High-conflict Separation and Divorce: Options for Consideration



In his literature review, Stewart (2001: 4) pointed out that in the 1960s and 1970s mental health professionals appeared divided about whether divorce had long-lasting negative effects on children, or was a benign or even positive influence on them. For example, Rutter (1981) concluded that a child's separation from his or her intact family is a potential cause for short-term distress, but is of little direct importance as a cause of long-term disorder. Also, Kurdek and Siesky (1980b) argued that children of divorce do not see themselves as inferior to children who live with both parents and do not see the divorce as having negatively affected their peer relations or marital aspirations.

However, studies that show divorce as a difficult transition period with relatively benign after-effects on children are a minority. The majority of studies indicate that divorce is an extremely difficult period for children, with serious immediate and short-term effects. These studies can be divided into three types: those which focus on factors contributing to, or which identify, the specific negative outcomes for children after their parents divorce; those which identify emotional, relationship and structural environmental factors that contribute to a positive outcomes for children; and those which explore the connection between custody and access arrangements and outcomes for children.

2.1  Negative Adjustments Among Children After Separation and Divorce

Studies relating to negative adjustments among children include the following:

Jacobson (1978) examined factors that affected the psychological adjustment of children within 12 months after the marital separation. She examined 51 children in 30 families, and found that the greater the amount of time lost with the father since the marital separation, the greater the maladjustment of the child in areas such as aggression and learning disability.

Peterson and Zill (1986) analyzed data from National Surveys of Children in the United States, gathering information about 2,301 children. These authors concluded that children were least depressed and withdrawn when they lived with both parents rather than only with the biological mother. The depressed/withdrawn score for children living with a single mother was especially high, especially for boys, and anti-social behaviour was higher among those living with mothers than those in intact families. However, girls living with single mothers were no worse-off than those living with intact, low conflict families. A child living with a parent of the opposite sex was especially prone to problem behaviour, according to Peterson and Zill.

Stolberg, Camplair, Currier and Wells (1987) examined individual, familial and environmental determinants of children's post-divorce adjustment and maladjustment. Environmental influences included physical changes in the neighbourhood (such as moving to a new neighbourhood), social skills required to meet new friends, and communication skills needed to express the increased anger that unwanted changes brought. Familial influences included marital hostility and poor child management skills that may lead to aggression in children. Comparing 87 divorced mothers and 47 intact families, the authors concluded that a child's life change events, such as moving to a new house or changing schools, are the most significant determinants of a child's post-divorce maladjustment, followed by marital hostility and parent adjustment.

Kelly and Wallerstein (1977) examined, in 60 divorcing families, the visiting patterns of children with their non-custodial parent. In general, younger children between the ages of two and eight saw their non-custodial parent more frequently than did older children. Half of the older children aged nine to ten experienced erratic or infrequent visiting or no visiting at all. The response of the older children to the divorce was anger. The authors concluded that infrequent visiting correlated with a destructive visiting pattern.

Judith Wallerstein is one of the foremost experts on the effects of divorce on children. She was involved in a 25-year longitudinal study of the responses of children and adolescents to parental separation and divorce. It was based on interviews with 130 children and both parents. After 25 years, the individuals who were children in these situations spoke sadly of their lost childhood, their sadness and anger, and their yearning for someone to take care of them. This diminished nurturing and protection during their growing-up years was the legacy divorce left them. Half the young people in the sample were involved as adolescents in serious drug and alcohol abuse. Over half ended up with lower educational degrees than their parents had obtained. At adulthood, they feared that their own adult relationships would fail as their parents' relationship did (Wallerstein and Lewis, 1998). In a more recent book, Wallerstein concluded that the children of divorce suffer most in adulthood:

The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy and commitment. Their lack of inner images of a man and a woman in a stable relationship and their memories of their parents' failure to sustain the marriage badly hobbles their search, leading them to heartbreak and even despair (Wallerstein et al., 2000).

