Broken When Parents Split
It is 10:30PM on Sunday November 30, 2002 and Tom is driving his nineteen-year-old daughter Amy to Penn Station. She must return home tonight to her mother in Marlboro, New Jersey—his formerly stable residence. There is a tension permeated with sadness in the New York City air and both Tom and Amy are awaiting a painful moment. Tom initiates, "I’m sorry that this has been so hard on you." Amy’s anticipated tears begin to pour, "Daddy, don’t worry, I just miss you being home with me." Tom tries to fight his own tears, but loses in his attempt, "I’m sorry baby; I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry I haven’t gone to New Jersey to be with you. I’m sorry you’re so depressed. I’m sorry you’re stuck in the middle." Amy is now in hysterics, struggling to breath and speak simultaneously, "Daddy, I love you so much and I have always taken for granted the fact that you’ve been around and now you’re gone and it’s so hard without you. This is the first Thanksgiving we haven’t spent together in my entire life and I just, I just...really miss you." Tom tries to catch his breath, "But sweetie, I’m here; I’ll always be here; I’m never going to leave you. You and your sister are the most important things in my life and I need you to know that. Tell me you know that..."
Divorce, depression, distress: how can I overcome these barriers and develop into a normal human being? What is it about family dynamics that plays such a pivotal role in not only the development of the child, but also the development of the parental function? How and why can indirect influences, such as marital struggles, drastically manifest themselves in the development of children? Is it more beneficial for children to live in a conflict-ridden home or suffer the damage from divorce? Can divorce be the primary cause for the downfall of a child’s mental health? Can depression in a spouse be the source of marital discord or is it that two opposing child-rearing techniques lead parent who normally cooperate well with one another to state of incompatibility and conflict? Can seeking family therapy be a solution to such struggles or are these hurdles too high to surmount? What if finding a "go-between" is not always the answer and can genetic predispositions prevent a family from solving their conflicts? How does therapy help broken families overcome such traumatic situations? Is there hope for my family yet?
All these questions, although conceivably broad and vague, come to mind when analyzing the interactions between and situations encompassing my family members. During the past six months several drastic changes have occurred within my immediate family. My parents are currently struggling with a messy divorce, my sister is applying to residency schools to be an anesthesiologist, my mother has been increasingly depressed, my father has moved out, and I was prescribed the maximum dose of anti-depressants an individual can take. My Thanksgiving break was emotionally draining and psychologically disruptive since I had to balance, for the first time in my life, seeing both my mother and father separately suffer. With each increasing year of my life, my father came home later and later each evening from work and with this on her side, my mother became more and more involved in her children’s lives. My parents had not slept in the same room since I was six years old and they only communicated when necessary. I was living in a pseudo-divorced home for as long as I can remember. My sister remembers a time when my parents were in love, but I never had that opportunity. All I saw was an industrious, self-employed architect, lacking the ability to express his emotions while demonstrating his love indirectly through money, food, and other material objects, and an overly-involved mother who lacked a romantic partner and who sought remedy by serving her children. A persistent triad was then formed, not among mother, father, and child; but rather, a subsystem was created among my mother, my sister, and I—a situation detrimental to any family structure (Minuchin 291).
In the course of my adolescent years, I became immune to my parents’ marital struggles caused by cultural disparities and conflicting child-rearing techniques, convincing myself that I was not the least bit bothered by their forthcoming separation. I was almost happy that they were on their way to find individual happiness apart from each other and that the conflict-ridden home I had known for so all my life was approaching extinction. Now I realize how deeply I have been affected and how much I long for that pseudo-divorced home where I had easy access to both my mother and father, even if they did not present a united front or communicate with one another—a situation that Rothbaum and Dyer-Tarquino claim to bear extreme negative consequences (Rothbaum and Dyer-Tarquino 7). My parents’ stubbornness to adapt to one another’s child-rearing style damaged their partnership and their conflicting views in life emerged when they were faced with the task of raising children. This summer they ultimately decided that they had fallen out of love and were no longer able to cooperate as partners, lovers, or parents. This year was the first Thanksgiving that my father was not present—it was a rude awakening to my once-secure world.
Through a series of studies, Block has proved that marital concord results in greater social competence in children (Block et. al 965). Thus, it seems essentially important for parents to understand the roots of the differences and to try to find some acceptable middle ground. Rothbaum and Dyer-Tarquino suggest to further support this notion that "in well-functioning families, the parents often learn to regard their differences as strengths...parents need to learn how to support one another around their differences rather than to force each other to adopt styles which are alien to them" (Rothbaum and Dyer-Tarquino 10). However, this ideal situation of teamwork was not possible in actuality for my family. My parents’ beliefs and values have been implemented in their personality and lifestyle for all of their existence and it was their own inflexibility that their opposing parental techniques could not be permeated. Divorce was the only solution.
