Matt C. Abbott
'The effects of divorce on children'
By Matt C. Abbott
December 18, 2009

The following is a reprint of an article from the December 2009 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review titled "The effects of divorce on children," by Barbara Meng. Thanks to Mark Brumley and Catherine Harmon of Ignatius Press for allowing me to reprint Mrs. Meng's essay.

The effects of divorce on children

By Barbara Meng

Until 1969 the permanence of marriage was supported not only by the Church, which has consistently forbidden divorce and remarriage, but also by legal and cultural mores. It was only after 1969, when so-called "no-fault divorce" was legalized in California (and spread rapidly to other states) that a seismic revolution was unleashed.

The no-fault divorce laws, written and backed by feminists and other supporters of the feminist revolution, were touted as a way to finally free women from having to stay in unhappy marriages. Prior to this they could divorce only upon proof of adultery, cruelty, or incompatibility. Men, too, rejoiced in the hope of easy divorce without lawyers' fees.

A number of assumptions were made: 1) If parents are happier, then the children will be happier; 2) it would be much better for children to grow up in an environment free from bickering, etc.; 3) even if children are distressed by the divorce, they're resilient and will soon recover.

In 1971, Judith Wallerstein began a longitudinal study on the effects of divorce on children. It's the only study in the world that follows from childhood into full adulthood the lives of numerous individuals whose parents divorced. Her first book looked at people's lives ten years after their parents' divorces. She published additional findings every five years thereafter for twenty-five years after the divorces. Her findings were startling. She stated that our society has made "unwarranted assumptions" about how children cope with their parents' divorce. They have done this, she suggests, because of their own desires. And these false notions underlie our policies on divorce today (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Hyperion, 2000. Henceforth WLB).

    The debunking of these and other myths came when parents, teachers and researchers...found that the children were suffering.... [They discovered] the impoverishment of women and children, the high distress among the many parents who did not agree with their spouses that their marriage was on the rocks, and the fact that children did not bounce back quickly. Children in post-divorce families do not, on the whole, look happier, healthier or better adjusted even if one or both parents are happier. National studies show that children from divorced and remarried families are more aggressive toward their parents and teachers. They experience more depression, have more learning difficulties, and suffer from more problems with peers than children from intact families. More of them end up in mental health clinics and hospital settings. There is earlier sexual activity, or children born out of wedlock, less marriage, and more divorce. Numerous studies show that adult children of divorce have more psychological problems than those raised in intact marriages. (WLB, p. xxiii)

Parents are told that if they avoid fighting in front of their children and try to solve financial and legal problems civilly, their children will bounce back quickly. Not so. Children often suffer for decades after a divorce. Yet many parents blissfully ignore that reality (WLB, pp. xxiv).

After listening to these children of divorce, Wallerstein concluded that divorce was a life-changing negative experience that altered their childhood, adolescence and adulthood. "I can say without a doubt that they [children of divorce] have worries apart from their peers raised in intact homes. These worries are reshaping our society in ways we never dreamt about" (WLB, p. xxviii).

Crisis pregnancy workers have observed that a number of (now) adult children of divorce, when faced with unexpected pregnancy, opt for abortion rather than to bring a child they cannot care for into the world. They do so because they fear the child would probably end up in foster care and suffer the abuse they suffered.

Parenting cut loose from the marital contract is less stable. Parents are so busy rebuilding their own lives that there is little time or energy for the custodial parent to take care of the children's needs. Many very young children assume the role of the missing parent. Children, even at a very young age, are thrust into the role of counselor, advisor and caregiver for the parent and younger children. They often must supervise their younger siblings' homework, laundry, meal preparation and house-cleaning, often neglecting their own schooling and keeping close control over their own emotions and desires (WLB, pp. 7-11).

Feeling that he/she alone must rescue the troubled parent, the child of divorce often feels guilt and unworthiness when attending to personal needs. Play-dates with friends, leisure time and joyous childhood are things of the past. Sad, lonely, angry feelings of second-class citizenship fill childhood and adolescence. They worry about mom and dad; will his new wife welcome me into their home? Will mom's new love stick around? Is he or she eating right and taking good care of him/herself? Will I get tuition help from dad for college? Why have so many of our relatives shunned us, because they don't approve of the divorce or the parent we're living with?

