When Elephants Fight, the Ants Lose: Divorce and Its Effect on Kids

For around three years, I ran a class designed to help children whose parents were going through divorce cope with the emotional strain they were experiencing. During the years I ran those classes, I was frequently struck by the recurring comments made by the young people who participated in the classes. elephantsComments ranged from dismay over the loss of family to frustration over newfound awkwardness in parental relationships to consternation at their parents’ inability to just stop being so cruel to each other. It was seldom the case that a class went without a child breaking down and crying. Interestingly, I never once saw any of the children tease each other over tears shed in that setting. Except in instances of an absent, addicted, or exceptionally abusive parent, I never heard a child say that the divorce was a welcome change.

In contrast, on the occasions that I ran the adult version of the class or interacted with parents before or after the class, I frequently heard parents say things to the effect of: they were ready to move on or anxious to close that chapter in their lives. The prospect of freedom from the unpleasantness of the marriage relationship was a breath of fresh air that would free them up to find someone new. It’s interesting that few parents acknowledged that their new found freedom would not be shared by their child, who would hence forth live in the far more difficult circumstance of trying to navigate their adolescent years with two families, rather than one.

There is an old adage: “When the elephants fight, the ants lose.” For all the unpleasantness spouses experience in disintegrating marriages, children are the ones who are unintentionally stepped on. The most important element in the life of every child is stability. They need it in order to thrive and are usually poorly equipped to deal with the stress of such a major life change. This is why children of divorce are statistically more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol, perform poorly in school, have behavioral difficulties, and be incarcerated. Worse still is that children from divorced homes are far more likely to get divorced themselves.  The biggest loser in divorce is the one member who did not ask to join the family, and is the least equipped to cope with change.

The responsibility in the parenting/married relationship belongs to the parents. This often elicits the response: “So I’m supposed to stay in a miserable relationship forever?” This is a case of asking the wrong question. Parents are not responsible to be tied to a miserable relationship. They are burdened with the responsibility to work together to make certain that the relationship is durable.  This is easy to do while dating because courting is hard work. Couples have to listen, say nice things, buy gifts, go on dates, talk through problems, and try to be romantic/attractive in order to get to the altar in the first place. The trick is that the work doesn’t end there. It goes on for life. This is also the responsibility of married parents. A happy and stable marriage/family takes as much hard work as a career and it is a commitment requiring daily effort that we vow to take on from the moment we say “I do.”

This is not to say that everyone who gets a divorce ruins their children forever or that they will instantly go to hell. Though the Bible presents a pretty negative view on the topic of divorce, there are instances in which provision is made. There are circumstances in which the protection of the child or one of the spouses may be at stake, infidelity, abandonment, and so forth simply force the issue. The larger point here isn’t to attack those who are divorced. Rather, it is to encourage those who are married and raising kids to put in the work to keep their relationship healthy. Divorce hurts children deeply. It is important that parents make every effort to maintain a healthy relationship as a protection against the potential for hurting their children.

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5 thoughts on “When Elephants Fight, the Ants Lose: Divorce and Its Effect on Kids

  1. Excellent post. This point often stops sorry if the last two paragraphs. The argument is made “You should stay together for the sake of the kids” which perversely leaves you with a pretty hollow relationship that you could be forgiven for thinking is impossible to save and isn’t worth the effort. Your penultimate paragraph nails it. It’s equally true of couples without kids (and is a pretty good analogue for most of the New Testament epistles. But the responsibility for the most vulnerable members of the family adds a huge additional dimension. But you provide more than the guilt-trip the “remember the kids” point usually becomes. It’s a reminder that the obligation to the kids carries with it the opportunity to give that depth of relationship people can believe is lost.


    • patchingcracks says:

      Wow, Thanks for the positive response and for the solid take on the subject. I actually wrote this for a column in the local paper several years ago. This is a rewrite that incorporated the closing paragraph, which was not part of the original due to word count constraints. When I reread it recently, I had the same thought and really wanted to amend it based on the shortfall in handling the subject. I very much appreciate the insightful response.


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