Although divorce rates are at a 50-year low for couples of all ages, one age group is bucking that trend. Divorce among couples with spouses ages 55 and older is on the rise, coming in with a divorce rate of around 43 percent.
For many couples going through so-called gray divorce, children are the motivation for waiting to end the marriage. Parents choose to stick out a bad marriage until their children reach adulthood, thinking they are protecting them from unnecessary pain and trauma.
But is it really a good idea to postpone divorce? Some experts say no. This discussion explores why it is not always best to delay the inevitable.
A Delayed Divorce Puts Years of Undue Stress on a Family
Parents who wait until their children are grown to end a marriage certainly have the best of intentions.
They want to protect the children from emotional trauma and keep their lives as stable as possible. Many parents want to keep their children from having to go back and forth between parents’ homes. For others, it comes from a desire to give their children the stable childhood they did not have themselves as a child.
However, although parents want to insulate their children, they may be subjecting them to years of added stress. Yes, divorce is stressful. But once it happens, parents and children can take time to process it and move past it. But when divorce is delayed, that unseen tension is ever-present.
An unhappy marriage is like a heavy weight family members carry with them for years. Even if parents are married on paper, they may not be able to bury the feelings mistrust, resentment, or anger that emerges for many couples at the end of a relationship. That makes for a stressful environment and a very tense home life.
Conflict can be More Damaging than the Actual Divorce for Children
It may seem like a selfless decision to wait to divorce until children have graduated high school or college, or moved out of the house. However, it can have serious emotional and mental ramifications for the children.
Often, it is not the actual dissolution of the marriage that throws children for a loop. It is the years of conflict that lead up to the divorce that cause children lasting trauma. Children have an inherent desire to want their parents to be happy. They pick up on their sadness, tension, and resentment. They may sense that divorce is inevitable and feel anxious wondering when it will happen.
In 2002, researchers at UCLA reviewed 47 different studies analyzing the link between unstable family environments in childhood and problems in adulthood. They determined that children who grew up in homes where there was a lot of conflict had more social, health, and emotional issues later in life compared with other kids. They were more likely to abuse substances, suffer from depression and loneliness, have trouble connecting to others, and experience immune and vascular problems as well.
Children See a Skewed Version of Marriage
Parents who grin and bear it for the benefit of the children should consider what they are teaching their children about love, relationships, and marriage, without even saying a word.
Children who are not exposed to a healthy, mature model of marriage are more likely to repeat that pattern and end up in unfulfilling romantic relationships as adults. They do not learn that love is about focusing on each other and helping their partner feel safe, secure, and supported. Instead, they may get the message that love means keeping secrets, sacrificing one’s own happiness for the sake of others, or tolerating harmful or abusive behavior from a partner.
A parent who chooses to end an unhappy marriage shows their children that you do not have to settle for an unfulfilling relationship. They model courage in the face of adversity, and the self-esteem to choose happiness in challenging times.
Parents Should Know Children are Incredibly Resilient
Parents tend to dread their child’s reaction to divorce, so they prolong the marriage, only to discover the child handles it better than expected. Many youngsters look at the bright side. Now they have two celebrations for each holiday!
Tension in the home is like a ticking time bomb that can impact every family member for years to come. Children living with parents who do not get along or constantly bicker may look for opportunities to be out of the house, spending time at their friends’ homes instead. Many even want their parents to divorce just so the fighting will stop.
Parents often assume children will take divorce much harder than they actually do. And although youngsters can be quite resilient, it is important for parents and extended family to guide and support them through every step of the process.
Tips to Help Children Deal with Divorce
The way children process divorce depends a lot on how their parents separate. Here are some practical tips for helping children navigate divorce.
- Keep your routine. Divorce involves a lot of change. One way to ease the transition from one household to two is to stick to a consistent daily routine. Try to keep bedtimes, chores, and ground rules the same with both parents. This shows children you and your ex-spouse are on the same page when it comes to parenting and gives them a sense of security.
- Avoid criticizing your ex-spouse. It is true you are getting a divorce for a reason. However, right now, while your children are young, they do not need to know the gritty details of what went wrong. Children have their own relationship with each parent, and taking on your anger and resentment about their other parent will only cloud their own feelings about your ex-spouse. Give your children the space and freedom to love each parent on their own terms.
- Never fight in front of the children. Some couples are fortunate enough to divorce relatively amicably and uneventfully. But unfortunately, that is not the case for all. Other divorces just get downright ugly. But it is very important to protect children from the fallout of a high-conflict divorce. Heated verbal or physical battles are traumatic for children. Avoid fighting in front of your children at all costs.
- Encourage the children to share their feelings. It takes incredible courage and strength to go through a divorce while helping your children through it at the same time. Often children shut down and hold in their emotions because they do not want to add to their parent’s emotional burden. Check in with your children often and encourage them to talk about what they are feeling. Reassure youngsters that whatever they are feeling is normal and they have always your unconditional love and support.
- Consider counseling. Family counseling is a great tool to support children during divorce. It offers kids a safe, neutral environment where they can share their cares without judgement, release anger, and learn coping skills to help manage the feelings that come with divorce. Visit the online database at Psychology Today to find a therapist in your area specializing in family counseling and divorce.
Whether you choose to do it now or wait for the children to leave the nest, divorce is never easy. Parents delaying the inevitable should consider whether it is worth living in limbo and postponing their own happiness for the sake of the children.
A childhood spent in an unhappy home can often have greater long-term effects on a child’s emotional and mental health than the actual divorce. Before making any decisions, it is always a good idea to discuss your situation with a trained counselor and a trusted divorce lawyer who can explain your options and help you make informed choices about your future.
North Jersey Divorce Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Help Clients Navigate Divorce with Children
It can be difficult to end a marriage when children are involved. That is why the North Jersey divorce lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. handle every case with the utmost care and compassion. We are sensitive to the needs of your family and always advocate for your child’s best interests above all. To learn more about our understanding approach to divorce, or to schedule a free consultation, call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.