A House Divided—The Impact of Divorce on Adolescents
THE experts thought they had it right. ‘You need to focus on your happiness,’ they advised parents in troubled marriages, quickly adding: ‘Don’t worry about the children. They’re resilient. It’s easier for them to deal with divorce than to live with two parents who can’t get along!’
Yet, some counselors who once sang the praises of divorce have changed their tune. ‘Divorce is war,’ they now say. ‘Neither party walks away without wounds; nor do the children.’
The Myth of Easy Divorce
It could make a hit TV sitcom. The plot? Dad and Mom divorce. Mom gets custody of the children and then marries a widower with children of his own. Week after week the mismatched family faces one absurd predicament after another—each one being resolved in 30 minutes flat with no shortage of witty humor in the process.
Perhaps the above situation makes for entertaining TV. But a real-life divorce is no sitcom. On the contrary, the process is painful. “Divorce is litigation,” writes M. Gary Neuman in his book Emotional Infidelity. “Someone is suing someone. The second you decide to divorce, you are giving up control over your child. You are also giving up control over your finances, and perhaps even where you will live. You may resolve your issues in mediation, but maybe not. Ultimately, a stranger called a judge could be the one to tell you how often you will see your child and how much of your money you will keep. Unfortunately, that stranger doesn’t think exactly like you.”
Often, divorce merely exchanges one set of problems for another. Indeed, everything from living arrangements to financial status may change—and likely not for the better. And then there is the impact divorce has on children.
Divorce and Adolescents
Divorce can devastate children, regardless of their age. Some claim that adolescents fare better. After all, the reasoning goes, they are more mature and are in the process of separating from their parents anyway. However, researchers see a flip side to the coin. They have found that because of those very factors, divorce can hit adolescents the hardest.* Consider the following:
▪ As they navigate their way toward adulthood, adolescents are highly insecure, perhaps even more so than when they were children. Do not let their independent streak fool you—adolescents need the anchor of family stability as never before.
▪ At the very time in life when adolescents are learning to forge mature friendships, divorce teaches them to be skeptical of such values as trust, loyalty, and love. Later, as adults, they may avoid close relationships altogether.
▪ While it is common for children of all ages to act out their pain, adolescents are more likely to do so in dangerous ways, including delinquency, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse.
This is not to say that adolescents whose parents divorce are doomed emotionally or otherwise. They can succeed, especially if they have a relationship with both parents.* However, it is naive to think that divorce will always be, as some might say, ‘better for the children’ or that it will put an end to all tension between spouses. In fact, some find that they have to deal more with their “intolerable” spouse after the divorce than before and on much more volatile issues, such as financial support or child custody. In such cases divorce does not end family problems; it simply moves them to a different arena.
A Third Option
What if you are in a troubled marriage and have thought about divorce? This article has presented compelling reasons to reconsider. Divorce is not a cure-all for marital misery.
But do not misunderstand: The answer is not simply to tolerate a bad marriage. There is another option—If your marriage is in trouble, why not work to make it better? Do not hastily dismiss this idea by asserting that your marital problems are incurable. Ask yourself these questions:
▪ ‘Can I explain to my mate (face-to-face or in writing) just how I would like our relationship to improve?’—Job 10:1.
▪ ‘Can we sit down with a mature friend who can help us set realistic goals to improve our marriage?’—Proverbs 27:17.
The Bible says: “The shrewd one considers his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15) That principle applies not just when choosing a mate but also when considering what to do about a marriage relationship that is faltering. Indeed, as brought out on page 9 of this magazine, successful families also have problems—the difference is in how they handle them.
To illustrate: Imagine that you have embarked on a long journey by car. It is inevitable that you will encounter problems along the way, including severe weather, traffic jams, and roadblocks. On occasion, you may even get lost. What will you do? Turn around and go back or find a way to overcome the obstacle and move forward? On the day of your wedding, you embarked on a journey that was sure to bring its share of problems, for the Bible says that “those who marry will have pain and grief.” (1 Corinthians 7:28, The New English Bible) The question is not whether problems will arise but how you will face them when they do. Can you find a way to overcome the obstacle and move forward? Even if you feel that your marriage is hopelessly lost, will you try to get help?—James 5:14.
A Divine Institution
Marriage is a divine institution that should not be taken lightly. (Genesis 2:24) When problems seem insurmountable, remember the points discussed in this article.
1. Try to rekindle the love that you once felt.—Song of Solomon 8:6.
2. Decide what you can do to make your marriage better, and then do it.—James 1:22.
3. Clearly but respectfully tell your mate—either face-to-face or in writing—what improvements you feel need to be made in the marriage.—Job 7:11.
4. Get help. You do not have to save your marriage by yourself!
Admittedly, this is not always possible, especially if a parent has abandoned the family or is in some other way blatantly irresponsible or even dangerous.—1 Timothy 5:8.
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‘THIS TIME I’LL GET IT RIGHT’
Studies reveal that second marriages have a higher failure rate than first ones, and third marriages fare even worse. In his book Emotional Infidelity, M. Gary Neuman points out one reason for this. “If you have difficulties in your first marriage,” he writes, “it’s not all about your poor choice of a spouse. It’s about you. You fell in love with this person. You worked with this person to create whatever you have or don’t have.” Neuman’s conclusion? “It’s better to get rid of the problem and keep your spouse than to get rid of your spouse and keep the problem.”
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IF A MARRIAGE ENDS
The Bible acknowledges that extreme circumstances may lead to divorce.* If that is the case in your family, how can you help your adolescent children to cope?
Tell your adolescent what is happening. If possible, both parents should do this. Together, let your adolescent know that the decision to divorce is final. Give assurance that he or she is not to blame and will continue to be loved by both parents.
Get off the battlefield—the war is over. Some parents remain entangled in conflict long after the divorce. They become, as one expert puts it, “legally divorced but still emotionally betrothed combatants who have not been able to negotiate a truce with peace.” Not only does this deprive adolescents of their parents—since Dad and Mom always seem caught up in one skirmish or another—but it also encourages them to pit one parent against the other in order to get their way. For instance, a boy might tell his mother: “Dad lets me stay out as late as I want. Why won’t you?” Not wanting her son to defect to the “enemy camp,” Mom relents.
Let your adolescent talk. Adolescents may reason, ‘If my parents stopped loving each other, they may stop loving me’ or ‘If my parents broke the rules, why can’t I?’ To alleviate your adolescent’s fears and to correct flawed thinking, give him or her plenty of opportunity to talk. But a caution: Do not switch roles and look to your adolescent for emotional support. This is your child, not your confidant.
Encourage the adolescent to have a healthy relationship with your ex-spouse. The person you divorced is your ex-spouse but not your child’s ex-parent. Bad-mouthing that person is damaging. Says the book Teens in Turmoil—A Path to Change for Parents, Adolescents, and Their Families: “If parents choose to use their children as artillery on the divorce battlefield, they must expect to reap what they have sown.”
Take care of yourself. At times, you will feel overwhelmed. But do not give up. Maintain a healthy routine. If you are a Christian, stay involved in spiritual activities. Doing so will help you and your adolescent to maintain balance.—Psalm 18:2; Matthew 28:19, 20; Hebrews 10:24, 25.
According to the Bible, only sexual relations outside the marriage provide adequate grounds to end the marriage with the opportunity to remarry. (Matthew 19:9) If unfaithfulness occurs, it is up to the innocent mate—not to family members or others—to decide whether divorce is the best option.—Galatians 6:5.
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Work to uphold the commitment you made on your wedding day
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If you share custody, encourage your adolescent to have a healthy relationship with your ex-spouse