Divorce affects family members in many different ways, both positive and negative. While many children can foster healthy relationships post-divorce, some may experience challenges maintaining future relationships after coping with their parents' divorce. "When a child's parents divorce, the experience always allows leaving a relationship to be a viable option versus hanging in and wrestling with working things out," says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." That's why it's important to teach your child about relationship-building for the future to ensure she can foster healthy relationships of her own, and be able to work things out with a partner if that's a suitable option.
It's no secret that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced, says Christina Steinorth, California-based psychotherapist and author of "Cue Cards For Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships." Studies indicate that daughters of divorced parents have a 60-percent higher divorce rate in marriages than children of non-divorced parents, and sons have a 35-percent higher divorce rate, says Steinorth. "Part of the reason is that when parents are divorced," she says, "it seems to send a message in a non-direct way that divorce is acceptable."
To combat the unfavorable odds against your child's future relationships, Steinorth recommends having age-appropriate conversations with your children about the general reasons behind their divorce.
When a child witnesses her parents' marriage crumbling, it's possible that she may adapt a pessimistic perception of relationships in general, especially if high levels of parental conflict are present. An older child may also stray away from the notion of marriage altogether to avoid the possibility of divorce in the future.
According to Steinorth, parents can temper children's pessimistic attitudes about relationships by modeling cooperative behavior. "Parents can continue to model civil, caring and respectful behavior toward each other," she says. "Showing that you can still treat your ex-spouse with dignity and respect helps your children learn that disagreements don't need to lead to a complete breakdown in a relationship."
Witnessing a parent's relationship unravel as a child can ignite feelings of anxiety when dating in the future. According to Dr. John Duffy, Chicago-based psychotherapist and author of "The Available Parent," children of divorce often focus too much on failed relationships and assume they will experience the same fate. "I've worked with several girls who have sworn off marriage because of anxiety about getting hurt emotionally," he says. "Many assume that one or both of their parents 'give up' on love, so the children feel dispirited as well." Duffy suggests that parents be clear that they believe in marriage and stress to their children that it's worth the risk to experience a close relationship.
Healthy relationships are built on trust; however, many children of divorced parents struggle with trust when working through their own relationship challenges, especially if they have witnessed a breakdown of trust between their own parents. According to Walfish, these trust issues carry over into their future relationships. "I've treated many teenage girls whose fathers cheated, had an affair and breached trust," she says. "In these instances, the daughters are very angry at their fathers and are greatly challenged to forgive."
Fostering these feelings of betrayal will continue to affect your child when the emotions are deep, strong and complicated, says Walfish. Parents can help a child cope with trust issues early on by maintaining a cordial co-parenting relationship with each other. While one parent may not be willing to forgive, he or she can cooperate to model respectful, caring behavior.