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The Impact of Divorce on Families

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

*Case Study:

*(Details and identities have been changed to protect confidentiality. The characters are a combination of many people).

“Carla and John married soon after graduation from college where they had met each other four years prior. Everything seemed to be going well from the first day of marriage. The families met and liked each immediately liked one another so that they formed mutual friendships beyond the marriage of each of their children. However, after seven years of marriage, the couple found themselves constantly quarelling with one another and becoming increasingly distant. One of the contentious issues between them was that Carla wanted children and John did not. The growing sense of alienation came to the attention of each of the families who reacted with great anxiety and concern about their future. Neithe one was willing to share their marital problems with family. This left both families with a lot of confusion. Then, the day came when the couple separated and headed for the divorce court.

Both sets of parents experienced a terrible sense of anguish, loss and mourning over the lost marriage. What complicated their feelings was the fact that they knew they were losing their son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their respective families. What bound everyone in the warmth of both family connectedness and friendship was now gone. The gap that was left was acutely felt. Others dismissed their feelings by telling them things such as, “Well, people divorce. Don’t you realize it? Also, it’s their business, not your’s.” The expressed feelings of loss were dismissed by well meaning friends and relatives.”

In doing research about divorce what I found was that there is a great deal of information about how depressing divorce is and how it impacts children. Of course, these are important issues and are rightly a cause for concern. What seems to be missing is research which focuses on the question of how divorce affects the rest of the family. This includes parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents and, in fact, the extended family on both sides. Why does there seem to be an absence of information about this? While we cannot provide any hard facts about this phenomenon, it doesn’t stop us from speculating.

During the last 70 years, the nature of the family has undergone enormous change. Beginning with the 1950’s, American families underwent a gradual change from being extended, to nuclear and single parent in nature. This process of change has taken approximately 60 years. One of the major reasons for this shift is mobility, which has made it easy for adult children to move far away from family and establish new lives in distant places. Therefore, isn’t it possible that the impact of divorce on the family goes largely ignored because the family is no longer the major influence it once was?

If “family” is reduced down to husband, wife and children, then that is where the impact will be felt, as opposed to its effect on other relatives who now live far away and no longer have the influence they once had. In other words, there may be a prejudice and implication that these relatives are inconsequential.

Most articles focus on how the children adapt to divorce. Of particular concern is whether or not they become anxious and depressed during and after divorce, as well as how they adjust to school, new living arrangements and losing the constant presence of one parent. These articles ask the question of how the divorce experience will affect them when they become adults. Will they marry? Will they remain married or will they, too, divorce?

As far as parents are concerned, there is much written about the change in financial circumstances brought on by divorce as well as the emotional adjustments made by individuals who were used to being part of a couple. Will they remain single or will they remarry and form blended families that combine the children from both partners?

The fact is that divorce impacts on many other people in addition to the couple and their children. Considering the fact that siblings and parents formed a relationship with their son in law or daughter in law, divorce brings about a loss for them too. This person who was in the family for a period of time and with whom relationships of varying intensity were formed, is no longer present. That leaves a gap that may provoke some real grieving. In fact anger and bitterness toward their own sibling or adult child for having lost the relationship is often felt.

When a divorce includes children, anxiety is created about whether or not these relatives will continue to see them. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, can feel shaken up by what can become the loss of loved ones.

In my long experience as a psychotherapist, family connections remain strong regardless of how far away relatives live. People remain in steady contact through telephone and the internet, including using Skype or Face Time to speak and see each other in real time through their computers and iphones. They retain an influence over their kin and are affected by such family dramas as divorce. Keep in mind that there are times when these relatives are called upon to help with children, particularly during and after divorce.

With a 50% rate of divorce, its impact on nuclear and extended family members cannot be ignored because of the large numbers of people on whose lives it impinges.

What are your experiences with divorce? Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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