The Impact of Divorce

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

The Impact of Divorce


The Impact of Divorce

October 20, 2021

In the industry, it is known that in criminal law, you have bad people at their best but in family law, you have good people at their worst.

In my work as a custody evaluator, I’ve seen many parents at their worst. I remember one mom fighting for custody who was aghast that her husband took the children to the pediatrician’s office because “dads don’t belong in the pediatrician’s office.” Another parent told me “I’m not giving my son a car because his mother would use it.” I’ve watched parents – who were on a tight budget – each purchase separate school uniforms and athletic equipment because they can’t exchange them or they each have the kids playing on separate sports teams during time sharing with each parent. But does that make them bad people? No. 

Most of you that get divorced can manage it on your own but there are some challenging or high conflict families – usually 8 to 15% of divorcing parents – that create the need for psychologists like me to get involved to help them navigate through the divorce and figure out what is the best situation for their children. 

I have been involved in Family Law as a Forensic Psychologist since 2003 so I know a thing or two about divorce – despite not being divorced myself. 

Why does divorce happen? 

Divorce is not easy and it is common for couples to go through a series of failed attempts to rectify. Sometimes it sticks but most often it doesn’t – especially if one is already pursuing a divorce. If you intend to work on your relationship, I do not recommend separating because it’s nearly impossible to save a marriage when both feet are already out the door. 

Most divorce is the result of an affair. It could be an emotional affair, physical affair, an affair with work or an affair with some other interest. But how does that happen? It’s usually the result of incompatibility or irresponsibility on behalf of one of the partners – substance abuse, depression or financial problems.

Now I’m going to talk about something controversial. What we know from the research is that many relationships ends because of what we call separation instigated violence. The most common type of domestic violence is separation instigated violence. It’s not about power and control, it’s about two people who have escalating conflict and the levee breaks. What usually happens is there is a huge fight or a series of fights at the end of the relationship where one may push or throw something at the other. The one who was violent is arrested and the other files an injunction against them to get them out of the house. The one remaining in the house uses the separation instigated violence – or domestic violence situation – to railroad the other.

Regardless of how the levee broke, the way they see each other and how they act worsens after the situation.

  1. They make negative assumptions about the other – meaning whatever the other person does, they believe it is for the worst reason. For example, if someone forgets to drop off homework – rather than it being an oversight – it is because they are attempting to use the child as a pawn and hurt the other parent. They overuse accusations of narcissistic, borderline personality disorders, parental alienation, gas lighting, child neglect and domestic violence.
  1. They embark upon a campaign to change the other parent and are surprised every time the parent acts like themselves again. I find this interesting because they divorced because they could not change the other person and now they are attempting to change the other while divorced. If you could not change them when you were married, you certainly can’t change them when you are divorced.
  2. As a result of the above, the parents don’t think clearly and their hatred does result in the kids being used as pawns to get back at the other parent. They put the kids in between them and use the kids for emotional support.

These are the reasons why we need psychologists that understand the research to get involved and make a determination about what is safe for the family – especially the children – going forward.

When I conduct custody evaluations, I basically do a psychological autopsy on the marriage and it is usually clear the parties never belonged together. One person has had divorce on their mind unbeknownst to their spouse and the spouse is shocked to find out the other wants a divorce. Despite this, there is so much loss for both parties. We’ve all heard of the stages of grief if you lose a loved one. You go through similar stages when you get divorced.

Stages of Divorce

  1. Emotional Divorce: You begin to emotionally separate yourself from the other spouse. Often this occurs for one person before the other is aware.
  2. Legal Divorce: This is the lawful end of the marriage by Court action. Despite this often occurring early in the process, this is only the beginning of one’s journey toward “total divorce.”
  3. Economic Divorce: You now have two households. One of you may have returned to work and the other may be working more, but you are both likely learning to live differently now that it costs more money to run two households. Once you have your footing, you move beyond this stage.
  4. Co-parental Divorce: Negotiating  joint parenting decisions, determining your roles as parents, possibly letting go of old roles and adding new ones, and spending less or more time with your children, and learning to hopefully be a successful parent in a binuclear family.
  5. Community Divorce: Changes that occur with relationships and friends. As the divorce continues, you may receive less support from family and friends and you may no longer feel comfortable being around married friends or around mutual friends of your spouse’s. You may begin to feel the push to date again but you are likely very anxious about it.
  6. Psychic Divorce: At this state, the stages above are mostly resolved or you have gained more comfort about those areas.  At this point, you are moving toward independence, are self supportive, you gain more insight as to why the marriage failed, and you spend less time in regret or blaming the other or yourself and more time learning about yourself and adapting to the single life and possibly the dating world.

Let’s talk about the kids. 

Who is more likely to get them?

In the 19th century, we relied upon the Tender Years Doctrine – which was a legal assumption that mom’s were more fit to nurture children. In the 1970’s, this was replaced with the gender neutral Best Interest Standard (BIS) in most cases. The truth is that dads can be just as great as moms at every age. Despite men having been found to be as fit to care for young children as women, the Tender Years Doctrine persists in some lower courts related to younger children. Of course, every situation is different. Just as the Tender Years Doctrine was hijacked by mom’s, the Best Interest Standard gets hijacked by overzealous fathers claiming parenting alienation. 

Does divorce negatively impact your kids?

The biggest risks for kids are not who gets them – it’s conflict between the parents, mobility, lost social capital, gate keeping parental depression and substance abuse. 

It’s best if you both sit the children down and together tell them you are no longer in a loving relationship and believe the family will be healthier if you both live separately.  Both parents need to talk and ensure the children believe two things. First, it’s not their fault. Second, their lives will generally be the same.

Young kids use transductive reasoning and connect two unrelated events like a fight about them being related to why you are getting divorced. You must therefore talk to your children about their thoughts and feelings about the divorce repeatedly. 

The research suggests it typically takes six months to two years for families to adjust after divorce – although the high conflict ones can take longer & in certain cases, the conflict never ends.

These parents often want their child to speak to a psychologist so a letter can be written that the child prefers one parent over the other. Let me tell you – in most instances, this is unethical and inappropriate. It’s simply not a good idea. Many parents will say  “well my child is 13 and they should get to decide.” I tell them “I’m sorry, I am not writing a letter based on what you or your kid says.”

Psychologists need a lot more information before making a determination and despite conventional wisdom, children really don’t have much sway about where they want to go because they are often swayed by one of the parents. They lack the maturity to make such a significant decision against another parent.

Take Away

Stop trying to change the other person. That’s why you got divorced. How are you going to change them when you are divorced when you could not change them when you were married?

It is scary to let go but you have to be bold! You are free! Instead of focusing on the other party, focus on yourself and being the best parent you can be. Your children deserve it!