Amato and Keith (1991a) examined 92 studies that compared children living in divorced single-parent families with children living in continuously intact families, according to measures of well-being. Many studies found that children of divorced families experienced lower levels of well-being regardless of scholastic achievement, conduct, psychological development, self-esteem, social competence, and relationships with other children. The authors examined these studies from three possible explanatory perspectives: that children of divorce often experience a decrease in parental attention, help and supervision; that divorce typically leads to a decline in the standard of living of mother-headed families, often falling below poverty level; and that conflict between parents before and during separation causes severe stress among children. The results of the meta-analysis suggested that children of divorce are handicapped by the absence of a parent and somewhat less strongly supported the belief that economic decline accounts for some of the negative consequences of divorce. The hypothesis best supported by the evidence was that family conflict is associated with a low level of well-being. In another meta-analysis on parental divorce and adult well-being, Amato and Keith (1991b) concluded, based on data from 37 studies, that outcomes associated with parental divorce include effects on psychological well-being (depression, low life satisfaction), family well-being (low marital quality, divorce), socioeconomic well-being (low educational attainment, low income, and low occupational prestige) and physical health. However, there were several qualifications to this finding, in particular that the extent of effect in the literature is weak. In another meta-analysis of divorce studies, Amato (1994) concluded that children of divorced families exhibit more behavioural difficulties, more symptoms of psychological maladjustment, lower academic achievement, more social difficulties, and poorer self-concepts than children in intact families.

Rodgers and Pryor, in a review of more than 200 British research studies on the impact of separation and divorce on children, concluded that long-term disadvantages for children of divorced parents include growing up in households with lower income, leaving school with fewer educational qualifications, withdrawn behaviour, aggression and delinquency, health problems, leaving home when young, early sexual activity, depression and substance abuse. However, these problems are found only in a minority of persons whose parents have separated. They also emphasized that these poor outcomes are far from inevitable, and that there is no direct link between parental separation and the way children adjust. Although these outcomes are clear, it cannot be simply assumed that parental separation is their underlying cause (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1998).

Other studies have indicated that wives who have divorced bear a greater economic burden. In general, they are worse off economically than their former husbands are (Espenshade, 1979). Well-being decreases following divorce and increases following remarriage (Espenshade, 1979; Beuhler et al., 1985/86).

2.2  Positive Adjustments Among Children after Separation and Divorce

These studies include the following:

In a 1980 article, Kurdek and Siesky evaluated the results of questionnaires given to 71 divorced single custodial parents and their 130 children. Generally, the parents' questionnaire focussed on: the parents' report of the amount of conflict preceding the separation; the parents' description of how the children were informed about the divorce; the parents' description of how they reacted to news of the divorce; the parents' perceptions of their children's present attitudes towards the divorce; and parents' views on possible strengths their children had acquired over the course of the divorce. The children's questionnaire, explored: the children's responses to definitions of "divorce"; the reasons for and acceptance of the parents' divorce; the children's descriptions of both parents; the perceived influence of the divorce on peer relations; the children's interactions with the custodial parent; and the children's attitudes towards marriage.

There were ten statistical tables in the article, some of which gave the children's descriptions of their parents. For example, Table Five assessed the relationship between the child's sense of blame for the divorce and the child's description of the custodial and non-custodial parent under the headings "positive", "negative", "positive and negative" and "neutral". Children who appeared to blame themselves for the divorce perceived their parents in a rather negative light. Tables Nine and Ten examined the relationship between the strengths acquired by the children as a result of their parents' divorce, and the children's descriptions of the custodial and noncustodial parents under the headings "positive", "negative", "positive and negative" and "neutral". In Table Nine, children who were seen as having acquired strengths as a result of the divorce also held more "positive" views of both of their parents. Table Ten examined the relationship between specific child strengths i.e. "independence", "concern for parent", "discuss feelings" and "patience/compassion", and the children's descriptions of their custodial and noncustodial parent under the headings previously given. Nearly all the specific strengths mentioned were for children who expressed "positive" views of both their parents. The authors found favourable reactions and adjustments in children who defined divorce in terms of "psychological separation" rather than in terms of "marriage dissolution" or "physical separation", shared news of divorce with friends, had relatively positive evaluations of both parents, and saw themselves as having acquired strengths and responsibilities as a result of the divorce (Kurdek and Siesky, 1980b).

