Adaptability, self-regulation key for divorcing parties
This is the eighth in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.
Q: What are risk and resiliency factors that influence the outcome of divorce?
A: In a book titled "For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly (2002) present facts from Hetherington's study of 1,400 families during three decades. The main focus of the study was an analysis of the risk and resiliency factors that either facilitate divorce or buffer the stress.
In the category of protective factors, one of the best assets after divorce is maturity. Under this topic, there are four qualities that are important. First is an ability to plan ahead. That entails postponing gratification and delaying big decisions during periods of confusion and uncertainty such as rushing into a new marriage quickly after a divorce. Self-regulation is self-control and is a significant protective factor in keeping emotions from clouding judgment, decreasing parenting skills and causing self-defeating behavior.
Adaptability in divorce is just as important as flexibility in marriage. These qualities make problems solvable, whereas rigidity makes problems unsolvable. Another sign of maturity is helping others. When someone feels bad, helping others helps that person feel better.
Another protective factor is autonomy. Those divorcing persons who are comfortable alone and can make independent decisions find post-divorce adjustment easier. Friends and family are important for support, but those who rely too heavily on support wear out their friends and relatives.
Along with autonomy is the importance of an internal source of control. Inner-directed persons take charge of their lives and become proactive after divorce. They open businesses, go to school and build new social networks. Those with an external locus of control are passive. They try to outlast their problems rather than solve them. Such an attitude produces feelings of helplessness and negativity, which, in turn, produces more of those feelings and creates a vicious cycle.
For some divorcing adults, religion offers a buffer from the pain of divorce and provides a strong support system. Another benefit of involvement in religious groups is that of the ethics and moral standards that are beneficial guidelines for children.
Another source of solace for divorcing adults is work. Men, in particular, derive a sense of stability and satisfaction from their work. Before divorce, women might be working part-time or intermittently, and one-third of married women with young children don't work. After divorce, women go back to school, get more challenging jobs, meet new people and generally improve their self-esteem.
Transitional support figures are helpful. These are the persons who help facilitate the change from marriage to divorce. These figures might be romantic partners or can be professional persons such as counselors, lawyers or ministers. Sometimes friends, families or coworkers can step up and assume more active roles for support during hard times.
The most effective buffer for post-divorce stress is a new love relationship. This relationship counteracts depression and increases self-esteem. This development is more healing for men than women because men are more socially inept and more emotionally isolated. Women often are more emotionally and socially self-sufficient.
Hetherington's study reiterated risk factors as well as those for resiliency. A significant risk in divorce is the presence of an antisocial spouse. These persons are insensitive, impulsive, unreliable, explosive or aggressive. These spouses quarrel with family and friends, coworkers and supervisors. Violence and substance abuse often are present, and anti-social persons make their own stress because of their own pathology. These spouses do not negotiate or compromise, cannot see problems from anyone else's viewpoint and do not learn from their own mistakes.
Impulsivity means acting without thinking or considering consequences. Children with impulsive parents suffer from inconsistent parenting and moodiness. Impulsive decisions post-divorce can lead to poor decisions, such as unwise sexual encounters.
Neurotic disorders are clusters of obsessive, anxious or depressed behavior. These symptoms burn energy and precipitate feelings of helplessness that can result in a state of crisis and immobility. A common object of obsessions is the spouse a person is divorcing. The attachment can be many things, including unresolved dependency. Sometimes unresolved attachments really are love, but most are mixes of many differing emotions. However, sometimes unresolved relationships with ex-spouses do not end for years.
Cohabitation is more common after second marriages. Serial cohabitating relationships are harmful to children, and cohabitation is more difficult for children than remarriage. When long-term cohabiting partners break up, children are distressed.
Better educated adults tend to become less depressed, more satisfied with their respective lives, and better parents before and after divorce. When divorce throws women with children into poverty, they move to poor neighborhoods that have inferior resources.
A family history of antisocial behavior, alcoholism, aggression and neurotic behavior increase the risks for adult children. The adult children of divorced parents, especially women, have an increase in the rate of marital failures.
* Next week's article will focus on the effect of divorce specifically on children.
Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.