To Divorce or Not to Divorce?
An Interview with Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll
I distinctly remember from my childhood every friend whose parents went through a divorce. I remember growing up hoping that I would never do that to my kids. But now, as an adult, with friends divorcing their spouses – I have a different perspective. I understand an adult’s need for love and understanding and leaving a partnership where there is none. But I wonder: how do people come to these decisions? When do they determine that they’re at their “end” and how often is that end mutual? Can children ever benefit from a parent’s divorce – because we rarely hear of that. We put these questions to Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Psychologist, divorce specialist, and bestselling author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive Through Divorce and she answered some of our questions.
– Abbie Schiller, CEO, The Mother Company
Interview by Julia Storm, Director of Production, The Mother Company
How does a couple know when it’s really time to divorce vs. getting help from a marriage counselor? Are there telltale signs?
Most couples benefit from professional help with a qualified marital therapist when there are recurring problems that do not resolve with time and effort. Even if they ultimately decide to divorce, it’s helpful for couples to know that they tried to work out their differences, and didn’t come to the decision to end the marriage impulsively, without careful thought to the consequences. Unfortunately, one of the major challenges to intervening early enough to salvage a marriage is the “delay” problem. Couples who realize that their marriage is in trouble wait an average of 6 years before seeking help. By that time, at least one partner has already begun to disengage emotionally, and it may be too late to recapture the positive feelings that brought them together. There is an important window of opportunity for couples in the early stage of marital distress to address troublesome issues, deepen intimacy and strengthen their relationship. However, when there is intimate partner violence, it’s really time to divorce . Separating from an abusive partner is an important step for everyone’s safety and well being, especially when children are involved.
When is it worth ‘sticking it out’ in the marriage?
Many factors need to be considered. Too often, couples begin to talk about divorce during stressful times, such as when their children are very young. Marital satisfaction tends to be lower when children are young and place heavy demands on parents’ time and attention. Often the couple’s relationship is moved to the back burner while the demands of jobs, parenting, maintaining a household and finances take priority. It’s important for couples with young children to understand that this is often a stressful time in a marriage, but worth sticking it out, because studies show that marital satisfaction increases as children get older.
A major study done at the University of Virginia revealed that many couples had major misgivings after ending their marriage. For a significant number of people, there was lingering regret about the decision they had made; many wished they had “stuck it out.”One year after the divorce, at least one partner in 75% of divorced couples had second thoughts about their decision to divorce. They confided to the researchers, if not each other, that perhaps they should have worked harder at the marriage, and they expressed regret over the path they chose. Put another way, it’s well worth asking how irreconcilable the differences are. If partners are engaged in intense conflict or violence, divorce offers greater safety and a release from a toxic situation. But only a minority of all divorces have such high levels of conflict. These low conflict marriages have the greatest potential for working things out or reconciliation. Tough times are inevitable in any relationship.The key question is whether there are greater benefits in investing in the hard work to make the marriage stronger or leaving it behind and starting anew.
How does staying together in a bad marriage “for the sake of the kids” really affect children?
If “bad marriage” means on-going conflict, abusive behavior, violence or untreated substance abuse—the impact on children is clearly negative. When children are exposed to violence and witness prolonged, intense conflict between their parents, they are at a higher risk for social, emotional and behavior problems. They tend to do worse in school and have more problems getting along with peers and adults. Not only are children affected psychologically, their physical health is impacted by exposure to intense conflict. Studies show that the stress hormone cortisol is elevated in children exposed to on-going conflict, suppressing their immune system and leaving children more prone to physical illness. On-going conflict between parents also affects children indirectly by decreasing adults’ capacity to be effective parents. When parents are stressed in their marriage, they are less likely to be warm and responsive with their children, and to set limits on inappropriate behavior. Ultimately, children learn what they live. If they observe the abusive, disrespectful ways that parents are treating each other, they begin to model these behaviors and internalize them as a pattern of relating over time. When children are witnessing prolonged intense conflict between their parents, divorce actually reduces their stress.
Can divorce ever prove beneficial for children? How?
Studies show that when divorce results in a more peaceful family life, with a reduction in conflict and more stability for children, long term outcomes for children are better than for children who remain in high conflict family environments. My book, Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce highlights factors that helps to foster children’s resilience. When children have high quality parenting, protection from on-going conflict, supportive relationships with parents and positive adult role models, there are opportunities for growth, maturity and resilience to flourish. Parents can foster children’s resilience by explaining family changes in age appropriate ways, teaching problem solving and coping skills, understanding and managing emotions, expressing empathy, and by giving children a message of hope and confidence. A supportive relationship with caring adults is an essential contributor to children’s resilience. With these important factors in place, children can not only survive, but thrive after divorce.
What are some of the strains (financial, social, emotional) that men and women can expect after a divorce? Is it different for men/women?
