You are on page 1of 9

1

Aftermath of Divorce on Children: A Case Study

Growing up with a father whos a divorce mediator, I always wondered how children

of divorce are affected, both immediately and in their eventual marriages. Because of my fathers

involvement with divorce, Ive often thought about family friends who are divorced and how its

dealt with. Through the lens of generation change and time difference, I wanted to explore

divorces affects on children, its affects on inner-family relationships, the change in divorce

culture over the past half - century, and how children of divorce can be helped in not repeating

their parents patterns.

In order to answer these questions, I conducted a case study involving two children of

the same divorce (Margaret and Gary) and a grandchild (Irving) of that same divorce. Margaret,

a tall, bubbly, now forty-year-old mother of five, was eight years old when her parents got

divorced. Margarets baby brother Gary, a funny now thirty-three-year old father of four, was

just one year old when the divorce happened. Their nephew Irving, an aspiring therapist, is now

a twenty-five year-old father of one and was not alive yet at the time of his grandparents

divorce. I asked each of the participants the same questions about how they were affected, how it

affected their intimate relationships, how they dealt with it, their thoughts and feelings on the

change in divorce culture, and what children of divorce can do to not repeat the patterns of their

parents relationship - because as weve learned statistically, being a child of divorce increases

the risk of your own divorce (Lecture Slides Divorce Risk Who Fights October 6). As a

volunteer divorce mediator who works tirelessly to help both spouses expedite the process as

smoothly as possible with as minimal damage done to their children as possible, my father is

able to offer a unique insight on divorce. Being that he is the only one with the chance to see
2

both sides of the coin without being biased and without an ulterior motive, he serves to provide

an expert outside perspective of the issues being examined.

On the impact level, I hypothesized that since Margaret was a little girl at the time of

the divorce, she would be most affected to the point where its hard for her to have healthy

relationships until today. Gary, on the other hand, was just a baby, so since he didnt witness

fighting in the house, I figured it wouldnt be so impactful on his life today and minimally as a

kid. For Irving, I was just looking for a younger perspective that can tell the story through his

relatives eyes, so I assumed a divorce from two generations back didnt affect him at all. I was

almost certain theyd all say that the divorce culture today is better than thirty years ago and in

helping children of divorce not repeat their parents patterns; I guessed therapy to be the primary

response. I asked them and myself the question of how one divorce thirty years ago could affect

these people today? More importantly, what can be done to not allow it to affect them

negatively?

Although Margaret believes that Gary was the most affected, after speaking to each of

them, it became clear to me that she actually was. When Margarets parents got divorced, she

was eight years old, which is, a very bad age for this because youre old enough to feel hurt but

too young to understand, as she put it. Following the divorce, her and her siblings lived with

their mom who had primary physical custody, and saw their dad once a week, which as weve

learned from a US Census study, is most common (a staggering eighty-two percent) for children

of divorce to live with their mom, as opposed to their dad (Lecture Slides Getting Divorced

2002 US Census October 14). The once a week outings with her dad brought back terrible

memories for Margaret. Although much later on, her parents relationship would be categorized

as friendship, at this time it was one of preoccupation, which as we learned, is the most
3

detrimental of the three kinds of post-divorce relationships for adjustment (Lecture Slides

Getting Divorced October 9). Because her father missed his ex-wife and wanted her back, she

recalls, My father would use me. He would say to little innocent eight year old girl me, tell

mommy you miss me. Tell her you miss daddy. She was the one he would burden with

complaints because her older sister Susan (age 14) was too smart and Gary (age 1) was a baby so

as the middle child, she took most of the heat.

While dating to get married, Margaret was very cautious to not marry anyone who

resembled her father, even in the slightest way. One guy had hands like my father and I couldnt

take it. I told him I wanted to go home! she exclaimed, as she chuckled. Although shes able to

look back and laugh at herself, her dating life (age 18-22) was no laughing matter. While most of

her friends were married by eighteen or nineteen, which surprised me too, she didnt get married

until she was twenty-two! I was like an old maid! she exclaimed. For years, it seems like she

was fulfilling a self-fulfilling prophecy of not wanting to find the right one because she never

gave anyone a chance past one date. It was my therapist who told me, one date isnt enough.