Steinman, Zemmelman and Knoblauch (1985), in a study of 51 families with a joint physical custody arrangement, identified a list of factors leading to a successful arrangement. These factors were respect and appreciation for the bond between the children and the former spouse; an ability to remain objective about the children's needs during the period of divorce; an ability to empathize with the point of view of the child and the other parent; an ability to shift emotional expectations from the role of mate to that of co-parent; and an ability to establish new role boundaries and show high self-esteem and flexibility.

2.3  The Connection between Custody/Access Arrangements and Children's Adjustment

Studies include the following:

Steinman (1981) studied 32 children living in joint physical custody arrangements over three years. The majority of the parents involved were generally satisfied with the arrangement, although the children were less satisfied. The children clearly stated that they preferred marriage to divorce, even if there was conflict between the parents. They generally found joint custody arrangements inconvenient. One third of the children showed a significant degree of psychological distress from the joint custody arrangement.

Steinman, Zemmelman and Knoblauch (1985) identified a list of factors found in families responding negatively to joint physical custody. These factors were intense, continuing hostility and conflict that could not be diverted from the child, overwhelming anger and a continuing need to punish the spouse, a history of physical abuse, a history of substance abuse, a firm belief that the other spouse was a bad parent, and an inability to distinguish one's own feelings and needs from those of the child.

Luepnitz (1986) compared children's adjustment for 43 families with sole mother, sole father or joint physical custody arrangements. All children with joint custody arrangements had regular contact with both parents, whereas half of the children in sole custody situations never saw the other parent at all. The majority of children in joint custody were pleased and comfortable with these arrangements. Families with joint custody engaged in much less re-litigation than families with sole custody arrangements. While not endorsing mandatory joint custody, the author concluded that it was reasonable to assume that joint custody at its best was superior to sole custody at its best.

In contrast, Kline, Tschann, Johnston and Wallerstein (1989), using a sample from a California county, found no significant differences between families with joint physical or sole custody arrangements.

In her review of some of these and other studies on joint custody, Lye (1999), who examined research on post-divorce parenting and child well-being for the State of Washington, concluded that the evidence suggests there are no significant advantages to children of joint physical custody. Neither does the evidence suggest significant disadvantages of joint physical custody or any other kind of post-divorce residential schedule.

2.4  Analysis and Conclusions

Stewart (2001: 11) argued that the above studies can be divided into four methodological types: psychometric evaluations, in which children whose parents have divorced are given a battery of tests to determine the link between divorce and the children's psychological profiles; longitudinal studies of large sample groups, in which all children in a geographical area are tested to draw a comparison between the profiles of children from divorced families and those from intact families; narrative studies, in which children are interviewed and describe how their parents' divorce affected them; and comparative studies, which compare the outcomes of children living in various custody/access arrangements.

Stewart noted the limitations of each of these types of studies:

A major difficulty with these types of research studies is the lack of consistent use of effective measurement tools. As a result, studies use a variety of measures, including psychometric tests and self-reporting. Similarly, samples are drawn from a variety of sources including large scale national surveys and small random samplings of clients who receive counselling... These disparities result in a research picture filled with inconsistencies and fluctuations with little accepted standards for replication... It tells us something is wrong, but the research is not sophisticated enough to be able to accurately list, from study to study, those precisely defined factors that contribute to negative outcomes for children (Stewart, 2001: 12).

Nonetheless, he concluded, despite these limitations, that these four types of research studies provide a picture of roughly defined risk factors that divorce sets off in families and that seem to lead to negative results for children (Stewart, 2001: 12-13). These risk factors include episodes of violence; ongoing inter-parental conflict and hostility; sudden and/or frequent moves of residence and schools; interruption of peer relationships; economic hardship; disruption of parenting routines and abilities, introduction of new adult partners; remarriage; loss of contact with the non-custodial parent; psychological maladjustment of one or more parents; and, loss of security and predictability. Collectively, these risk factors seem directly connected to a variety of negative outcomes for children. These include psychological disorders (depression and anxiety); feelings of sadness, loss and anger; under-achievement at school and in employment; social problems, including delinquent and deviant behaviour; a higher incidence of drug and alcohol abuse; poor parent-child relationships; and poor adult relationships, based on a lack of trust with a high incidence of early divorce.