A then groundbreaking 25 year study published in 2004, which followed 131 children after their parents divorced makes some bold suggestions which many will view as controversial.

Its central conclusion is that parental divorce negatively impacts a child’s ability to love and be loved within a lasting relationship.

Its key findings  include:

  • The economic implications of divorce often left parents scrambling to earn income, which meant less time spent with their children. As a result, children felt neglected during periods of their childhood when they needed their parents most
  • Children’s views of relationships were affected: they took the view that personal relationships were unreliable, no matter how much contact they had with each parent
  • Loneliness and fear of abandonment were significantly increased in the children who took part in the study
  • A strong concern for separated parents and who would take care of those parents also featured
  • Children were able to vividly recall scenes of violence between their parents, and being abandoned by a particular parent 
  • Children as young as four or five could not remember specific scenes of violence, but appeared to have ongoing nightmares which featured violence
  • Very few children of divorce in the study felt they had a happy childhood. Older siblings took on a parental role, taking care of siblings and needy parents, but were proud of their ability to cope.
  • Children who had to take on such responsibilities developed moral values and compassion at an early age. Those who took on too much lost out on their childhood and important aspects of their social development.
  • As teenagers, many reported feeling alone and having to take care of themselves
  • Children in the study played parents off each other, and there was more ‘acting out’ in these family units
  • 1 in 5 of the girls in the study had a sexual experience before the age of 14 – however sex was not the goal, rather the price these girls felt they needed to pay in order to be ‘held’ by a man and feel significant. 
  • Parenting in each home differed widely, with little consistency
  • Whilst fathers had higher paying jobs than mothers in the main, only one third of fathers offered support for college expenses, despite there being regular and positive contact
  • Two thirds of mothers offered support for college expenses

Much has happened since 2004, and even more research exists which tells us that divorce is much more nuanced in its effect on children than we imagined, with genes and personality traits playing a role in how kids are impacted, but this study is interesting for the number of issues it highlights, many of which may still ring true today.

There is no doubt that divorce does create obstacles, but it would be wrong to think that conventional family units don’t have problems of their own. Togetherness is not always a sign of harmony, or a peaceful home. Many children live in ‘whole’ family units because the parents don’t feel they can separate, whether for emotional or financial reasons. Some children will witness ongoing abuse and violence in a conventional home. In short, it is not divorce that’s the problem, it’s how we handle life’s challenges, and what we teach our children.

Many thanks to Sabine, a dedicated McKenzie Friend who goes beyond the call of duty for the families she assists, for sharing this study with us.