You need an appetizer, main, and dessert. 3 dates! As an old lady, at age twenty-two, Margaret

finally met the man she would spend the rest of her life with, but that didnt mean her

psychological post-divorce problems were solved. We dated for three months before getting

engaged, which scared me because thats how long my parents dated for, she remembered, this

time without a smile on her face, although she admits that her mother knew it wasnt right from

their honeymoon and felt he didnt love her but tried to stick it out while Margaret felt like her

husband was right for her, just nervous about it. In her parents case, there seemed to be a high

level of conflict where bad went to worse after having a child start to grow up, as in the Belsky

& Hsieh graph which claims a thirty eight percent bad-to-worse rate measuring husband love
4

(Lecture Slides Divorce Risk Who Fights October 4). Mid-interview, it seemed like she was

getting flashbacks to her nervous feelings before marriage, so she quickly fast-forwarded her life

to now, the good times. She is, however, relieved that shes been married for eighteen years,

already outlasting her parents marriage by a year. Despite feeling better now, she admits to

being on edge about her marriage, as she remarked, Im always waiting for the other shoe to

drop. Although her marriage seems healthy and her husband sounds delightful, shes constantly

afraid the marriage will go awry. My hypothesis here was accurate in assuming the divorce

affected her the most.

While Margaret feels the long-term affects until today, her younger brother Gary

sounds like he was able to move on easier after the divorce. Gary claims to not be affected today

because he didnt actually witness the fighting, but admits that the road to get to where he is

today was not silky smooth. He nonchalantly commented on his relationship with his father, I

wasnt so tight with him, but Margaret told me that its tough for him to express his feelings of

resentment towards his father who was an absentee parent in his life. Similar to Margaret, one

major roadblock for Gary was choosing the right girl to marry. To a lesser extreme than

Margaret, Gary had a genetic fear, as he calls it, that he would end up divorcing the woman

hed marry because he felt like, a product of this (divorce) can produce that (divorce), as

evidently he is reluctant to even say the word divorce, which is interesting to note. We learned

that divorce demonstrates to children that divorce is an acceptable solution to an unhappy

marriage, but Gary didnt want it to be so acceptable in his own marriage, although he was afraid

that subconsciously, it would be (Lecture Slides Divorce Risk Who Fights October 4). One

conversation put his fears to rest and changed his entire life. He recalled his mother reassuring

him at age twenty-one, youre not your father. Theres nothing to worry about. After that, he
5

realized, You dont have to be the same person (as his father). Everybodys themselves.

Today, this child of post-divorce, as he calls himself, asserts that he is a better father because

he worked so hard to not be like his old man and learned from his mother. I figured Gary would

be a little more affected, but then again he didnt seem too deep, so maybe there was more he

was hiding.

Whereas Margaret and Gary were affected psychologically, each to his or her own

degree, Irving (the eldest daughter Susans son), who is a grandchild of divorce, was affected in

a more practical sense and offers a different perspective, being further removed. Unlike his uncle

and aunt, Irving saw things differently and felt sorry for his grandfather because he was lonely

most of his life. Because he saw his grandfather later in life as a sickly little old man, as

opposed to an absent father, he felt worse for him than his aunt and uncle. This newly married

twenty-five year old aspiring therapist was always torn as to where he and his wife should spend

holiday meals, because his family would normally go to his grandmother, but he felt bad for his

lonely grandfather who ate alone. They ended up switching off. He is positive that his

grandparents divorce had no psychological bearing on him (though I believe his interest in

mental health may have something to do with the divorce), besides for his relationship with his

mother (Susan) who he resented because he felt she didnt spend enough time with her father

when he was ill. Any substantial effects wouldve surprised me here because hes a generation

removed, so an effect on his relationship with his mother, in addition to a practical impact, was

more than I expected.

Besides for the divorce affecting Irvings relationship with his mother, it also directly

affected other relationships, such as that of the children of the divorce amongst themselves,

which is common, in my experience, for the divorce to change the dynamics amongst the
6

children, my dad commented. The ongoing fight between Margaret and Susan began

immediately after the divorce when, despite them both living with their mother, they each picked

sides. Because Susan saw her father as sweet and innocent, she favored him while Margaret who

felt closer to her mother, sided with her. Over the years, as they started to see each others

perspectives, this sisterly battle calmed and turned into an unbreakable bond, as Margaret put

it. She said that after all is said and done, they are closer because of the divorce. After all, its

the single most influential experience in each of their lives, and they got through it together. In

addition to the divorce strengthening the sisterly love, Gary commented, I dont think our

family would be this close if not for it (the divorce). How ironic. While the divorce affected

these relationships directly and positively (at least in the long term), it negatively impacted the

relationship between Susan and her high school sweetheart.

Susan (the eldest daughter) and Albert (her old boyfriend) loved each other and were

ready to get married, but Alberts family wouldnt allow him to marry a girl whos parents are

divorced because divorce was a social stigma. Their family was looked at negatively simply

because their parents were divorced. Like many other traditional communities at the time, in the

Sephardic Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, divorce was rare and shunned upon. I was the

only girl I knew whose parents were divorced and it was looked at as a failure, Margaret

recalled. In retrospect, they probably wouldve gotten divorced much earlier had they been

going through it today, she added. What changed from then until now and is it better or worse

today?

