Unhappy Marriage vs. Happy Divorce: Effects on Children
Married parents quite often have to face the decision of whether or not to separate in terms of how it might affect their children. “Stay together for the kids” has become an adage over recent decades perhaps in light of the adverse effects Generation X experienced as their parents presided over the largest divorce expansion in America’s history. As we look at the phenomenon today, especially considering the insights from one clinical psychologist and one case example who has experienced divorce on both sides of parenthood and childhood, staying together for the kids may not the best decision to make.
Clinical Child Psychologist Dr. Michelle New
As the founder of the child psychology clinic Kentlands Kids, Dr. New has compiled years of new research in this area, particularly in analyzing how this younger generation experiences divorce. While New admits that children do benefit from a father and mother at home, she goes on to simplify: “What they really need is love, consistency, discipline, and access to both parents.” This is a slightly more lenient view on what children actually need. As long as the benefits of both parents being there are still provided for children, it may not be entirely necessary for them to stay under the same roof. New does correct this, however, by adding that the child’s age certainly plays a factor. Younger children to experience more difficulty in a divorce.
According to New, studies show that stress levels are at an all-time high when young children only have one caregiver, implying that two parents in the same home is best for a young child. New also adds that it is never easy for any child of any age: “No matter how difficult the family environment was before the separation, the children’s experience will be negative. Divorce will come as a shock for both the parents and the child regardless of how much preparation they have.” However, as we compare this to our case study, a woman with personal experience in divorce both as a child of divorced parents and a divorced parent herself, we see that older children can experience this even in a positive manner.
Case Study: Stormy Mercer
Stormy Mercer’s parents divorced when she was in 1977 when she was 15, and she had this to say in reflection of the divorce: “My life was much better. No more fights in the night, no more crashing sounds of glass breaking against the walls. Who wants to live in a war zone?” For Mercer, her parents’ divorce came with great relief. After 15 years of witnessing fighting and domestic turmoil, Mercer became closer with her mother, while both parents happily moved on and found love elsewhere.
As Mercer found herself on the other side of divorce later in life as a parent, she feels that her experience as a child actually benefitted her family in the way she was able to communicate to her 10-year-old son what was happening, though it still was not without complication. Mercer explains that the long distance between her ex-husband and her son contributed to a strain in their relationship: “It was much harder on him as a small child as his father lives 500 miles away. I took him there every year to spend summers with his father. Now that he is 18 and is old enough to work summer jobs, he hasn’t gone there in three years.”
This coincides with New’s analysis that younger children almost always have a more difficult time experiencing their parents’ divorce, but perhaps it is more manageable as an older child.
Both New and Mercer seem to agree that the negative impacts of divorce on children can easily be overestimated. Collectively, they believe that traditional, nuclear parents may tend to scrutinize divorce because they do not have their own experiences with which to understand. Additionally, News suggests that this overestimation of damage done to children of divorced parents could be contributed to by a “religious or moral overtone in the family that divorce is bad.”
Dr. New's objective analysis compliments Mercer’s experiences with divorce, which help her conclude: “I believe that it is easier on children to live with a good divorce than a bad marriage."
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