When, as often happens, a second marriage ends in divorce, the children feel abandoned once again. Early adulthood brings its own set of questions: Will I ever find a faithful spouse I can trust? Do I even want to marry or shall I just cohabitate? Do I want children, and if so, can I protect them from suffering what I did?

The caregiver role these children take on becomes so strong that even as adults they fall into this position in their dating relationships. And, when the time comes to choose a mate, some women find troubled men more attractive despite knowing it will never work out.

It has been shown that children benefit greatly from: 1) remaining in the same house, 2) remaining in the same school (often a new apartment is in a new school district), and 3) having an involved father. After divorce, however, 1) a parent might not be able to afford to keep the house or stay in the same school district, as the average woman's income drops 73 percent after divorce and 2) the father often moves away and feels totally uninvolved and unnecessary (Carla Garrity & Mitchell Baris, Caught in the Middle, Macmillan, 1994. Henceforth GB).

It's also been shown to be best for the children if divorcing parents don't fight, especially in front of the children (that should be obvious). However, often one parent refuses to stop fighting and sabotages every visit.

Retaining a supportive social network is also of great importance. Alas, the divorced mother must work or work longer hours to make ends meet and is less available to children. Furthermore, many of the relatives and friends may not approve of the divorce and thus stay away altogether (GB, p. 17).

All these hardships take a great toll on the children. As a result, they desperately want their mother and father to be re-united and be a family once again.

Usually there are three groups of families that remain intact. At one end of the spectrum are the very dysfunctional families where the children do not feel safe, where adults are out of control, but where the parents stay together for various reasons (WLB, pp. 16, 17).

At the other end are happy, loving, supportive families filled with respect and affection where children feel that they are central to their parents' interest and that the family is a priority to both adults. They stay in spite of all sorts of challenges that many families suffer from: auto accidents, job loss, death in the family, bouts with cancer. These are things that drive many others to divorce court. They are not immune to tragedy or blessed by incalculable good luck. It's just that they negotiate these issues in ways that preserve the rock solid marriage (WLB, p. 17).

The largest group consists of the families between these two types. What these parents decide creates striking differences in the entire life experience of their children. Even though the situation may not be idyllic they persevere and children recall into adulthood happy memories (from their perspective) of family dinners and discussions with all present, a sharing and knowledge of their parents' history from the dating, engagement and desire for children (which increased the children's awareness of being wanted), and the warmth and joy of family gatherings and vacations, parental support fostering growth and the flourishing of the children (WLB, p. 21).

All of this structure is lost or weakened when parents break up, and become too distracted or depressed or overwhelmed trying to find their own way. In addition, children of divorce tend to block out memories of family history before the divorce (WLB, p.22).

A lingering myth that abounds is that divorce rescues children from an unhappy marriage (again excluding violence or cruelty). What most parents don't realize is that children of troubled parents can be reasonably happy and are very often unaware of their parents' unhappiness, so long as the family is intact (WLB, p. 27).

    For children, divorce is a watershed that permanently alters their lives. The world is newly perceived as a far less reliable, more dangerous place because the closest relationships in their lives can no longer be expected to hold firm. More than anything else, this new anxiety represents the end of childhood. (WLB, 28)

    Second, third, even fourth marriages, as well as live-in lovers all add up to turmoil in children's, adolescents' and even adult children's lives.... The tragedy is that second marriages with children are much more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. (WLB, 33)

Parents are less available, less organized, less helpful. Children are a much heavier burden, "...unfortunate residues of a dream that failed.... Often bitter custody fights have their roots in adult despair and not, as many people think, in the parents' simple desire to spend more time with the child" (WLB, 10).

The effects of divorce are felt no matter what the age of the children involved. Surprisingly, studies have shown that...

