Over the course of the last decade or so, I have read quite a few books, and thousands of articles and studies, about divorce and the impact of divorce on kids. You don’t usually have to get past the first couple of paragraphs before you can figure out where the author stands on the question of “Does divorce harm kids?”
One of the raging debates for the last few decades in the circles of those who deal with children of divorce is whether the negative impacts experienced by so many children of divorce are related to the divorce itself or related to the circumstances surrounding the divorce. Much has been written about the issue, and frankly, for many, the argument itself seems to become more important than helping kids deal with the impacts themselves.
One camp argues that it is not the divorce itself which harms kids but the external factors surrounding the divorce that impact children negatively. It is as if to argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with divorce because, even if kids get hurt, it is because of the byproducts of that divorce rather than the divorce itself. This camp, I believe, downplays the impact of divorce on kids in an effort to give parents who have divorced, or are divorcing, a sense of hope. This side would argue it is not the divorce itself that matters but how you conduct yourself during the divorce. They want us to believe that “kids are resilient” and “when parents are happy, kids will be happy too.” This side of the debate has coined phrases such as the “good divorce” to describe a divorce where parents make an effort to get along “for the sake of the kids.” They write off the studies and evidence that contradict their position by pointing out that “not all kids are affected negatively” and that the “differences in impact are not all that severe.” This side of the argument would have us believe that most kids are totally over their parents’ divorce and have moved on with their lives within two years of the divorce. If a child falls outside that guideline, it is likely because the parents have not handled the divorce as well as they should or other external factors have precipitated a more adverse reaction. Opponents of this view argue that it marginalizes the impact of divorce on kids who are already the unwitting victims of a circumstance that they did not choose. Opponents also would argue that this view, contrary to the prevailing evidence, gives parents a false sense of hope in terms of how their kids will react to a divorce and thereby encourages parents to ignore the impact their decision will have on their kids.
The other camp holds that there are impacts on kids which are inherent in divorce and are not dependent on other external impacts. In other words, it is divorce itself that harms kids, and the external impacts of divorce only serve to deepen and prolong that level of harm. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I tend to find myself leaning much more in the direction of this camp based on the research I have reviewed to date. Proponents of this argument will tell you that divorce, even the so-called “good divorce,” has a negative and lasting impact on kids. Divorce, the act of a child’s parents deciding that they no longer want to be married fundamentally changes a child’s life, oftentimes leaving them questioning their very existence, and every time dealing with the fallout of the divorce for years and even decades to come.