Divorce is the legal ending of a marriage. The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. In the second half of the twentieth century, attitudes toward divorce in the United States changed drastically. In themiddle of the century, shortly after the end of World War II, there was a brief increase in divorces, followed by a decline. Starting in the 1960s the rate of divorce began to increase, and accelerated in the 1970. By the end of the 1980s it had leveled off. In 1998 United States Centers for Disease Controland Prevention National Center for Health Statistics reported that there were about 98,000 divorces during the year down from 104,000 in 1997. This meansthat 4.3 out of every 1,000 new marriages ended in divorce in 1998 (4.5 per1,000 in 1997). This rate per year has remained fairly stable for the past ten years.
Looking at divorce statistics from another view, the numbers show that the likelihood of a new marriage ending in divorce is about 43% and that the divorce rate of married women ages 15 and older is 20.9 per 1,000. First marriagesending in divorce last an average of 11 years for both men and women, while remarriages ending in divorce last an average of 7.4 years for men and 7.1 years for women. The number of divorces in the United States is highest among men aged 30-34 years and women aged 25-29 years.
What about the people behind all these statistics? Divorce affects not just the couple who is divorcing, but also any children they may have. In 1960 53 percent of families included a mother, father, and at least one child under age 18. Between 1970 and 1996 as the divorce rate climbed, the United States Census Bureau reported that the proportion of children under age 18 living in single parent households grew from 12 to 28 percent.
This rise in single parent households is of concern because children in single parent households not only suffer emotional consequences related to the upheaval of divorce, they more likely to live in poverty. Even though many people go on to remarry, other emotional and financial problems are associated with the formation of stepfamilies. Failure of second and third marriages is notuncommon. The changes in financial status and stress levels in the family when a divorce occurs can have physical, emotional, and behavioral consequencesfor both the adults divorcing and their children.
Divorce represents a pivotal and often traumatic shift in a child's life, even when a marriage ends on reasonably friendly terms. Suddenly almost everything about family life has changed for a child. Studies suggest that in families where there is a lot of hostility, substance abuse, or domestic violence, children are often happier when they are no longer in the situation, and ultimately are just as well-adjusted as children raised in two-parent families. Although this may be true in the long term, there are still many short term adjustments children must make when family connections are broken through divorce.
In some families children are unaware of pre-divorce hostility and the divorce comes as a surprise to them. Studies show that these children are generallyless happy than children raised in two-parent homes, and that they may havemore difficulty forming relationships later in adulthood.
Families going through divorce face complicated legal, financial, and emotional issues. Some experts believe that children go through a period of grievingand loss when their traditional family disintegrates. These children may first deny that the divorce will take place and fantasize about their parents getting back together. They often feel anger at one or both parents. This is especially true of pre-teens. Young children may think that their misbehavior caused the divorce, and that if they are "good enough" their parents will getback together. Eventually many children accept their changed family state andresolve to get on with their lives, but the process takes time and happens gradually.
Other normal responses for children to divorce include:
1. Unstable moods and mood changes. Children may swing from relief that theirparents are no longer fighting to resentment to anger to guilt and depression.
2.Frustration and fear. Children may have difficulty accepting that they cannot influence their parents' decision to divorce. They may develop irrationalpersonal fears seemingly unrelated to their parents divorce or their future security.
3. Loss of identity and conflicts of loyalties. Children may experience confusion about where they are to live and where their loyalties "should" lie. Many children are concerned about having to move and make new friends or go to new schools.
4. Worries about money, custody, and caregiving. These address the broad concern of "Who will take care of me?"
5. Worries about losing touch with extended family. Children may be concernedthat they will not be able to see their grandparents, cousins, and other relatives on the non-custodial side of the family.
6. Regressive behavior. Children retreat to more immature behaviors such as demanding help with dressing even when they can dress themselves or wetting their pants even through they normally have bladder control.
7. Acting out. Older children often take out their frustration, anger, and insecurity about their changing circumstances by becoming involved in confrontational or delinquent behavior.
8. Change in school performance. The turmoil of a divorce causes some children's grades to drop.
9. Deterioration of physical health. The stress generated around a divorce, especially a hostile one, may make children more susceptible to physical illnesses such as colds, flu, stomach, and bowel problems.
Divorce is difficult for all concerned. Adults sometimes become so absorbed in their own legal and emotional issues surrounding the divorce that they simply run out of time and energy to address their children's concerns. Childrenof all ages benefit from being guided to a trusted adult outside the family where they can talk about their concerns or simply feel cared for and accepted. This could be someone like a long-time babysitter, a coach, a youth group leader, or a teacher. Both adults and children who are undergoing a divorce often benefit from professional counseling, support groups, and reading self-help books. Anger management classes may also help people involved in a divorceresolve destructive emotions.