Did your parents divorce when you were a child or adolescent? Did your parents fight for control over you and your siblings? Did one of your parents try to turn you against the other parent?
With a more than fifty percent divorce rate in the United States today most people can relate to what it was like to live through a divorce between their parents. Unfortunately, they can also relate to what it was like to feel like pawns in the war that was waged by at least one parent against the other.
It is understandable that by the time two people are ready for divorce, there are many angry, resentful and bitter feelings that have accumulated during the course of the marital relationship. Very few divorces are friendly and amicable with the former spouses remaining friends. Children’s needs do not seem to significantly influence the behavior displayed by former spouses. In fact, all too often, divorcing parents are willing to display a vindictiveness directed against the other parent by using the children as weapons in the divorce and post divorce war. These types of vengeful parents do not seem to understand that the only victims of this type of behavior are the children.
During my years as a family law attorney I have seen many cases in which parents wage bitter custody battles against one another. One parent may attempt to obtain sole or primary joint custody of the children while severely restricting the visitation rights of the other parent. You might believe that the battle was being waged against someone who was an alcohol or drug addict or was abusive to the children. However, in all too many cases there is no such addictive or abusive behavior. Rather, the motivation for the vindictive parent is to settle the score against the other parent for sins having been committed between the two of them.
- For example, an angry wife and mother may feel so devastated by the divorce that she is swept away by anger, rage and the desire to punish the former spouse by demanding sole custody and limiting the access to the child.
- Another scenario is when each of the parents place the children in the middle of their conflict by attempting to turn them against the other parent. They will do all they can to devalue and demonize the other parent in the eyes of the child. The wish is to win the child to their own side so that they will be permanently allied with them against the other.
- Perhaps the worst case situation is the one in which the divorce takes place, the one parent gains custody, the other parent moves away and a curtain of silence falls between the children and the absent parent.
What is the effect of these behaviors on children?
First, children identify with each of their parents. If they are made to believe that one parent is evil they will come to believe that this is true of them, as well.
Second, it is common for children to misunderstand what is happening between alienated parents and to blame themselves for their troubles. They are also quick to believe that one or both parents are leaving home because he, the child, is not loved. In some cases, a child who witnesses a parent packing and moving may fear that he, the child will be told to leave home forever.
For the child who experiences the loss of a parent because that parent has been successfully blocked from participation in the child’s life, the consequences are worst. The child is left to imagine what became of the missing parent.
Studies show that high conflict divorce can result in children growing into adults who have lower self esteem, symptoms of depression and anxiety. In contrast, children who are raised by both parents, whether in an intact marital relationship OR by divorced parents who amicably share time with their children are not as likely to exhibit these traits.
Divorce is an unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable result of a failed relationship. By this legal mechanism we can end the marriage, but we cannot end the family. Mom will always be Mom and Dad will always be Dad. Divorce only redefines the terms of the family relationship. I believe that parents who are able to redefine those terms with the least impact on the children will see the best long term result.
 The Politics of Divorce: When Children Become Pawns, Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.