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How Parental Reaction to Divorce Affects Your Children

It is a gross understatement to state that the divorce process has an impact on all members of the family. It is equally understated to understand the fact that how both parents adjust to and adapt to the divorce process can significantly impact their children. In fact, studies indicate that a child's reaction and later adjustment to the divorce process is largely dependent on the degree to which the parents adjust to the divorce process. It would be naive to state that a parent would be able to go through a divorce with little or no emotional reaction. Even when you are the parent seeking the divorce due to long-term dissatisfaction in your marriage, you are likely to experience a variety of emotions and reactions in response to the dissolution of your marital relationship.

The complexity of this process is complicated by the fact that, although you are dissolving your relationship as spouses, you (by the fact that you have children together) cannot dissolve your relationship as parents. Herein lies the crux of the complexity of this matter. This is the reason why we've decided to produce these tapes. Too many parents believe that, although they are dissolving the relationship with their spouse, they should be able to dissolve the relationship as co-parents in the raising and rearing of their children. In my clinical practice, I see far too many children who are significantly impacted by the divorce process unnecessarily, because the parents refuse to (1) acknowledge their own pain and (2) deal with that pain in an effective manner so they may be able to participate as parents in a collaborative way.

First, let's start by looking at some of the common adult reactions to divorce. There are numerous books and articles written about reaction to divorce, but I will define what we have seen in our clinical practice in terms of the adjustment. First, let me start by stating that divorce is widely recognized as one of the most significant life stresses that anybody can endure. This is only surpassed by the death of a spouse or loved one or the death of a child. Divorce literally rips apart the very fabric of existence for both parties. This is true even if both parties have agreed to separate due to irreconcilable differences. The important point here to note is that the emotional reaction to the separation of two lives is not abnormal, to the extent that each of you have merged your lives into a complex interrelationship of economic, emotional and parenting responsibilities. This, coupled with the nightmarish legal and financial difficulties that are often experienced during divorce, makes the divorce process one of the most challenging adjustments that you can go through. In my work as a Psychologist, Marriage and Family Therapist, and as a Child Custody Evaluator, I've come to recognize that divorce brings out the absolute worst in people. But, even a person with the greatest emotional and psychological resources can deteriorate under the extreme stress and unpredictability of divorce.

One of the key factors that makes a divorce so toxic and so difficult to deal with is the lack of control and unpredictability of the turn of events. When one or both individuals has decided to obtain a divorce, you are beginning a monumentally complex, legal process, wherein you enter a system that is often difficult to negotiate and almost impossible to understand. Lawyers, and even psychologists, often do not understand some of the complexities that are involved in the divorce process, not the least of which is that often the process takes on a life unto itself. In many cases, this would be your first experience with the legal system. In most cases, neither of you have entered into a court room or dealt with an attorney beyond the execution of a Will or real estate transaction. This, alone, can be intimidating. The legal and court system, is highly complicated and can be quite intimidating for those people who are unfamiliar with it. Even for experienced lawyers and psychologists, who deal with the court system regularly, find it intimidating and, at times, unnegotiable. So, to reiterate, it should be first noted that in going through a divorce process, you are going to be going through one of the most emotional and technically complex processes that you've every experienced. So cut yourself a break. Allow yourself to feel bad. Acknowledge the fact that you will have little control, at times, over the process and that, although it may seem unfair as the divorce process winds through the courts, it will ultimately work out. Many parents enter into a divorce with the expectation of a legal vindication of the injustices that they've survived throughout their marriage; many people are disappointed to find out that this never occurs and that, although you may feel justified in your position, the legal process provides little or no solace to you.

Remember, a divorce is an interactive process, and each lawyer in the case of an adversarial procedure will represent his or her client's best interest. This advocacy relationship will, by nature, create and/or amplify an adversarial process that already exists between you and your spouse. In other words, even though you are emotionally upset prior to the divorce process, as the divorce process develops, you will experience potentially greater emotional upset.

Copyright ©1998 David Greenfield, Ph.D., LMFT


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