It may seem like you’re divorcing to get away from conflict, and that may be true. But divorce has a tendency to escalate conflict, at least in the short term, and especially for the child. The kids often end up getting drawn into the conflict more so than they would normally. They are asked to pick a parent to live with. They may be inadvertently (as well as blatantly) asked to choose sides between one parent and the other. They may be used as a pawn in the parents’ battle against each other. They’re often used as a go-between, and exposed to scornful messages about one parent or the other. Even in best case scenarios divorce creates both internal and external conflict for the child. It can also result in many secondary conflicts down the road.
Physical or domestic violence can also be a common experience of the divorcing family, with the child as a witness. Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee write that of the cases they’ve studied, “when the final crisis arrived and the parents decided to divorce, some form of physical violence erupted in over half of the families in this study.” (2000, p. 110) Physical fighting tends to be scarier for a child to witness, and can leave a lasting impression.
Conflict is a major component in the harm that comes to children from any type of abuse, so it’s key to try and limit it as much as possible. From conflict comes social and psychological injury. It’s such a potent factor that research shows merely exposing children to family conflict can cause just as much damage as abusing them directly. (Perry, 1997; Hygge & Ohman, 1978)
The Mediators: When it comes to divorce conflict
- HOW nasty does it get? Parents who want to fight, be angry and bitter with each other, or bicker in front of the kids might as well be abusing them directly. Divorce is conflict, so some things can’t be altogether avoided. But the childish, nasty behavior that is all too common for parents to engage in can destroy their children in the process.
- The extent to which parents use the kids as a weapon against each other matters. The more parents draw the children into the conflict or the more they utter disparaging remarks about the other parent in front of the children, the more damage the kids will endure.
- The dating habits of parents after the divorce matter, as well as any future step-family arrangements. Each of these arrangements brings another adult and parental figure into the equation, which requires a life-adjustment and tends to create conflict, especially among older children. It takes an average of up to 2 or 3 years for children to fully adjust to a new family arrangement. (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980; Stanley-Hagan & Anderson, 1898) So each family transition takes its toll. If a parent has a new live-in boyfriend every 12 months, children may end up in a constant state of transition, turmoil and conflict in their environment.