children. Emotional attachments may be formed between these individuals and the children are again damaged when that relationship falls apart, which it is most likely to do.

Also, it is critical for parents to know that children are statistically at greater risk for sexual and physical abuse from step parents than from biological parents.

4. Parents often times vilify each other to their children. They can do this in very subtle ways by showing disdain, disgust, and other negative attitudes to their mate, or while making reference to them. Parents often tell their children the about the bad things the other has done. This “splits” the kids and can cause them to not only turn against the other parent, but also each other as they take sides in the conflict. When parent spit their anger and hatred through the children at their mate, it poisons the children. The outcome of all of this is now referred to as Parental Alienation Syndrome.

5. Parents can begin to use the children as their emotional support system, sharing physical and emotional intimacies that they should not. This burdens their children with adult problems and demands that they cannot understand, solve or meet. While many children do the best they can to take care of their parents, it eventually takes its toll and can cause them to feel increasing anxiety, fear, worry, and a growing sense of incompetency.

6. When parents don’t communicate, they place their children in the role of the “go-between communicator” and peace-keeper, or negotiator. In this role, no matter what the children do, they loose. They are forced to be a mouth-piece to try to keep peace and it seldom works. They are stressed, to the max, by being forced into this roll and this will very likely show in their own maladjustment.

7. Children are ego-centric by nature. So it is normal that when things go bad in their family that they will assume too much personal responsibility for the various problems. It may not be something that they readily admit to, but they often have negative judgements and feelings about themselves, as a result. This is another important reason for the adults and children in troubled, separating, or divorcing families to get professional help.

8. Parents often develop negative attitudes toward the child or children that reminds them the most of their alienated, separate or divorced mate. They may consciously or unconsciously mistreat that child as a result. They may also develop negative expectations of the child or children that can then become reality, as a result.

9. Parents often purposefully mistreat a child because they think the child is an Ally of the other parent. In some cases, this may be true. But problems are compounded when a parent takes retribution on the child.

10. Parents often put their children in “no-win” situations by making them choose between one parent or the other (“Would you rather go with me or him/her”?; “How do you like my new boyfriend/girlfriend”?, etc.). No matter the choice, the child risks disappointing one or the other parent.

11. When separation or divorce happens each parent loses some, much, or nearly all of the practical support of the other (“help me”, “cook it”, “clean it”, “do it”, “get it”, “fix it”, “mow it”, “shovel it, take it/me/ or them somewhere”, etc.). This is a major stressor for both the adults and the children.

12. When separation or divorce happens, generally the female is the custodial parent. The female and the children then commonly experience an economic loss. This loss can plunge the children into a lower socioeconomic level, or cause them to drop into near poverty circumstances. All parties are hurt by the economic losses involved. Often, kids attach to new peers with lower expectations and values that do not lead to higher education and greater economic/social opportunities.

13. The recovery of damaged relationships between mates is often complicated by the fact that committing to work hard to improve their situation is inhibited by fear of failure. If a mate makes a commitment to try again to appreciate and give their love to their partner, their heart may again be broken and their hopes and dreams of a happy life together may again be dashed. These are normal fears and insecurities that often defeat individual’s motivation to save troubled marriages and families before serious efforts to do so even begin.

14. Most sadly, sometimes one or both adults are unable to bring themselves to make the difficult decision of ending their relationship, so they consciously or unconsciously increase the conflict in their relationship to greater and greater levels. This way they destroy what is left of their relationship without having ever to take responsibility for “making the decision” to do so in a rational manner.

Couples who go to an experienced therapist (experienced with both children and adults in marital stress), absolutely can resolve many issues, and live more happily than ever. It takes hard work and dedication, but the rewards are great. About 75 percent who do counseling report improved relationships and about 65 percent report significantly improved relationships.

I have also seen parents who separate, finally reconsider, and return to work-on and to improve their marriage, but it does not happen often.

I have also seen parents divorce, but in doing so, get counseling from a marriage counselor experienced with both adults and children. In doing so, they have minimized to the greatest extent possible, the damaging consequences of that outcome. Children are shaken and confused by the massive changes in their lives. They are afraid of what will come. It is important to sit with a professional and determine when and how parents will discuss all that is happening with them.

Whatever the outcome, I hope that parents will seek experienced professional guidance together as they make their very big and difficult decisions and seek the best outcomes available for themselves and their loved ones.

God Bless,

Dr. Tom, 2/2/12, Posted by vtmawhinney .Labels: Divorce and ChildrenDivorce Counseling for FamiliesDr. TomLimit the Damage of Divorce to ChildrenThe Psychology of Divorce and SeparationV. Thomas Mawhinney Ph.D.VTM

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