Impact of divorce on the family
If you are experiencing a divorce or have a family member going through one, this article will help you understand the effects of divorce for your family. Divorce often affects all family members producing a crisis for each member and the family as a whole. Knowing the stages of adjustment to a divorce that a family goes through, will help you and your family cope better, during this extremely difficult and painful time for each of you.
At an individual level, major emotional and practical adjustments need to be made both to the separation and to the new life. The adjustment process of a family to a divorce typically takes place in stages over a two or three year period. Psychologist Constance Ahrons, best selling author on books on divorce, describes five overlapping stages of this adjustment process to a divorce:
Individual Cognition stage: In the first stage, at least one spouse is considering divorce and begins emotional disengagement, which is, maintaining a distance through separate activities and involvements. This is often a very stressful time with fighting, bitterness, blaming, devaluing the partner, depression, anxiety and ambivalence. There may be an affair which often speeds up the decision to divorce. For the spouse who initiates the divorce, the decision-making period is perhaps the most difficult as he / she often struggles with tremendous remorse and guilt.
For example, Sheila, 30 yrs, is debating the pros and cons of continuing in her marriage with Satish. The past 4 years of their marriage, they have lived fairly separate lives with hardly any physical or emotional intimacy. Their constant fights whenever they do communicate, are leaving her feeling hopeless. In the recent months, she has begun avoiding him completely. She feels guilty when she finds herself thinking about leaving him and life without him.
Family metacognition stage: In this stage, the family gets to know of the intention to separate and could go through great distress. For the non-initiator spouse the more sudden and unexpected the decision, the more difficult it is to adjust emotionally. He or she may be completely unprepared and could experience an overall sense of low self esteem, powerlessness and humiliation.
For example, when Lakshmi informs Nitin of her desire to separate, he experiences a sense of shock and disbelief and then anger. Yes, he was aware that they had begun avoiding each other and barely spoke to one another anymore. Yet, somewhere he had “settled” for how things were – the marriage did not meet his needs but separation was not an option he had ever considered. It seemed much too extreme and drastic a step to him – one that would affect him and the entire family. His parents had broken down when they got to know and had tried talking Lakshmi out of it. He experienced an overwhelming sense of failure and rejection.
System Separation: In this stage, the actual separation takes place. This is a very hard time for the family. Initially each spouse is in a state of heightened emotional vulnerability which interferes with their everyday functioning. They may experience an inability to work effectively, sleep difficulties, and poor health. For the majority of people, there is ambivalence – a feeling of attachment continues despite anger and resentment. This changes over a period of time. In addition, there may be a sense of helplessnes, a lack of control over life events, feelings of incompetence – socially and sexually, loss, loneliness, anger, frustration and issues with one’s identity. Many may not feel satisfied with the new lifestyle and wish they had tried harder to make the marriage work.
For example, Neeta hadn’t been able to eat or sleep or think straight ever since Rohit had informed her of his decision and moved out. She felt that her world was falling apart and felt terribly alone. She couldn’t imagine her life without him and a couple of times had called him, pleading with him to reconsider and give their marriage a second chance. At other times, she felt waves of anger and resentment that he would let her down like this and found herself blaming and screaming at him.
Throughout, each spouse is prone to emotional upheavals – highs and lows. As soon as the emotional turmoil seems to be abating, something new occurs to set the person reeling. This process repeats itself, may peak at one year and may last as long as two years or more. The silver lining is that, with time, the intensity of each swing diminishes.
For some, the divorce may increase difficulties, whereas for some it may stimulate personal growth in a way that was not possible within the marriage. Some may experience a newly found sense of competency and well-being. Through this and other stages, support from family and friends is crucial.
Example: Ritu felt a sense of confidence and freedom like she never had previously in her marriage. Her husband had never allowed her to work inspite of her qualifications and abilities. Marriage had been difficult for her to endure with years of emotional abuse – being shouted at and criticized by him. Luckily for her, once her family and friends got to know of the way he treated her, they came forward with support and stood by her decision to separate from him. Over time, her friends had helped her get a job, a place of her own and ensured that she had company.
System Reorganization stage: In the fourth stage, new boundaries in the family need to be clarified. This is because there is a change in the membership of the family, often spouses may have new partners. Old roles and patterns no longer exist and so new rules and patterns need to be developed. This could lead to stress and conflict.
For example, in a single parent family, the children may take on additional tasks such as cooking or looking after a younger sibling, in order to help their parent. Or if prior to the divorce, the finances were managed by one partner, then post divorce the other partner would need to equip themselves to learn and manage this new area or at the very least seek support from someone else in their family for managing this.
System Redefinition stage: In this stage, the family meets the challenges of the previous stages and defines itself anew – with new roles and boundaries clarified.
In the case of a divorce, all family members are emotionally at risk and the issues depend on the life-cycle stage of the family. At each stage, the needs of the partners and the family are different.
There are no simple solutions. Yet, the family can benefit from planning and discussing how to manage these stages of adjustment better. Individual family members, the couple and the family as a whole may seek counselling at different points to move through these stages successfully towards redefining their new lives.
Carter, B. & McGoldrick, M. (1989). The changing family life cycle. USA, MA: Allyn and Bacon.