The following article originally appeared in the Summer, 2006 issue of "The American Journal of Family Law." We are grateful to editor Ron Brown for his gracious cooperation in agreeing to have us post it here.
The Psychology of Divorce: A Lawyer's Primer Part 1 - The Effects of Divorce on Adults
Divorce can be a seismic event for the individuals who experience it. The challenges and hazards which it poses for all members of the family create risks to future well-being and require the mobilization of coping skills along with the right mix of ameliorative circumstances to allow for recovery and restabilization to take place. To the degree that these things occur, adults and their children seem often able to engage in productive lives and attain reasonable well-being, though not unaffected by the divorce. Others evidence long-term and significant psychological reactions that can shape their lives going forward.
Matrimonial attorneys will see in their work with clients a variety of reactions and changes in psychological functioning which are concomitant with the legal process. In fact, that process is in itself a highly significant stressor on the individuals who experience it directly, and by extension ripples out to impact the children of divorce whether or not they become actively involved in legal interactions. Where the effects are obvious to the lawyer he or she may try to find ways to address them so as to provide assistance to a client in need. Some of this author's previous articles in this journal have addressed ways to do so. In other cases the attorney may be unaware of what is transpiring in the families whose lives his work touches, and most often cannot know the eventual outcomes that affect lives long after the legal fight has ended.
The purpose of this article and the ones to follow in this series is to provide lawyers with a context in which to view their work. It is not intended that they should become therapists to their clients, though more skillful handling of clients' emotional responses and behavior and changes toward a more humane and family-sensitive system of divorce would reduce some of the damages to families that divorce creates. Rather, the series is meant to offer a broad overview of the nature of divorce so that those lawyers who are interested can have a holistic sense of what divorce really is and where the legal system fits into it. In this article I shall discuss the consequences of divorce for adults, relying heavily, though not exclusively, on the seminal work of Hetherington & Kelly . In the next article we shall examine the effects on children. In the concluding part of the series the focus will be the psychological components of the legal system itself. Where appropriate I shall point out the practical implications of findings for legal practice; but the astute reader will surely recognize them.
Adjustments to Divorce
The best place to begin is with a very broad view of the kinds of adaptations divorced people make in their lives after the events of the divorce are concluded. In 2002 Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly published, For Better or For Worse , a report on a longitudinal study of approximately 1300 divorced families. The authors observed men and women at various time periods up to 20 years after their divorces. They categorized their sample as follows.
Some seemed to be enhanced by the divorce. They flourished in many aspects of their lives, developing competencies in response to the challenges of divorce and single parenthood. Twenty percent of the sample fell into this group.
Another group was labeled competent loners representing 10% of the population. They, like the enhanced, had done well in many areas. But they tended to be without a committed relationship, emotionally self-sustaining, and with no need of a life partner.
At 40% of the total, the largest group in the study was designated as the good enoughs. The divorce caused a lot of turmoil for this group while it was occurring, but seemed not to leave lasting effects, either positive or negative. Two decades later they had new partners but the same problems. They were simply unchanged.
Seekers were mostly men who desired to remarry quickly in order to give their lives structure and meaning. Typically unmarried 20 years after the divorce, they were more unhappy, more clinically depressed, and had more problems with alcohol.
Libertines exited their marriages looking to throw off restrictions. They led faster paced, trendier lives that included more casual sex. By the end of the first post-divorce year they perceived their lives to be emptier and began to seek committed relationships.
Lastly, the defeated succumbed to depression, substance abuse, and a feeling of purposelessness. They often remarried still embittered about what they had lost.
Constance Ahrons, in The Good Divorce , offers a different typology based on the nature of the continuing relationship between the couple after the divorce. Noting that nearly half of the 98 couples she studied had amicable relationships, she further divided them into two groups.
The majority of this group was labeled cooperative colleagues. They managed both their anger and conflict productively, able to separate their parenting responsibilities from feelings about each other. They successfully kept their children out of the middle.
A much smaller proportion of amicable couples were called perfect pals, couples who remained best friends after the divorce. While they were not absent angry feelings, they generally remained close and caring.
The remaining 50% of Ahrons's sample was anything but amicable.
Angry associates were unable to keep their anger from affecting the children. The amount of anger they felt was not necessarily different than that experienced by cooperative colleagues, but it tended to be expressed in more damaging ways.
The group that matches the stereotype of the truly horrendous marriage was the fiery foes. These couples raged on, sought revenge and engaged in post-divorce litigation for years, involving the children in these battles without hesitation.
Ahrons speculates the existence of a fifth group which she calls the dissolved duos. She did not study any of these because she interviewed only couples who had maintained contact. But the name refers to those couples who totally discontinue contact. Research tells us that children in this situation are at risk of suffering adverse emotional consequences if one of the parents disappears from their lives. While Ahrons sees this circumstance as rare, other data suggest that over 50% of the children who live primarily with their mothers see their fathers several times a year or less during their high school years, and that slightly more than 20% never see their fathers at all during those years.
