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Parents Considering Divorce

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Dear Dr. Laura,
My husband and I are going through a very difficult time in our marriage. So difficult that we both feel that in time we will probably separate and eventually divorce in the very near future.  At this time not only am I dealing with the possible loss of my marriage but what it will do to our 7 month old son. I am ridden with guilt that I will be responsible for him being a child of divorced parents and how that will affect him when he is old enough to realize that mommy and daddy don't live together.  I'm constantly apologizing to him and telling him to forgive me when he is older if in fact his father and I do separate- of course he doesn't understand me yet but I guess it makes me feel a little better by telling him that mommy is sorry. I guess my question is -- how does divorce/separation affect children and their emotional well being? My niece and nephew are both children of divorce and they seem well adjusted to me. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this? Thanks. -- Sad


I am so sorry for the pain you are going through right now.

The irony of divorcing with children is that for your children to come out of the experience in good shape, it helps enormously if the parents can work together well for the benefit of the child. But for parents to do that, they often have to work through a lot of issues. Which means that they might as well stay together! So I always recommend counseling for parents who are considering divorce.

About half of all couples who go to counseling work out their issues and stay together in a growing, happy, relationship. Basically, each person in the relationship takes responsibility for growing, and for the unresolved issues that he or she brought into the marriage. They learn how to stop blaming each other for their own issues, and they end up with a terrific relationship. These couples are obviously reasonably mature individuals, and they generally have some basic strengths to work with, such as physical attraction and the ability to soothe themselves when they get upset.

About half of the couples who go to counseling end up divorcing, either at the time or later. But counseling still helps them to part in a more loving way, which is always better for everyone involved. Specifically, it is MUCH better for the child, because once it becomes clear that the couple will split up, they can use the couples counseling to work out visitation, finances, and other agreements related to their child, so the child benefits. When couples do this, the man usually stays more involved in the child's life, with is really important for the child's healthy development.

You'll be heartened to know that the research shows kids can cope with a divorce and come out ok. So many kids whose parents are divorced are fine. The literature on resiliency shows that one of the most important factors is having a close relationship with at least one parent, who is able to help the child with his emotions.

Unfortunately, however, many children whose parents make the decision to divorce are emotionally wounded in a way that lingers throughout their lives.

The biggest risk factor is poverty, since supporting two households is much more expensive than supporting one. The second risk is losing the mother's attention as she needs to spend more time providing financially and tending to all the details that single moms attend to. The third risk is if either or both parents find new partners who do not relate well to the child.

All of this explains why children of divorced parents:

  • Don't do as well academically and are less likely to go to college, partly because they don't have a parent to pay for it.
  • Are 25% more likely to abuse drugs by age 14.
  • Are twice as likely to get divorced themselves.

The good news is that we know what the risk factors are that leave kids scarred. The bad news is that avoiding these risks takes enormous maturity on the part of both parents. Besides what I have mentioned above, the top risk factors for kids when parents divorce are:

  • When parents keep fighting
  • When one parent abandons the child or doesn't stay in close contact
  • When the child's economic situation deteriorates

In addition, because your son is only seven months old, he will have the added risk factor of visitation, meaning he will need to spend time with his dad without you there. You may want to think through whether this will really work for you and your son. Many judges aren't friendly toward nursing and don't honor the need of a baby to be with his mother in the event of a divorce, for instance.

There's a whole article on the Aha! Parenting website about how to protect your child from the risks of divorce:

Divorce: Protecting Your Kids

Bottom line: You have to decide what is best for you and for your son. Please try Couples counseling before you make a decision. And take good care of yourself, so you can be a good mom to your son.


Dr. Laura has a video offering advice on divorce with children. Click here to watch.

Counseling Resources:

I've heard great things about Retrouvaille, a nonprofit program for married couples facing difficult challenges in their relationship. While it is a Christian program (Catholic in origin) couples of all faiths or no faith background are encouraged to attend and there is no conversion agenda. If you engage with this program, please let me know how it goes, so I know whether to keep recommending it!

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