The question of divorce, and its effects on children is interesting and complicated. First of all, it’s important to remember that throughout most of human history, formal divorce as we currently define it, was not a frequent occurrence because of the strong religious and societal pressures on families to stay together.
At the same time, most people had some familiarity with what we would today call “broken” and “blended” families. For one thing, the lifespan was shorter. Many women died in their teens and twenties from childbirth or from the effects of childbirth, and both men and women succumbed early to infectious diseases and trauma.
Men who could afford to, remarried second and third wives. Widows sent their children away to live with other family members, or moved in with relatives. Throughout all of this, children were raised by stepmothers, stepfathers, aunts, uncles, big sisters, brothers, and grandparents.
Divorce has never been much of an issue prior to recent history for another reason. Until the last century or two (and only in the Western world), marriage has been seen as an economic transaction and as a means of continuing the family lineage, not as a source of romantic and personal fulfillment.
The economic realities of trying to survive, say, as a struggling peasant family in the Middle Ages, or as a weaver in a small African village, has meant that men and women stayed together because a team effort was the best way of surviving a harsh existence, whether or not their deepest yearnings for love were being fulfilled. (And what do those kind of yearnings mean anyway when you are hungry and your children are hungry?) In those instances where a couple was truly unhappy, a wife might move back to her parents’ home, or a husband might move away to a different village and live with distant relatives. A formal divorce would rarely take place.
Now, of course, things are different. We live much longer than we ever did, and in better health. Women can make reproductive choices. Economic conditions in the developed countries are such that people can live alone and provide sufficient food and shelter for themselves — and more importantly, can focus on their internal satisfactions.
This means that couples often do not have to stay together if they do not want, to or if they are unhappy together. And as most of us know, the divorce rate in this country hovers steadily at around 50 percent.
What are the effects of divorce on children in current American society? Again, like with my earlier comments, the operative word is “context.” In the context of a highly volatile or abusive marital relationship, where a child cannot experience any sense of safety or stability, it is clearly better for the long-term mental and physical health of the child if the parents separate. But, in the context of a marriage in which the parents are moderately unhappy and “unfulfilled” together, but are able to provide a stable, consistent and supportive home for their children, divorce is almost always problematic for the child (even if it leads to a sense of improvement for the parents).
This is because divorce rocks the foundations of the child’s world and dismantles the stable, consistent, supportive home they have been used to. It is also true that when parents divorce, they go through a period of time where they are so preoccupied by the divorce that they often neglect the emotional needs of their children.
Children who have been in stable families where the parents were not always happy, but where the parents stayed together do not show the same long-term effects. Some of this can be mitigated if the divorcing parents can work together and stay focused on the child’s needs.