One can speculate about the degree to which the adversarial legal process might contribute to the outcomes represented by the above typologies, and Ahrons's in particular. Since there is no hard data upon which to reach conclusions, it is difficult to separate the effects of the legal process from the conflict and turmoil which led to the divorce in the first place. But watching the reactions, rage, and distress in so many during that time, the legal practitioner might wonder what outcomes might be possible if a less adversarial or more person focused approach were to become common.
The Challenges of the Early Years
It is widely held that the years immediately following the marital separation, through the divorce itself, and into the early post-divorce adjustment period are the most difficult in terms of acute reactions. Abigail Trafford has labeled the period that begins with the separation, "crazy time." Hetherington and Kelly point out that the two year period following the divorce presents both the most intense challenges and also the "window of opportunity" for positive change . It is a time of such rapid and often radical shifting of familiar patterns of life that self-control may be compromised, yet some will find themselves unusually open to new possibilities.
Addressing the shifts that Hetherington found, we see that both attachment to and conflict with the ex-spouse tend to decline in the first two years after divorce, but that remarriage by the ex-spouse re-evokes feelings of betrayal, loss, and anger. Women are more affected in this way than men. Both genders also experience increased physical difficulties and illness in these early years as the immune system suffers the effects of unusually intense stress. Self-concept undergoes changes as well during this time, either in a positive direction or revealing dependence and vulnerabilities not previously seen.
Parenting is affected, which may then lead to further shifts in self-perception and emotional struggles. During these early years, it is common to see changes in the familiar structures that have typified the individual's parenting style. Shared physical custody means some loss or compromise of bedtime or morning routines and patterns of discipline, as well as in the way the family celebrates birthdays, holidays, or other significant events.
The ways in which the parent relates to the children can change according to the shifting needs of the parent. One familiar example is the harried or depressed mother who turns to an older child to become the surrogate partner in caring for the siblings. Another is the lonely mother who asks her adolescent child to stay home with her rather than spend time with peers.
Certainly one's identity as a parent can be altered as one is aware that things are not working as well as they did. Feeling a loss of the children can be very hard to adjust to, and that loss is quite real when the parent is no longer with the children full-time. This appears to affect men particularly strongly. Divorced men experience increased emotional distance from their children to match the oft increased geographical or daily living distance, and they may even have a diminution in feelings of paternal affection as a result. Anecdotal data gathered from men in the clinical setting along with empirical research would suggest that custody battles and perceptions of unfairness by the courts contribute to negative trends in father-child relationships, and in the stress experienced by single mothers who have lost the support and parenting help of the former spouse.
With all of these changes in lifestyle and self-image, it is not surprising to find studies agreeing that individuals in these first post-divorce years display more psychological and behavioral problems than those in intact marriages. These can include depression, anti-social behavior, anxiety, lower life satisfaction, higher stress, and higher rates of alcoholism than their married peers. While there is disagreement about whether either gender is more impacted than the other, studies indicate that both men and women experience higher rates of psychological distress than their married counterparts.
It is clear that the period of the legal divorce through the first couple of years after is the time of most acute stress, rapid shifts in life circumstances, the loss of familiarity, and changes in self-image. It sorely tests people's abilities to cope and adjust.
Later Adjustment Patterns
There is disagreement in the literature about whether the effects of divorce are short-term or longer lasting, perhaps even permanent. While Wallerstein discussed divorce as a negatively "life transforming" event, Hetherington presents a more benign picture.
Her research tells us that six years after the divorce 75% of men are remarried, compared to 50% of women. Most women are happy and show a decrease in early symptoms, the exception being those in the "defeated" group. Most men are content, though single men do more poorly. For both sexes the importance of the ex-spouse had diminished by six years out.
By 20 years after the divorce, according to Hetherington's findings, 80% of men and women are coping reasonably well and are leading productive lives. Though there are a number of factors that determine positive life satisfaction, the single most important one appears to be the existence of warm, intimate relationships with friends, families, and children, but especially with new spouses or other intimate partners. Hetherington's findings of high rates of recovery in the long term are supported by other studies, some of which also find that where differences in well-being between divorced and married individuals do exist, the differences are smaller than those which earlier studies indicated.
Having said that, one must still note that there are a number of differences between divorced individuals and those who remain married in level of well-being, happiness, symptoms of psychological distress, and self-concepts, with the divorced group faring less well on all of these factors . Those who remarry, regardless of gender, have to cope with the early challenges that come with a second marriage, including the fact that multiple marriages lead to more serious problems and higher divorce rates. Men who remain unmarried are likely to be more susceptible to isolation and loneliness.
