Life Wellbeing Where is the love? Why some children of divorce struggle as adults, and what to do about it

Where is the love? Why some children of divorce struggle as adults, and what to do about it

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Are children of divorce irreparably damaged in some way? There’s a lot of research that goes out of its way to show the many ways divorce wreaks havoc on children and their futures.

You’ll find studies that show how academic achievement is compromised in these kids, how they’re more likely to take up smoking than their peers, how they’re prone to guzzling sugary drinks and tipping into obesity, and how their relationship with their fathers suffers.

Even more disturbing is the finding that adult children of divorce are more likely to have seriously considered suicide.

It’s pretty bleak stuff

The latest finding is that people who were children when their parents were divorced showed lower levels of oxytocin when they were adults than those whose parents remained married. This is according to a suggestive but problematic study led by Baylor University in the US.

The researchers suggest that these lower levels of oxytocin – known as the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle drug’ – may play a role in children of divorce having trouble forming attachments when they are grown.

Christmas family violence
What is the legacy of being raised in a home filled with violence and abuse? Photo: Getty

“Since the rates of divorce in our society began to increase, there has been concern about the effects of divorce on the children,” said lead author Dr Maria Boccia, professor of child and family studies at Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. Her remarks were made in a prepared statement.

“Most research has focused on short-term effects, like academic performance, or longer-term outcomes like the impact on relationships. How divorce causes these effects, however, is unknown.”

Previous studies of children whose parents were divorced, said Dr Boccia, have found “that the experience was associated with mood disorders and substance abuse – behaviors found to be related to oxytocin.”

These findings, which carry the inference that damage from divorce for children is of an organic nature that perhaps can’t be fixed without medication, are being largely reported (see here and here) without nuanced analysis. Some is required.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland and is commonly associated with a flood of gushy feelings. These are commonly associated with intense, positive and intimate bonding experiences such as sexual play, childbirth or hugging.

As the researchers note, previous studies have shown oxytocin “to be important for social behavior and emotional attachments in early life.”

Research has also shown that the oxytocin is activated by playing with puppies, looking at kittens or even when listening to a meditation podcast. All of which is lovely.

What’s less often discussed is oxytocin has a dark side. A 2013 study found that oxytocin strengthens bad memories and can increase fear and anxiety.

The authors of that Northwestern University said that oxytocin appears to be “the reason stressful social situations, perhaps being bullied at school or tormented by a boss, reverberate long past the event and can trigger fear and anxiety in the future.”

That’s because the hormone “actually strengthens social memory in the brain.”

What was involved in the Baylor study?

According to a statement from the university:

  • The researchers recruited 128 participants aged 18 to 62 at two US universities. Of those, 27.3 per cent reported their parents were divorced. The average age for participants when their parents divorced was nine years.
  • Upon arriving at the study site, participants were asked to empty their bladders, then given a 16-ounce bottle of water (about half a litre) to drink before filling out questionnaires about their parents and peers during childhood, as well as their current social functioning.
  • The questions addressed their parents’ style, including affection, protection, indifference, over-control and abuse; and their own levels of confidence, discomfort with closeness, need for approval and their styles of relationships and care-giving.
  • After participants completed the questionnaires, urine samples were collected, and researchers analysed oxytocin concentrations.
  • The levels were substantially lower in individuals whose childhood experience included their parents’ divorce.
  • Further analysis showed that those individuals rated their parents as less caring and more indifferent. They also rated their fathers as more abusive.
  • Those who experienced parental divorce during childhood were less confident, more uncomfortable with closeness and less secure in relationships.
  • They rated their own care-giving style as less sensitive and close than did the participants whose parents had not divorced.

 Some things to consider

This was a small study from a Christian university that fails to account for the fact that oxytocin is secreted in response to a positive event. In childbirth it serves an evolutionary function of promoting bonding between mother and child.

And there’s no doubt an evolutionary function in promoting cuddle time with potential mates. Outside of that it seems to be triggered by events that lead us to declare: “Oh cuuuuuute.”

Sitting down and answering questions about an unhappy time of your life is not going to promote those inky-binky feelings. Participants who had rosier memories will walk away from such a study in a better frame of mind, even somewhat self-satisfied.

It’s not so say oxytocin levels aren’t a worthwhile line of inquiry, but it needs a better study where, in effect, the participants are set up to fail.

Oxytocin is a key biological factor in parental bonding with newborns. Photo: Getty

This also raises the question that studies that look at children of divorce are likely to suffer some tendency toward bias because “divorce” tends to be used as an umbrella terms that covers a multitude of sins that need to be teased apart.

It’s true that even a good divorce, where parents work hard to maintain decency and a sense of family, is a deep disappointment to children who wish that mum and dad were still together, under one roof.

And a bad divorce (read:warfare) following a traumatic marriage (violence, abuse, neglect) can’t help leave children with multiple psychic injuries. As is the case for children who remain in a toxic even cruel family dynamic.

Psychologist Lyn Bender, a regular guest on the The New Daily‘s podcast, sees that the terms of reference in this and other ‘divorce studies’ are too narrow – where divorce is the culprit, rather than the complicated dynamics of families (intact or otherwise) facing all manner of difficulties.

“I would be looking for the damage than can also be done in a situation where a marriage was very dysfunctional. What’s happening in families where there’s been violence but no divorce?” she said.

With her clients, while understanding there are “a lot of stressors for children of divorced parents,” Ms Bender says she doesn’t explore their issues “through the variable of divorce, but rather in their trust in attachments, their relationships with one or both parents, however those circumstances played out.”

Divorce is no death sentence for future positive relationships

The other lens Ms Bender looks through, when working with clients, is role models:

“What do you learn about relationships through the one you’re most intimately with (as a young person), which is your parents. That’s your first experience of coupledom. You might learn that in relationships that people don’t kiss or touch one another or say nice things to one another or they yell at each other… tyat might colour your view of marriage.

Costs of divorce.
The conflicts leading up to divorce can exact a longterm toll. Photo: Getty

“So the child, a young child, would take that in as an example. The thing I notice with experiences of relationships in translation is who (the clients) encounter in their lives who may provide a different role model.

“So it could be an understanding teacher who makes them feel more positive about relationships.”

In other words, the wider world tends to take up the emotional slack if we’re open to it.

Ms Bender also notes that trauma in early life is particularly damaging, but many people get past it, and can emerge as more compassionate, caring people as a consequence.

“We don’t know the numbers but it’s a common to see people developing an altruistic drive and success,” she said.

“Usually in those cases it’s because they’ve had some experience that’s told them that life can be more than how it is … or what they’ve known of it.”

There’s that famous charming poem by Philip Larkin: They f*** you up your mum and dad. They don’t mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, And add some extra, just for you.

And that’s whether you’re waking up with them every morning or not.

If you or anyone you know needs help:

Lifeline on 131 114

Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

1800 Respect on

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