Painful Legacy of Adult Children of Divorce



Little Johnny is all grown up. He holds an executive
position at a topnotch company, has a busy social
life, and volunteers at the local YMCA. But, Johnny’s
relationships tend to be superficial and short-term.
He doesn’t let anyone get too close for fear of being
rejected or abandoned. He would rather cut the
relationship short before the fun runs out and all
seriousness sets in within the relationship. Yet, he
goes to counseling once a week to complain about how
he wants the perfect relationship, settle down and get
married and maybe have a couple of kids and a dog. He
continues to blame his parent’s divorce for why he
can’t move forward in his life.

Meanwhile, Jenny’s inner-child continues to haunt her
throughout every aspect of her life, not just
relationships. She is divorced from an abusive first
husband, with two small children to raise and she also
deals with low self-esteem, addiction to cigarettes
and food, as well as falling for the wrong guys over
and over again. Yet, she longs for the kind of
relationship she heard about in fairy tales as a
little girl. Will she pass the legacy of divorce to
her children or break the cycle before it’s too late?

These scenarios are only two examples of the adults
whose lives were destroyed as children from their
parents divorce. Drugs, alcohol, and fear of intimacy
are only a sampling of the problems adult children of
divorce carry with them throughout their lives.

With one divorce for every marriage these days, one
might wonder how this affects children today and how
divorce will continue to affect them as they grow up
and establish relationships of their own. How
traumatic is divorce on children? Or are they able to
be resilient and bounce back as society has suggested
throughout the years?

Until recently, both society and the legal system
really didn’t have any proof how divorce can affect
children into adulthood. Since the no-fault divorce
law was passed in 1969 by Ronald Reagan when he was
governor of California, divorce rates have soared to
equal almost 50 percent to all marriages. Census
Bureau statistics for divorces in 2000 averaged at 43
percent. This also means that close to 50 percent of
children are living in single-parent households.
According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the number of
single mothers increased between 1970 and 2000, from 3
million to 10 million. Over this same time frame, the
number of single fathers increased also, from 393,000
to 2 million. Presently, there are more than a
quarter of America’s children now living with one
Courts are seeing more damage from divorce taking a
toll on children, including parents who use their
children as pawns against the other parent, confusing
the child. Some courts now order parents to attend
“Children in the Middle” counseling sessions before
the divorce can take place. Although these classes
are intended to smooth the transition of divorce for
children, it doesn’t make it any less painful for

Edward W. Beal and Gloria Hochman, authors of Adult
Children of Divorce: Breaking the Cycle and Achieving
Success in Love, Marriage and Family, point out that
one child in every ten will see his or her parents
divorce, experience one remarriage, and go through the
parent’s second divorce all before age 16. They also
note that many adults see themselves as victims even
though the divorce of their parents happened many
years ago.

Parents may be happier apart and even gain certain
amenities through the divorce, but children, who see
their world centered on themselves, see the divorce as
something very traumatic, according

These children may be concerned more with their own
security, not their parent’s happiness. Children will
question whether both parents will leave them, what
they did wrong or did they cause the divorce, or what
will happen to them next. Changing schools, moving to
different households, loss of financial stability and
security, as well as loss of a family unit all
contribute to the stress children must deal with when
their parents divorce.

How does this figure in with adults who grew up in a
divorced home? According to Judith S. Wallerstein,
author of “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25
Year Landmark Study,” most adults who went through
their parents divorce are still emotionally troubled,
challenging society’s basic perceptions of the impact
of divorce on children.

Some statistics she found from her study started in
1971 with 131 children of varying ages going through
their parents? divorce were that 25 percent of
Americans between the ages of 18 and 44 are adult
children of divorce. One-half to those marrying in
the 1990s were getting married for the second time.
In one out of seven weddings, one or both partners
were marrying for the third time. For people between
the ages of 28 and 43, figures show significantly
higher divorce rates in people from divorced families
compared with those from intact families.

These adults deal with issues of alcohol and drug
abuse, fear of intimacy, some dropped out of school,
while others have continued their education but have
not reached a socioeconomic level of their parents.
Wallerstein states the jury is no longer out, that
“the children who were rendered mute by the system
have returned to give us their verdict – there is little
evidence that we have succeeded in serving or
protecting their interests.”
She goes on to say that at the time of the breakup
for these adults, as children, they felt raw terror,
fear of abandonment, even of starving for love.
“There was no transition, no cushioning of the blow,”
Wallerstein writes. “Their loneliness, their sense
that no one was there to take care of them, was
overwhelming – such are the core memories of these
adults, 25 years later.”
Unlike the adult experience, the child’s suffering
does not reach its peak at the breakup and then level
off, Wallerstein says. On the contrary, the divorce
is a cumulative experience for the child. Its impact
increases over time. The effect of the parent’s
divorce is played and replayed throughout the first
three decades of the children’s lives.
Dr. E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of
Virginia wrote a slightly different view in her latest
book, “For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.”
She states that children have a certain resilience
and adaptability to recover and build a fulfilling
life. She states that even though she doesn’t doubt
that divorce is devastating and can ruin lives, she
feels that most current writings on divorce – both
popular and academic – has greatly exaggerated divorce’s
negative effects and ignored its sometimes positive
So, now that we know the statistics and consequences
of divorce on children throughout their lives, what
can be done presently to help children that have
either gone through a divorce with their parents, or
can be done to prevent further damage to their hearts
and minds?
“Children need affirmation, and to understand the
divorce is not their fault, to not blame themselves.
Involve them in counseling since most children have a
hard time talking about their feelings to their
parents,” said Chuck McCoskey, counselor at Delphi
Auto in Kokomo, Ind.
He stresses that children may seem okay on the
outside, but may be dealing with a lot of confusing
emotions and anger on the inside. “They may act out,
or they may hold it all in and try to be the ‘perfect’
child. They will either implode or explode,” said
Parents are usually going through their own issues,
emotions and healing process and may not be able to
focus outside themselves in order to make sure the
children?s needs are being met. Many of these same
adults were children of divorce and may not have the
skills or examples in their own lives needed to help
their children deal with it, thus continuing a vicious
cycle that becomes a generational legacy.
Now, the question remains: who should be responsible
for these disastrous affects of divorce on
children – society or the legal system?
Divorce goes back to biblical time when the Pharisees
tested and questioned Jesus about the Mosaic laws of
divorce and remarriage spoken in the Old Testament.
Jesus’ explanation led to their hard hearts at the
time the law was made, but he also reminded them of
God’s plan starting with creation. “For this reason a
man will leave his father and mother and be united to
his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they
are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has
joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:7-9,
Christian theology clearly states in Proverbs 22:6
that parents should “train up a child in the way he
should go, and when he is old he will not depart from
it.” It clear that we, as parents, are to model for
our children right behavior and Christlikeness.
Furthermore, we have a responsibility to help shape
attitudes and behaviors of our children, regardless of
divorce or marriage. That means being committed to
the hard work it will take to heal the hearts and
minds of those who were victims as well as those who
are presently victims of a selfish society.

It is hoped that this information will waken not only the parents considering divorce, but lawyers and
judges who decide these cases. This could prove to
benefit children emotionally and spiritually
everywhere for now and in the future, helping them
become more stable and healthy adults.
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