Though the differences are not of a huge order, the divorced population has something more to contend with to avoid unhappiness or depression, to feel that life is satisfying, and to be free of the residual feelings of distress and unfairness that come from having experienced the dissolution of their marriages and families. Amato concludes after reviewing two decades of research that
Divorce benefits some individuals, leads others to experience temporary decrements in well-being that improve over time, and forces others on a downward cycle from which they might never fully recover (p. 1282).
It is clear that divorce does indeed pose a challenge to mental health, well-being, and functioning, that the effects are clearest and most acute during the divorce and in the early years after its completion, and that some long-term effects are still visible in the population of divorced people, though the majority do seem able to recover enough to move on to build reasonably meaningful new lives.
Let us now take a look at some of the mediating factors that help determine the type and quality of outcome that an individual is likely to experience. Many of them have implications for the conduct of divorce within a legal framework.Mediators of Adjustment to Divorce
Among the personal characteristics that contribute to the ability to cope effectively with divorce are the ability to regulate and control one's emotions, flexibility and adaptability, and an internal sense of control of one's life. These are all challenged by the experience of the divorce, including the legal part. But there are external factors which are equally important in determining short and long term adjustment. As previously cited, the presence of a new, intimate and satisfying relationship is one of those. Another is economic decline.
When both partners come out of the divorce with a quality of lifestyle that has not worsened dramatically, they are more likely to do well psychologically, and so are their children. When they don't, it creates risk to psychological well-being. Families who are advantaged in lifestyle (higher than median family income, education beyond high school, and two earners) experience lower levels of stress or recover more quickly from divorce. On the other hand, a marked decline in socio-economic status leads to depression and to more disruptive life events such as having to move to a new residence in a lesser community.
The research tends to indicate that economic decline is worse for women, with consistent findings that women's standard of living is lower than that of men, and that women report more financial strain. Women are also more likely than men to change residences and to move to lower socio-economic neighborhoods, again adding to psychological distress.
One of the factors that can help the situation is satisfying work, which can provide a sense of purpose as well as income. Women tend to benefit more from such a circumstance. But women also have more interrupted work as they try to balance occupational and domestic demands on their own. They tend to experience more work-related stress than men following the divorce. That stress diminishes over time, but remains higher than similar types of stress experienced by married women.
Parenting variables also represent significant factors for a successful response to a divorce. Issues of custody or co-parenting will often be a source of continued conflict between the ex-spouses. Such conflict, loss of custody by a parent, and sole parenting responsibility can make the adjustment much more difficult. In many instances loss of custody will result in fathers losing contact with their children. As previously noted, some 20% of fathers do not see their children at all during their high school years; and it is interesting to note that children who see their fathers one to three times per month, a frequency that approximates a common visitation schedule, report a greater sense of loss than children who see their fathers more and less frequently (the latter being explained that children who rarely see their fathers get used to not having the fathers in their lives). Feeling deprived of their children can negatively impact the well-being of some fathers, as having no one with whom to share parenting can increase the stress for mothers. Custody battles, absent or stressful parenting, and conflict between the couple interact. It is difficult to determine causation in these cases. Suffice it to say that the end results can be damaging.
Finally, whereas isolation tends to feed upon itself and grow, strong connections are protective. Losing the emotional support of others makes adjustment more difficult, but the presence of parents, siblings, close friends, and others can sustain and aid recovery. Remarriage and dating are major factors to help restore adjustment. As discussed earlier, being part of a new intimate relationship is one of the most important mediators with regard to leading a happy and satisfying life after divorce for some segments of the divorced population.
While the psychology of the legal process itself will be the focus of a later article in this series, it is important to briefly note that the current legal system, and adversarial divorce in particular, may be factors in determining how the mediators of divorce recovery come into play. The courts are by definition not contextual in that they are bound by laws, rules, and procedures that fail to consider the ripple effects that their responses and decisions will have on the future lives of the divorcing parties and their children. While mediation, collaborative law, cooperative law, and divorce coaching seek to help the situation, most people still litigate their divorces; and lawyers carry out their work according to the legal principles, guidelines, and rules they have been taught. Adversarial divorce is a win-lose situation, which often leads to the economic decline and lifestyle changes that make recovery and adjustment difficult. As the litigating parties ramp up the anger and hurt, it forces extended families and friends to take sides with a resulting loss of social and emotional support. Custody fights and claims against parties around parenting issues result in sole parenting and father absence. Much of this turmoil is brought to the legal system by individuals who are already emotionally charged and in conflict. For others it increases as the battle is engaged. While it is not the responsibility of lawyers or judges to "fix" the people who come to them, this author wonders what would happen if lawyers shared with their clients information about the effects that a spousal battle will have on their children and on themselves. If lawyers had that information in mind when planning legal strategies or negotiating, might it not provide a broader perspective from which to operate, and might they not find themselves suggesting a wider range of possibilities, or at least thinking about how the legal outcomes they pursue may have an impact on the well-being of families whose lives they touch? A more thoughtful or holistic approach to the process of divorce might prove to be a valuable asset in helping those families to heal and move forward.