    ...a child in the womb can feel the trauma of a mother involved in divorce and at the other end of the spectrum, children who are 30 or 40 when their parents decide to divorce will still experience the results of that divorce in their own personal lives...long after it has ceased to be an issue for the parents themselves. (James V. Flosi, Lives Upside Down, ACTA Pub., 1993. Henceforth, F)

A little boy who had become very troublesome finally admitted to his teacher that his parents were divorcing and told her it was his fault. He then added, "I asked my mother if she still loved dad. She said she did. I asked my dad, and he said he still loved her, so I knew it had to be my fault." This is not uncommon.

One woman reported that her becoming "closed in" and "self-protected" during adolescence enabled her to "catch up with all that had happened emotionally and not just intellectually" during her parents' divorce. This was good, but the isolation which followed was not. When she started dating, she always found flaws in the boyfriend and never wanted to date anyone more than once. All the while, she was hoping for a stable, healthy, lasting relationship. When she finally married, she was quick to assume that her marriage was like her parents' and was ready to bail out (F, p. 84).

    Although a couple that chooses to divorce does not inevitably cause their children to divorce, the fact of the matter is simply this: children raised in a single-parent home usually spend more time choosing a spouse, but less time trying to make their marriage work than those from intact two-parent families. Children of divorce often see divorce as one of the equally available and accept-able options to ending an unsatisfactory relationship...they want out of the marriage at the first sign of difficulty. (F, p. 87)

    On the other hand, there are others who, having been brought up in a single-parent home, are bound and determined never to divorce. They know firsthand what divorce does to a family. They know exactly what it is like to have a parent leave home. (F, p. 88)

    Data gathered by the Family Research Council confirm the harm done to young children by divorce (The Family Portrait: Second Edition ed. by Bridget Maher):

      A 2004 study found that young women whose parents divorced were twice as likely to cohabit before marriage and have an illegitimate child than the divorce-free. (p. 110)

      Female children ages 18-23 with recently divorced parents experienced more depression and were 50 percent more likely to say they needed psychological help than those with still married parents. (p. 111)

      A 2003 study found that adults who had experienced parental divorce by age seven were twice as likely to suffer major depression as adults than those raised in intact families. And, a 2001 study found that adults whose parents had divorced when they were children were twice as likely to commit suicide than their peers from intact families. (p.113)

It's not just young children who suffer from the divorce of their parents. Adult children suffer too. According to sociologist Teresa Cooney at the University of Missouri, a majority of adult children of divorce in her survey indicated that the pain they endured was equivalent to that for the death of a close family member. Brooke Lea Foster, who herself suffered this, wrote, "We don't lose one parent: we lose our entire base. We experience the death of a set of people, a family unit that brought organization and framework to an otherwise lonely existence" (Brooke Lea Foster, The Way They Were, Three Rivers Press, 2006; henceforth, BF).

These adult children "shoulder their parents' worries." Cooney comments, "Adult children take on pain like it's them hurting." These children assume that as the dust settles from the divorce, their role will diminish, but it doesn't. When one parent is gone, their tasks are handed over to children (BF, p. 60).

Divorce also causes new financial burdens for these children, less contact with their fathers and precipitous decisions about marriage or living arrangements. Some stop attending college in order to work (BF, p. 112, 113, 138).

With all of these negatives for children of divorce, parents should think twice before they give up on their marriage. If they only knew from the start the disaster their divorce would inflict on themselves, their children and their grandchildren, perhaps they would willing to go the extra mile and try with every ounce of their strength, and much prayer, to work things out. As Christians, we have the obligation to gently warn them of the terrible effects of divorce on children, and do all in our power to be "marriage savers."

(Mrs. Barbara Meng, a mother of seven and grandmother of eighteen, holds an M.T.S. degree from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. She has been a speaker at Catholic conferences in Washington, Baltimore and Wichita and is the business manager of Catholic Faith Alive and editor of the Catholic Family Quarterly. She lives with her husband of fifty years in Bel Air, Maryland. Her last article in HPR appeared in October 2008.)

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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