There are enormous stresses and strains associated with the process of a divorce. Some researchers estimate that divorce is second only to death of a spouse in terms of the stressful nature of the changes and the amount of time needed to adjust. The process that separating couples go through is markedly different for the leaver and the one being left. We know that 4 out of 5 divorces are not mutual. The person who does not want the divorce may be at a very different point emotionally than the one who initiated the break-up. There is a natural grieving process that occurs for the losses that divorce entails. Separating partners may be on different emotional timetables as they grieve the loss of a dream they once had for their marriage. The losses are palpable and profound: loss of a former lover, partner, friend, loss of identity and role as a married person, financial losses, changes in social contacts and friendships. All of these changes highlight the importance of seeking support and help, perhaps from a qualified mental health professional while going through these changes. Getting help when needed, is a sign of strength, not weakness. In the long run it can make a major difference in lifelong positive changes.
What social/emotional repercussions can we expect for children immediately following a divorce? Do you have any tips for ways to soothe a child who is hurting?
Nearly all children experience distress in the early stages of a separation. Depending on their age, most children experience some emotional reactions. Sadness, anger, resentment, worry, confusion, fears, concerns about their future—in short, “what’s going to happen to me?” These are universal reactions for children of all ages. Guilt, fears of abandonment and regression are frequent early reactions, especially in young children. Older children and teens may act out in anger, or struggle with loyalty conflicts and get caught in the middle of adult issues, to their own detriment.
My book, Putting Children First, gives a detailed account of the many hidden emotions that children experience, but seldom tell their parents. How well children fare during and after a divorce depends largely on how parents handle changes and create quality of life for their children over time. There are so many ways that parents can help to soothe children’s distress, including:
- Tell and show children you love them. Repeat often. Reassure children that the love you have for them will never end—and then back it up with your behavior. Children crave parents’ physical expressions of affection along with words of love, encouragement and reassurance.
- Prepare children for changes. Begin by telling them about what will and will not change for them as a result of the divorce. “Telling” is not a one-time event. Continue the conversation over time, as family changes continue to occur. An open line of communication is a lifeline for children, especially during turbulent times.
- Strengthen your relationship with your children. Do not allow your divorce from your former partner to become a divorce from your children or your role as their parent. Create frequent, regular, one-on-one time with each child. Use play and other enjoyable activities to build closer emotional bonds and express your love and reassurance. Noticing and expressing appreciation for your children’s positive behaviors and acts of kindness creates good will that fuels hope, optimism, and loving relationships.
- Help your children identify their emotions, and respond with empathy. Children often hide their real feelings about a divorce, but by listening carefully, you can help them to explore, understand, and label their emotions. Neuroscience research has shown that labeling emotions has powerful therapeutic effects in the brain. Your empathy for what they are experiencing also helps children cope with powerful feelings.
- Contain conflict. On-going conflict is poisonous for children, emotionally, socially and physically, and it erodes positive parenting. Never let your children witness violent or hostile behavior or hear you denigrate your former partner. Avoid putting your children in the middle of your problems or creating situations where they feel they must choose between their parents.
- Share parenting, if it is safe to do so. Your children benefit from two responsible parents. Reframe your relationship with your former spouse as a “business” partnership whose sole focus is your children’s well-being. Use legal options and experienced therapists to help you and your former partner keep your children’s needs a top priority and create effective parenting plans.
- Support and encourage your child’s safe and healthy relationship with both parents. Nurture your children’s healthy relationship with their other parent. When problems arise between them, help your children discuss it respectfully and help them find ways to ease their distress and learn to problem-solve. Do not burden children with adult problems that contribute to loyalty conflicts and alliances with one parent at the expense of a healthy relationship with the other.
- Focus on what is in your control and strive for consistent, quality parenting.
Research shows that warmth, nurturing and empathy along with effective and consistent discipline, rules and limits are related to better adjustment for children and teens. Children need and want consistent limits in both of their homes. Knowing how they are expected to behave gives children a sense of control over their own behavior and their lives. They feel a basic sense of trust and security, even as they learn new skills within a loving structure. Provide household structure, routine and traditions that children enjoy—including family time together. Reducing the number of major changes in a child’s life and having consistent structure at home helps children to feel safer and more secure when their lives have changed dramatically. Regular bedtimes, meals together, limits on “screen time”, and plenty of quality time as a family are all factors that have proven to positively influence better social and emotional adjustment.
Is there a ‘silver lining’ after divorce?
Absolutely–there certainly can be. The most rewarding part of my work is witnessing adults and children who come through family changes not just surviving but thriving. Their success is testimony to the power of people who had the courage to manage their own strong emotions, embrace a spirit of forgiveness, hope and healing, and keep their children’s needs a top priority. Divorce is often thought of as a life crisis. As with any crisis, there is risk– but there are also opportunities for personal growth and positive change. And yes, there is the opportunity for a deeper understanding of ourselves, and even new enduring love.
Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll is a clinical psychologist and child specialist with 30 years of experience working with children and families. She is the developer of award-winning programs used worldwide for children and families. Dr. Carroll is an advisor to Sesame Street’s Resilience Project and a frequent guest speaker on parenting, resilience and family matters. Her best-selling book, Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive Through Divorce is the winner of the National Association of Parenting Publications (NAPPA) Gold Award and the Mom’s Choice Awards.
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