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Divorce during childhood has long-term consequences for adult life, particularly with respect to socioeconomic attainment and emotional well-being.”

– Cherlin, Kiernan & Chase-Lansdale (2011, p. 2)

The lingering effects of divorce don’t automatically end once a child turns eighteen. In fact, divorce researchers often comment that “it’s in adulthood that children of divorce suffer the most.” This is because “the impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, p. 299) Of course, the emotional scars left by a poorly handled divorce may always be present. But there are a few other key ways in which the divorce can continue to exert its influence on a child’s life even well into adulthood.

Adult children of divorce frequently struggle in their own relationships

Parents may not realize it, but the relationship style they model for children at home will end up imprinting their kids with a pattern that tends to repeat itself later. Whatever unhealthy style of relating to each other – or the destructive ways of negotiating conflicts – can become the child’s own mode of operation, especially when they have no other models to go by. Beyond this, the emotional memory of the divorce can create its own issues. When a relationship hits a rough patch, as every relationship will at some point, it often sets off a cascade of catastrophic beliefs that will bring these childhood fears rushing back: love is an illusion, commitment doesn’t last, people will up and abandon you at any moment, this argument could be the beginning of the end, and so on. Often times, such ideas turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy, creating behavior that drives others away.

It’s not just relationship patterns from the divorce that matter, but what comes afterwards. Does either parent remarry? How many times? Do they take on cohabiting partners? Do they sleep around? A child’s observations of these additional relationships will shape their own habits in the future. This is why, as adults, children of divorce show measurable differences in things like having their own marriage end in divorce, experiencing problems in interpersonal relationships, having out-of-wedlock births, or even their attitude towards having kids at all.

Adult children of divorce tend to have poorer relationships with parents

Adult children of divorce have lower quality relationships with their parents later in life. (Lye, 1996) This is because divorce so often leads to parental estrangement, either when one parent takes off or because they slowly become involved in a new family and start to lose connection with their kids from the previous marriage. It also happens that what transpires during divorce damages the bond that children feel with their parents. The hurt feelings can create emotional distance, and so even if parents remain involved, they may not have as close of a connection with their children.

Adult children of divorce receive less support

In the Wallerstein study, which compared children from divorced families side by side with their whole-family peers who grew up in the same neighborhoods with the same middle-class parents, it was found that less than 30% of youngsters from divorced families received any type of consistent support for college, compared with almost 90% of those kids from intact families. (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 249) Because college is so often an important factor in success in a capitalistic society such as ours, this can have severe implications on the entire trajectory of a child’s future.

It’s also emblematic of more serious issues surrounding support in general: children of divorce are less likely to receive financial and social support in their adult life, largely due to the way it disrupts their family, estranges many from their parents, and often leaves each parent less financially secure.

Adult children of divorce are less likely to provide their own parents with support

Children who receive less support are also less inclined to give it. I’m reminded of the classic song “Cats in the Cradle,” about the man who never seems to have time for his son, and then, after growing old, suddenly finds himself in the position of desiring to be in his son’s life, yet dealing with an adult child who is now too busy to find time for his father. Whatever neglect or mistakes occur during divorce, parent’s can pay a price for it later.

An analysis of data reveals that widowed parents receive more than twice as much financial assistance from children during their golden years as do elderly parents from divorced families. (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000) One adult woman describes why children of divorce might be so reluctant to provide assistance to their parents later in life: “My parents are getting old, My father is getting frail and my mother needs special attention from time to time. But I still feel so much anger because of their neglect of my feelings over more than 25 years. I am hardly capable of giving the attention that I would normally give. And when I do take care of them, it is without any pleasure at all, only a sense of duty.” (ibid)

Taken together, all these things show that the moderators of a divorce poorly handled don’t stop exerting their influence once a child turns eighteen, but can continue wreaking havoc well into the future.

Potential moderators:

A) Obviously, the biggest factor is ensuring both parents stay actively involved in their children’s life, and that they continue the same degree of support even after remarriage. If this does not happen, then it’s up to the remaining parent to find ways to fill the gaps in this support.

B) The type of relationship you maintain with your former spouse also matters. If the two of you are civil and get along and can remain friends and still come together to participate in the lives of your children, this goes a long way towards making children feel as though they are supported. But if you two fight and don’t get along, if children feel as though they have to walk on eggshells and diplomatically keep you apart to prevent World War 3 from breaking out, it vastly diminishes their perception of you as support figures in their lives.

C) Parents need to find a way to ensure their kids are taken care of and have assistance for college. Your children should always be considered the closest and most permanent family you have, not a burdensome obligation that ceases to exist once they turn 18. Especially in this more difficult economic climate, family needs to support each other, even into adulthood.

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