By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Traditional thinking has is that only high-conflict divorces impact negatively
on children. This is far from the truth. Divorce between parents of low-conflict
impacts on children too. For these children, the issue may be likened to having
the rug pulled from beneath them. Because the conflict was limited, they never
considered that their parents might divorce. Hence when they do, it is experienced
as a tremendous shock.
Certain couples with low amounts of conflict are more at risk of divorce than
others. They include those with fewer ties to their community, lower religious
affiliation or participation and emotional distance from their own families
of origin. It is as if these couples have fewer ties outside of themselves to
hold or bind them together. It may also be that for the children of these parents,
that while they may have friends, they too may have less community and extended
family affiliation. Thus without traditional supports outside of the couple
to hold them together, risk of divorce is greater. Once divorced, there may
be fewer supports separate from the parents to help the kids adjust and cope.
Children of divorce whose parents were low-conflict, report having a more difficult
time trusting or believing not only others, but their own judgment with regard
to relationships. They say they “Didn’t see it coming”, or,
“If my parents seemed to get along and they divorced, what does that mean
for me and the success of my marriage?”
As these children age, form intimate relationships themselves and eventually
marry, they are at risk of perceiving their marriage to be threatened, even
when faced with innocuous events. In view of their trepidation, they can actually
bring harm to the marriage as their partner copes with what appears to be an
irrational fear or issue. The partner may not fully understand or appreciate
how unsettling and undermining of trust the divorce was in view of low-parental
conflict. To make matters worse, the partner may enjoy a good relationship with
the divorced in-laws and thus may be quite out of touch with their partner’s
issues of fear and trepidation.
Parents with low-conflict who are considering divorce are well advised to prepare
their children if this is the path chosen. This will require time and patience
to allow the children the opportunity to process the information and come to
understand the marital dissatisfaction that may have otherwise been hidden.
The goal is not to invite or overwhelm the children with the marital issues,
but simply to make them aware that they exist and as such, the parents are unable
to continue as husband and wife.
It is quite likely that the children will react negatively. There will be shock
and disbelief. Some may act out their feelings aggressively while others may
internalize them, appearing quiet, sullen withdrawn or depressed. Family counseling
to facilitate the adjustment can be helpful. The goal of family counseling is
to allow family members a chance to express their upset in a safe and controlled
space and then help members address concerns arising with the view to facilitating
transition to separated parents.
Before even contemplating separation or divorce, parents are well advised to
seek marital counseling particularly before the kids become privy to their distress.
Counseling may actually address the issues undermining the marriage or alternately
provide the parents an opportunity to plan their transition in view of the needs
of their children.
Better to put in the extra step of marital counseling before pulling the rug
out from beneath the kids.