We take divorce so much for granted today that it is hard not to find someone who has been divorced or who has married someone who has been divorced or who has parents or relatives who have divorced. And we brush it off and say, "It doesn’t matter." But it does matter. Developmentalists affirm that children need to have both a mother and a father who will protect them, care for them, teach them, and guide their feet through darkness into a secure place. Spouses divorce each other, but they do not divorce their children. My parents are separating from each other, but they still need to serve their parental function. So the question arises: Is it more beneficial for a family to live in a home with an excessive amount of destructive arguing or is it healthier for spouses to divorce, leaving the children to develop in a single-parent home?
This controversy has been debated thoroughly and there is no single correct answer. For decades, since a pioneering study by Judith S. Wallerstein in 1971, sociologists and family-health specialists have posited that the wrenching act of divorce and its aftermath leave scars that can linger—in the afflicted children, throughout adolescence and into adulthood (Wallerstein and Kelly 257). Conversely, E. Mavis Hetherington declared that a conflict-ridden intact family is more deleterious to family members than a stable home situation in which parents are divorced. They also found that 75% to 80% of children of divorce are functioning well, with little long-term damage (Hetherington et. al 234). The claims have stirred my own personal debate over the delicate and brutal decision to end a marriage. While, I once believed that separation would be beneficial to my whole family, through actual experience and thorough examination, I have selfishly realized that I would rather have both of my parents accessible to me when I need them. Still, this is an impossible illusion.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has demonstrated that "children in families disrupted by divorce...do worse than children in intact families on several measures of well-being...Contrary to popular belief, many children do not "bounce back" after divorce or remarriage" (Whitehead 47). When I first read this article two months ago, I begged to differ with her perspective. Based on personal experience, I believed that I was an exception to the rule and that divorce was a healthier option for my sister’s and my welfare. However, subsequent to last weekend, I have accepted that I am part of a statistic—a child suffering the emotional, behavioral, and social ramifications of familial disruption. It was hard to admit being deeply affected by such a change, knowing that what contributed to my parents’ happiness, detracted from my developmental needs (Whitehead 58).
Although I am considered a young adult, I am neither exempt nor separated from my familial issues. For the longest time I have felt that I was an isolated entity from my conflict-ridden home and that I could develop into a mentally healthy human being without reaping the negative consequences of divorce. An observation by Wallerstein, as stated in Whitehead’s article, testifies that divorce "forever changes the lives of the people involved" and that the long-term effects can surface when young adults are seeking security and trying to form their own relationships (Whitehead 63). According to Wallerstein, my parents did the right thing by staying together until I was "out of the house"; however, following her research suggests that I will struggle to form my own relationships in the future (Kirn 77). Because I am a significant component in my family system, am fated to inherit the same issues my parents have?
No one is an island, according to the old saying, and so it should be recognized that no psychological problem is ever a purely individual problem. Therefore, as Virginia Satir proposes, any psychological distress felt by an individual has roots in family dynamics and even society at large (Satir 51). It has recently become clear to me that I am not secluded from or impervious to the "triadic" conflicts my family experiences. I am as integral to the family unit as my parents are and my individual issues are deeply embedded in my familial predicament; thus, my clinical depression, although biologically predisposed, largely stems from the environment in which I live. Patricia Minuchin suggests, in describing family structure, that "patterns in a system are circular rather than linear" (Minuchin 289). In the early part of the 20th century, the psychologist Carl Jung noted that children tend to live out the unconscious conflicts of their parents. And, as the Family Systems Theory teaches, all too often, either the children or the marital dissonance will be marked as a "problem" when really the entire family is locked into some dysfunctional pattern of interaction (Vuchinich et. al 1293). I am part of this cycle of interactions and thus, I am inescapably doomed to suffer the psychological problems that come with divorce. I am involved in this circular function and bidirectional relationship Richard Lerner explains and thus, I have as much of an effect on shaping a key source of my own development as my parents do (Lerner 7). So how do I go about avoiding all the emotionally destructive outcomes that are expected to emerge? I know that I am inevitably worse-off than children from two parent families. So how do I impede on my predestined struggles?
