Divorce, Not Death, That Hurts Your Child Most
March 12, 2012
Mary Jo Rapini, Love and Relationships
in the divorce generation. I know so many people who have gotten divorced, remarried and divorced again. It’s interesting
what people say when they talk about their divorce. They focus on the fighting, the betrayals, and the lonely nights. Rarely
do they ever talk about the kids. If they do, they may mention, “Well, the kids are better off without the fighting.”
I understand why they say this. If I were divorced, I would probably want to say the same thing, but I can’t. I can’t
because it isn’t true. Kids would do anything to help their parents stay together in most cases. Abuse is an exception
to all of these rules. If there is abuse, you have to get out, no questions asked. Just leave. Keep you and your kids safe.
One of the reasons parents say that the kids are better off is because they are given only two options, “Do
you want mommy and daddy to live together and fight, or would you rather we live apart and not fight?” The child may
say, “I want you to live together and not fight.” It is at this time, the child is much wiser than the parents.
The child is presenting a third option that the parents are blind to in their rage or unhappiness. The child understands that
there are more options than fighting and splitting or living together and being miserable. Parents will tell me at the point
prior to divorce they have explored other options, but they just cannot work it out. I don’t believe that either. I
think one or both parents have decided they love someone else, don’t want the fuss of a demanding partner anymore, or
they have decided the therapist isn’t helpful and their marriage is over.
No matter where you are in your marriage,
I do want you to know the truth about your children and divorce. It hurts them. It hurts a child more for parents to divorce
than it does if one of the parents died. There is a study that has been going on for eighty years by a gentleman at Stanford
University named Lewis Terman. He began the study in 1921 and it continues. Psychology Today featured an article about divorce
and kids from Terman’s study. The children in the study (some of them old adults now) died five years earlier on average
than kids from intact families. The death of a parent did not show this result, nor were the kids as stressed with parental
death as they were with parental divorce.
We have so many ways of talking to ourselves to make life more acceptable.
Some days, denial is necessary for us to be able to get out of bed in the morning. Denial is a defense mechanism, and with
divorce and its pain, denial helps numb us so we can carry on. Denial can also be harmful if it prevents us from making wise,
often times difficult choices. If your marriage is going badly, and denial keeps it going badly, then you better wake up before
it’s too late. Your kids are watching, they are stressed, and getting a divorce is not one of the options you should
There are reasons divorce is so stressful for kids. Here are a few.
1. Kids don’t have control over death or divorce, but with divorce they personalize it more and believe that if
they had done better or more, their parents would still love each other. Death doesn’t take away daddy’s love
for mom, or mom’s love for daddy, divorce does. No matter what you tell your child, they believe this.
2. Kids understand eventually that death is final. Divorce is never final. Parents can choose to love one another again
or work things out. I have had forty-year olds tell me they wish their parents could get back together.
3. Kids feel unloved when mommy or daddy choose a new partner. A divorce tells your child that one of their parents
loved someone else or a different life more than they loved them. Again, it doesn’t matter what you tell your child,
on the contrary, actions are louder than words.
4. Kids get more attention and love if a parent dies than they do if it’s a divorce. In the case of a divorce,
the child’s grief is confusing. The child may still see both parents, but one of the parents is no longer present in
the child’s concept of their family. The child may end up feeling guilty, ashamed, and angry. Many times, kids will
use these feelings to manipulate the new living arrangements after a divorce. This increases the guilt and anger for the child.
I wish there were some magical way I could prevent kids from going through a divorce, but unfortunately I cannot.
We are all vulnerable to divorce, which is another reason we have to be attentive to our relationships. If you are having
difficulty in your marriage, and you want to make changes before it becomes insurmountable, here are three ideas I think are
a great place to begin.
1. Talk to your spouse about how you FEEL. Use I words, not you, never, always or should.
2. If you are religious, I would suggest you begin by talking to someone in your church who counsels parishioners. Many
reverends have been trained in counseling, and they can help you spiritually step back, and rethink the situation.
is so helpful, but it’s expensive. You may want to begin with a marital retreat. Some of the best retreats are listed
on a website called www.smartmarriages.com. This can help you get started. Kids who grow up in an unhealthy
marriage have more stress, more illnesses due to the stress, and more emotional pain due to the stress. If you cannot make
your marriage better for yourself, please work on a healthy marriage for your kids and their kids to come. All marriages require
work and they are all imperfect at times, just like life. Marriage is a lifestyle, not a means to an end. It is a work in
progress. –Mary Jo Rapini