Is it divorce or parental discord that most damages children? Answers are finally coming in!

A recent article by marriage and family therapist Ruth Bettelheim has much to say on this topic that is both relevant and, quite surprising for many. That’s because she refutes common misconceptions about divorce and addresses the real issues of concern.

According to Bettelheim, “Studies conducted in the past 20 years have shown that on all meaningful measures of success — social, economic, intellectual and psychological — most adult children from divorced families are no worse off than their peers whose parents remained married.”

Researchers have found two explanations for this, notes Bettelheim. “Children who have to cope with their parents’ separation and post-divorce lives often grow resilient, self-reliant, adaptable and independent. And children benefit from escaping the high-conflict environment of a rocky marriage. After their parents’ separation, as conflicts fade, children recover.”

There is much to consider in those last two sentences. Children actually benefit from being out of high-conflict homes! In fact, studies show that it is “sustained family conflict that actually causes children to experience the kinds of problems that are usually attributed to divorce: low self-esteem, depression, high anxiety, difficulty forming relationships, delinquency and withdrawal from the world.”

Bettelheim goes on to say, “Given that reducing family conflict is good for children, the best way to protect them during divorce would be to minimize the acrimony of the proceedings.”

That is the foundation of a child-centered divorce. My supporters and I have long contended that it is not divorce per se but the way parents handle divorce that harms their children. From time to time I am contacted by emotionally charged parents who are vehemently “anti-divorce.” While they acknowledge I am well-meaning in my efforts, they point their finger at divorced parents and blame them unequivocally for destroying their children’s lives.
In reality, life is not black and white, nor are the consequences of divorce. While I certainly do not advocate divorce as a solution to marital discord, in many cases it’s a saner solution than living together in a toxic marriage.

I speak from experience when I say this because I am a child of parents who should have divorced – and didn’t. The emotional scarring I experienced is basically the same as felt by children of parents who make damaging divorce mistakes. The insecurity, lack of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sadness, guilt and shame I carried through my childhood were the consequences of parents so caught up in their emotional drama they had little awareness of what their turmoil was creating for their children.

Divorced or not, when we make decisions that that don’t take children’s fragile psyches into account, the outcome is painful for those children!

Bettelheim makes a strong case for divorce mediation as a resource to keep parents from making destructive, vindictive decisions about custody and child support. She’s totally right. She ends her piece saying, “In an adversarial custody battle, no one wins, but children are the biggest losers of all. Intelligent legislation could promote the one thing that children of divorce need most: peace between their parents.”

The truth is, all children need and deserve peace between their parents. Let’s focus less on judgmental, self-righteous finger-pointing and more on educating all parents about harmonious, effective parenting – and we’ll all be better off!

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Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is the author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook™ Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! Acclaimed by divorce professionals, the book provides fill-in-the-blank templates that guide parents in creating a family storybook with personal photographs as an ideal way to break the news. For more details, a free ezine, articles, coaching and other resources visit //