Margaret, Gary, Irving, and my father have each thoughtfully examined the change in

the divorce culture in this community over the past thirty years and have each, surprisingly,

given the same answer when asked which time they think is better. Up until recently, women
7

were seen as disobedient or troubled if they didnt stick though thick and thin, but today, it is

acknowledged that the husband doesnt dictate their role as an individual, Irving explained. As

a society, we moved towards a more tolerant way of being. We are more sensitized towards

mental health, he added. As the world became more tolerant, so did this community. Without

the social stigma and divorce being easier, more people are getting divorced. Its become more

convenient as weve learned, Barriers have fallen as individualism has risen, both factors

which Irving danced around, but didnt pinpoint (Lecture Slides Divorce Risk Who Fights

October 4).

Unlike Irving, Gary had a different take on the change in divorce culture, as he

commented, Hollywood makes you think that marriage is going to be rosy with fireworks in the

background after every kiss and reality is so far from that. Via the Internet and social media,

this concept is so in your face, that when people realize their own marriage is far from that, they

want out. My father summed up their argument by stating, Today, people are more open, we

have more education, and there is more warranted divorce. However, there is more unwarranted

divorce due to the disposable culture we live in. Everythings disposable, including a spouse for

some people. The notion of disposable spouses is only made possible because there are so

many alternatives, statistically leading to a higher divorce rate, especially in a central city like

New York with so many options (Lecture Slides Divorce Risk Who Fights October 4). They

all agreed that theres too much unwarranted divorce today, too little warranted divorce thirty

years ago, and that a balance would be ideal. Although I understood their point, this surprised me

because I thought theyd say today is better because of the heightened awareness of, increased

education of, and increased tolerance of divorce. Practically speaking, with the aforementioned
8

advancements we have today, how can we help children of divorce not continue the patterns of

their parents and maintain healthy relationships?

The first step in ensuring children of divorce dont repeat their parents behaviors,

according to Irving, is awareness. He explains that because, we tend to repeat early behavior in

childhood, a concept known as behavioral learning, we must inform kids on positive

relationships. Our own sense of normalcy is cultivated by what we experience, so without a

positive relationship with his mother, Gary probably wouldve had a tougher time trying not to

repeat his parents mistakes as he asserted, I learned how to be a dad from my mom and from

watching her dynamic relationships with each of us (him and his sisters), I was able to learn the

characteristics of positive relationships and that its not always like my parents (relationship).

Margaret summed it up in recounting that the family would have fallen apart but My mother

was able to catch us and hold us together. Early positive relationships are essential, especially

for children of divorce. In my fathers experience with divorced couples, children who only see

negative relationships at a young age are doomed to repeat it. The divorce hero, as one

community member calls him, affirms, it is vital to expose children who have only seen bad

thus far to good and healthy (relationships) so that they dont grow up with that perspective. I

expected to hear therapy as the primary answer, but the varied answers were more on the side of

awareness and positive exposure. Maybe they figured therapy was a given.

In conclusion, we learned that Margaret, as expected, was the most affected by the

divorce; then Gary who was moderately affected which was surprising because even though hes

a child of post-divorce, he still grew up without a father, under circumstances of divorce; then

Irving, a grandchild of divorce, who really shocked me to be almost as affected as Gary claims to

be, both practically in splitting time between his grandmother and grandfather (like a child
9

splitting time between his parents) and in his relationship with his mother. We saw that ironically

enough, the divorce eventually strengthened their family, which is amazing. We learned that

divorce was shunned upon in this community so their family was labeled negatively, effecting

Susan most in that she couldnt marry a guy she loved because his family wouldnt allow it. We

analyzed the change in the divorce culture for better (warranted divorces) and for worse

(unwarranted divorces) and heard from the participants who agreed that a balance in the divorce

culture of now and thirty years ago would be ideal, which although I understood, I felt didnt

fully give the advancements and tolerance today enough recognition. Awareness (Irving) and

positive exposure (my father) were the top two answers on the board for helping children of

divorce not learn from their parents relationships, surprisingly not therapy.

Having the opportunity (and excuse) to explore a family who was at one point

traumatized from an event, then bounce back to be able to discuss an emotional story, and assess

themselves and other family members in an analytic and reflective fashion was an unbelievable

experience. Via zoning in on one family, I was able to obtain various perspectives on the same

story, each told though their experiences and their selective memory. This particular story alone

is insightful enough to be studied on its own as a case study, delving into the participants

backgrounds and relationships today.