Let me start by answering the question directly anyway. No. Divorce does not always damage children. In many cases, mainly where there have been high levels of conflict, both adults and children are better off out, especially in the immediate aftermath. It’s easy to see why. Mum and dad regularly have a go at one another creating a toxic environment at home. Divorce brings relief from stress.
For many however, divorce does damage children, especially where the parents had relatively low levels of conflict. We have some of our own pending research from a big UK survey showing that the vast majority of couples, married and unmarried, are not at each other’s throats just before they split.
But there are two main reasons why the break up of parents might matter.
The first is simply fewer resources. After a split, it’s hard to adjust lifestyles to take into account two households rather than one. The consequence is that many or most lone parents end up dependent on benefits. Recent figures from DWP and ONS suggest some 63% of lone parents receive housing benefit compared to 10% of couple parents. Less income, less support and less time is bound to have a knock-on effect on children because it affects the parents. Understandably, lone parents can either become more authoritarian or end up overcompensating by being too laisser faire. That doesn’t happen to all lone parents but it happens enough to know that parenting style accounts for some of the reason why kids often – but definitely not always – do worse in lone parent families. So lack of resources puts pressure on the lone parent which can then have a knock-on effect on children.
The second is the way children perceive divorce very differently from the parents. To the parents the reason for the split is obvious. But it’ may not be to the kids. One day mum and dad are at home, mostly getting on fine, maybe a bit of bickering or a bit of a sour atmosphere, but not the end of the world. The next day they have split up. What on earth happened? Was it me? Or is that how relationships are? They just go pop for no apparent reason? That kind of thinking can sabotage the way children think about relationships when they become adults themselves.
When parents then get on fine after the divorce, it can become even more confusing for the children. Why on earth couldn’t you make it work, parents? That’s why the whole idea of cooperative parenting makes so little difference to children. It’s how they perceive the divorce that matters, not how the parents think they perceive it.
The superb interviewer this morning – Caroline Martin at BBC West Midlands, who has given me permission to repeat this – had a fascinating example of both ends of this experience. She told how she was fifteen when her own parents split up. After an idyllic upbringing, her parents split and subsequent acrimony came as a terrible shock to her. She vowed never to bring this on her own children. Alas, as an adult, her own marriage later fell apart. She then tried to compensate for the awfulness of her parents post-divorce ill-will by going out of her way to stay friends with her ex-husband and children’s father. With remarkable honesty, she told how it ended up confusing her own children. You can get on OK now, they were thinking. Why not before?
There are no easy answers to this. But I have two things to conclude.
If you are currently struggling in your own relationship and wonder what to do, please read my letter to struggling couples. It’s full of practical advice about how there is always hope even when it seems so far away. I know. I’ve been on the brink myself.
If you have split up, then don’t assume that getting on with your ex will have the positive effect on your children that it probably does for you. Your children may well see the split very differently to you. And that’s OK. The biggest gift you can give them is to acknowledge that that they feel differently. That doesn’t mean you have to wallow in guilt. What’s done is done and you must be free to live your own life even if your children are still dealing with it. You can love them most by acknowledging their hurt.