Thursday, May 24, 2012

Having Divorced Parents Can Kill You

A new book on longevity finds that the single factor most strongly predicting an early death is:
-- to have your parents divorce during your childhood. Yikes.

I've written about divorce before (or rather, divorce when you have children: divorce among the childless is an entirely different kettle of fish). One of the things that puzzles me about it is the level of denial among most people about its proven, extremely well-documented effects.

Divorce of a child's parents is highly traumatic for that child. Sometimes (especially in cases of abuse or unrelenting, severe conflict) it may be a necessary trauma, the way it can be necessary to get your leg amputated: but the fact remains that the child's life has been permanently, irredeemably altered, and that these effects will stay with them forever, into young adulthood and beyond.

Often when people announce they are getting a divorce, the response is one of congratulations and positivity. "Now you can start a new and better life!", people say. This is an appropriate response for marriages without children, I think, even though a divorce represents a significant personal failure (since everyone entering into marriage meant to be together forever, and made the most solemn promises to do just that, to themselves, their friends and families, and the state). Just like a failed job (one you were fired from or quit because you hated), the failure in this instance is disappointing and humiliating, but truly does represent a chance to try again, to learn from your mistakes, and to do it better. And for many people (like all the ones in happy second marriages), this proves to be the case.

But for people with children the response of hopefulness seems terribly tone-deaf and even cruel. For the adults, it may be the case that they will find better-suited partners and move on to happier lives. But for the children, a great disaster of epic proportions has just occurred, which will negatively affect the rest of their lives.  Anyone who argues differently (saying things like "They are so young, they won't remember" or "They'll be happier because you're happier") is either lying or fooling themselves.

This doesn't mean that I think no one with children should get divorced (because sometimes it really is the only thing to do). But it does mean divorcing parents should expect that their children will likely have emotional and psychological problems afterwards; that the children will certainly undergo significant emotional pain and suffering; and that probably the children will direct these feelings of pain and suffering into anger at their parents and general bad behavior.

It also means divorced parents have a lot less leeway in their parenting, because their children are already operating under a huge disadvantage. Careful, thoughtful, child-focused parenting must become the order of the day in a way that is just not as essential for married parents. Maybe that's one reason why it's so difficult to be a single parent?

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