My research into divorce shows the pain it can cause
If January wasn’t already depressing enough, today – the first working Monday of the year – is “divorce day”. Having made it through the holidays, this is the day that legal professionals report receiving the highest number of enquiries from couples wanting to officially split. A tense festive period, not to mention Covid restrictions, will have turned up the heat on simmering resentments and made married life, for some, unbearable.
Divorce is a common event in family life – 42 per cent of British marriages will end this way. In 2019, 108,421 divorces were granted in the UK. We’re used to hearing these numbers blamed for societal decline amid talk of “broken” families.
Growing up, I thought I knew how a family should be. Like many of us, I absorbed messages about families from films, TV and books. They were in the adverts that I saw and the messages written on the Mother’s and Father’s Day cards at our local shop. Living within the family story was good; falling outside of it was bad.
But working as a development psychologist and family researcher has led me to interview thousands of people and scour books, academic papers and surveys to try and understand the realities of different kinds of family life in Britain.
So what are the facts about families and divorce? Long-term, does a split weaken the relationships between parents and their children over time? Or, contrary to hand-wringing headlines, do parents and children bounce back relatively quickly?
Studies tend to find that adult children of divorced parents have poorer quality relationships with their parents compared to those whose parents have remained married. This is particularly true for fathers and children, especially when they have spent little time living together under the same roof.
One explanation for this is that in divorcing their child’s mother, fathers lose the “kin-keeper” of the family, as it is women who typically maintain family relationships by sending birthday cards and making calls. Another is that children can feel caught in the middle when parents divorce, leading them to feel closer to one parent than the other.
Sadly, divorce can contribute to the breakdown of the relationships between parents and their adult children entirely. In a survey exploring the experiences of approximately 1,600 parents who identified as being estranged from their child, approximately 40 per cent identified one of the causes of estrangement as being their child’s other biological parent – their ex – turning their grown children against them.
Although we know less about the children’s perspectives in these families, some studies have found that adult sons and daughters tend to blame the negative quality of the parent-child relationship itself, rather than the factors outside of it.
Estrangement can be an incredibly painful experience. Both parents and children can feel isolated, sharing their experiences rarely, and with few people, due to the stigma and shame that surrounds it. However, there can be positive outcomes of estrangement too.
Feeling less stressed and having more freedom can be benefits, for example – although arguably these are less likely to be experienced by parents than children. Researchers find that parents tend to be more invested in the parent-child relationship than their grown children; parenthood is a central identity and social circles often narrow as they age, whereas adult children’s lives are typically fuller as they juggle multiple identities like that of partner, parent and friend, alongside the demands of work.
The feelings that arise when people discuss estrangement – specifically those of shame, stigma and isolation – often ring true for those who navigate the fractures that can accompany divorce whilst maintaining active family relationships. They can also resonate for those who experience different challenges in family life, such as addictions and mental health problems.
These kinds of experiences affect people’s lives and their relationships in different ways and to different extents, but there is an important way in which most families are alike: when it comes to the images of perfect, happy families on our social media feeds and on our screens, many people feel like they are outside, looking in.
Although “divorce day” will have ramifications for many parents and their children, there is no one single story of how divorce affects relationships between parents and their children over time. In writing my book about family relationships, my hope is that we can think about them in a kinder way.
There are no “broken” families or “fractured” families – there are just families. And contrary to the images we may see as we scroll through social media, no family is perfect, free from pain, change or challenge.
‘No Family is Perfect: How to Live with That (and Them)’ by Lucy Blake is out now (£16.99, Welbeck)