The trauma of divorce remains with children throughout their entire lives and changes and stresses experienced by family members in the years following divorce have a severe impact on the development of children (Hetherington et. al 235). The impact of divorce concludes that both mothers and fathers are important resources for children. They provide emotional support and practical assistance as well as serve as role models for their children. Sociologists and family-health specialists have posited that the wrenching act of divorce and its aftermath leave scars that can linger—in the afflicted children, throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Children react in so many negative ways to divorce, but perhaps the most painful is the depression that children sometimes experience during or after divorce. All of these facts have been proven by numerous studies and experiments, yet, none offer a solution to or a method to avoid these harsh repercussions of divorce.
The games that are played between parents during and after the divorce can become part of the past, but for the children harm to self esteem and self identity can be evident for quite some time. Divorce has affected me in my school environment, my peer environment, and my family structure. My family structure now takes on a new definition, differing greatly from the traditional or alleged nuclear family. Because divorce is a process, not an isolated event, the effects of the divorce may be cumulative and early intervention would have therefore been beneficial. However, neither my parents nor I realized the severe impact that it would have on my psychological status since I have always claimed that I was not affected. Nevertheless, the divorce between my parents has become highly emotional and has drawn my sister and me into the financial, emotional, and overall marital conflict, which weighs greatly on how my family members function separately and as a unit (Vuchinich et. al 1294).
The heart-ache my sister and I have experienced during the past six months is irreparable. We both have an enormous amount of empathy for my father and his recent loneliness, yet we greatly sympathize with our mother who has perpetually lacked a loving partner. With individual issues such as depression and with the non-existent communication between my mother and father, individual and family therapy seems essential in our case. Although my mother, sister, and I, all diagnosed with clinical depression, are currently seeking private therapeutic help, I know that this will not fully prevent my negative developmental issues. Thus, I propose a distinct type of divorce mediation treatment or family systems therapy. This nature of remedy may prevent my ill-fated emotional development and attachment quality formation and will help my parents work out a positive divorce strategy.
Such an intervention strategy would only benefit our attempt to realign the nuclear family we once had with a key change: the absence of my father. Peggy Papp would suggest family choreography to highlight the fundamental aspects of the family dynamic (Papp 466). With this method, what would become clear is the tension between my mother, Nancy, and my father, Tom, in their battle to win the affection of my sister, Meri, and I. According to Satir, my mother would be considered the accuser, my father, the irrelevant one, my sister, the rational one, and I, the placater. In solving such issues, it is important to break the homeostatic patterns that prevent each member of the family from functioning as a unit (Hoffman 501). According to Erickson and Hogan, this would be considered a technique that "explores and attempts to shift the balance of pathogenic relating among family members so that new forms of relating become possible" (Erickson and Hogan 71). Because the primary conflict is marital discord, to realign my family structure Nancy and Tom must re-enter the act of communication by participating in a form of divorce mediation. Divorcing couples, such as my parents, usually assume that there must be conflict between them. Often there is. Thus, my parents who have reached an angry impasse can benefit from divorce mediation which avoids finding fault and fixing blame. Instead, it could be an educational process. My mother and father could objectively analyze their needs and resources and by planning together, with the assistance of the mediator, they will be able to reach an agreement that\'s best financially, legally, and emotionally for the whole family. But it grows more complex than this...
Individual issues and contextual forces present crucial barriers to such a simplistic remedy. My mother’s depression stems from her lack of ability to independently support the financial needs of her children and my father is stubbornly bitter towards my mother’s disposal of him. All four of us have our own issues and we cannot operate as the interdependent family that Minuchin portrays (Minuchin 291). As of now, the dynamics of my family are far from normal, but I have yet to believe that they can be stabilized. It takes more than divorce-counseling, more than individual therapy, more than family therapy, and more than a devoted effort by each member of the family to reform the relationships within my family. It is a collaboration of these techniques that will allow my family to cooperate as a unit and as a system. Yet, I understand that this solution is not as important to the rest of my family as it is to me; thus, I will discontinue my attempts to delve into such an impractical delusion. My mother, sister and father each have their own schedules and their own problems and they see such a resolution as a lost cause...an idealized fantasy.
Where will I find the support I need to continue my emotional, social, and personal development? From my resilient and deep-seeded love with each individual member of my family. It has become clear to me that I can avoid the harsh effects of divorce by building on and fostering the relationships I have with my mother, father, and sister. With this awareness, I have come to appreciate the amount of support and love I have received from each person in my family and that makes all the difference. The person I am, the individual I strive to be, and my lifelong hopes and dreams are all factors that have been influenced by the multifaceted relationships I have formed with the society, culture, and family in which I was raised. Because I was brought up in a multiracial environment with many types of influences and customs, each of my parents brought unique aspects to my life to cultivate my development.
In accordance with Melvin L. Kohn’s findings, my parents’ values were always ‘developmental’: they wanted my sister and I "to be eager to learn, to love and confide in their parents, to be happy, to share and cooperate, and to be healthy and well" (Kohn 94). Thus, the indirect effects of their marital discord were negated by their connectedness with their children, their constant and positive encouragement, and their continuous warmth and attention. As supported in Rothbaum and Dyer-Tarquino’s article, it is not the amount of time spent that is important, but rather the quality of time. "The critical factors are your availability when your child needs you—either emotionally or behaviorally—and your management of the home" (Rothbaum and Dyer-Tarquino 18). I have always valued the time I have spent with my parents and they have always put their children’s needs before their own in any situation, displaying their unconditional love. However, diverging from Diana Baumrind’s claim that "the parent who expressed love unconditionally is encouraging the child to be selfish and demanding", I took this love as a symbol of reliability and security and I will take it with me when I form my own romantic relationships (Baumrind 278). Furthermore, each of my parents adopted the most advantageous parenting style, as applied to Baumrind’s findings. My mother and father were both authoritative parents, demonstrating positively on all dimensions of child-rearing roles (Maccoby 1010) . The unavoidable divorce has caused a recent change in my family system and the stability maintained has been broken. It is true that I grieve from the loss, but I am still confident in myself and I know that the relationships I have with each member of my family will not falter.
Although I suffer from a psychological disorder, I do not believe that I am inevitably doomed for failure. Yes, I may suffer many of the negative consequences of divorce, but I believe that my family, even if highly dysfunctional, has given me the strength to defeat these effects. I can depend on my sister for anything and everything; she is a best friend and a lifelong soul mate. She has helped "shape [me] through the unique environment she created" (Klagsburn 22). Because my sister and I had extremely similar experiences as children, she always defended me, indicating the common bond that we had. Our sibling relationship is what Francine Klagsbrun would describe as "intimate." We are deeply devoted to each other and we will always support and defend one another because, as Klagsburn states, "sisters form the closest and tightest bonds with their sisters" (Klagsbrun 296). By showing us the meaning of family, my parents fostered these relationships in us, even though they were struggling with their own. As Gene H. Brody contends, "positive parent-child relationships are hypothesized to contribute to the development of prosocial orientations among siblings" (Brody 7). Therefore, I have safely concluded that my parent-child relations were developmentally beneficial in many ways. Although my family system is far from normal and such a deviance predicts harmful results for children, the relationships I have and the values and lessons I have learned have helped to defy this prediction that society has for me. Family therapy may greatly benefit interplay of our individual relationships; but, nevertheless, I am battling this trauma and I am succeeding. It is, thus, my belief that the overall quality of the parent-child relationship is more important than any other developmental factor in a child’s life. In the anecdote beginning this paper, my father asks me if I know that his children are the most important thing in his life. Well, I know and it is this knowledge that has allowed me to thrive from this life-altering event. Instilled in me are the morals and values that my parent’s possess and I feel emotionally prepared and able to face any given situation. Someday I hope impart these beliefs to my children and to give the constant love and attention that my parents gave to me, even in times of struggle and strife.
1. Baumrind. Some Thoughts about Childrearing.
2. Block. Personality Development of Males and Females. The Influence of Differential Socialization.
3. Brody. Sibling Relationship Quality. Its Causes and Consequences.
4. Erickson and Family Therapy.
5. Hetherington. The Aftermath of Divorce.
6. Hoffman. Breaking the Homeostatic Cycle.
7. Kirn. Should you Stay Together for the Kids?
8. Kohn. Social Class and Parent-Child Relationships: An Interpretation.
9. Klagsburn. Mixed Feelings: Love, Hate, Rivalry, and Reconciliation among Brothers and Sisters.
10. Lerner. Parent Rearing: How Children Influence their Parents’ Development
11. Maccoby. Child Rearing Practices and Their Effects.
12. Minuchin. Families and Individual Development: Provocations from the Field of Family Therapy.
13. Papp. Family Choreography.
14. Rothbaum and Beyond Parent and Child: The Family System.
15. Satir. You as a Change Agent.
16. Vuchinich. Family Members as Third Parties in Dyadic Family Conflict: Strategies, Alliances, and Outcomes.
17. Wallerstein The Effects of Parental Divorce: Experiences of the Child in Later Latency.
18. Whitehead. Dan Quayle Was Right.