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April 16, 2019 Tuesday 11:27:02 AM IST

Children Of a Lesser Chord

Cover Story

Divorce is generally a source of serious disruption for individuals and families. Until recently, it was viewed as a malady affecting the affluent West. But divorce rates are increasing in the traditional societies like India at a much faster rate now. For certain parents, divorce appears to be their only option in a troubled marital life, but for others, questions such as“should we stay together for the kids?” confront them.

As marriage is seen to reflect on the family status, parents and close relatives play an important role in the selection of the spouse. However, recent times have witnessed a reduction in the extent of this involvement and there is a greater participation of young men and women in the selection of the partner. There are controversies regarding the stability of marital relationships. Certain people argue for family-arranged marriages because of stronger material and emotional support provided by natal family whileothers stand for self-arranged ones through promotion ofemotional bonds, conjugality and intimacy. The possibility and acceptance of remarriages is also said to influence maritalstability.

Belonging to a rural area, having children younger than six years, high household income and a low personal income of the wife are some of the protective factors observedas far as stability is concerned. Unfulfilled emotional needs, different attitudes towards gender roles (especially regarding work distribution within the family), diverse educational and ‘pedagogical principles’, communication problems, different priorities regarding spare time and family time, strongprofessional engagement of men, alcoholabuse of the male partner and sexual problems are some of the reasons for breakdown.

Persons belonging to rural communities(children, womenand men) have very poorchances of overcoming difficulties following divorce, in comparison to the urban people. Possible reasons for this might bethe presence of fewer workplaces, child carecentres and professional support; more traditional outlook and attitudes towards family, gender roles anddivorce; a higher extent of social control; a bigger loss of social prestige after divorce; andless possibilities (and willingness) to seek help.

A watershed

Parental divorce is a watershed irrespective of the age of the child, bringinga massive change in their lives.Boys externalise the distress in the form of anger or frustration. They may get into trouble at school, home and with peers. However, girls tend to internalize their distress in the form of depressed mood, headache or stomach ache, and changes in their eating and sleeping patterns.

Itelicits a more regressive response in the child where he or she may become more dependent. Divorce shakes the children’s trust in dependency on parents.Convincing a young child of the permanence of divorce is a difficult task as they are hoping for a parental reunion. The dependent child reacts in an anxious way at least during the short term. Who is going to take care of me? Will they lose their love for me as well? Theseare some of the questions they ask themselves. Children may also experience separation anxiety, crying at bed time, breaking of toilet training, bed-wetting, clinging, whining, tantrums, apart from temporary loss of established self-care skills.

As their relationship with their parents go insecure, they fail to experience security and fulfilment in their intimate relationships later. Often, these children have poor social skills, characterized by aversive or coercive interaction styles leading to rejection by normal peers. Adult children of divorced parents may make bad choices in relationships, may give up when problems arise, or may avoid relationships altogether.

 Divorce evokes a more aggressive response in the adolescents, accelerating their independence. They tend to deal withit more aggressively, often reacting in a rebellious way, disregarding family discipline and taking care of themselvesas their parents have failed in doing that. They start to distrust and may sometimes don’t mind even to hurt their parents.They exhibit more anxiety and depression and anti-social behaviour thanchildren from united families. They also leave their home earlier to get married, cohabit, or live on theirown, depending on the disharmony they have experienced.

Impact on education

Apart from psychological consequences, divorce can affect the physical health and educational performance of children.They may have double the risk for developing asthma and also increased risk for many physical disorders. They are at a higher risk for suicidal behaviour.Theyreceive less emotionaland financialsupport.They may also have to suffer due to improper nutrition, deficientmedical care, lesser involvement in extra-curricular activities, clothing and school choices. There is a decline inlanguage stimulation and academic involvement, pride, affection and an increase in physical punishment which all, in turn, will lead to serious psychological problems.They experience a lower level of well-being when compared to children from intact families.

Parental divorce or separation also predicts increased adolescent use of alcohol, tobacco and other illegal drugs.Children’s approval of premarital sex,cohabitation, and divorce rises dramatically, while their approval for marriageand childbearing falls. Children from divorced families have an earlier sexual debut, multiple sex partners and high-risk sexual behaviours than children fromintact families. Childhood abuse is also more likely in the context of parental divorce.

No one can take away the pain of a child whose parents had voluntarily chosen to withdraw from his life and nothing can replace his Mom or Dad. And no one can take away the pain that a child feels when a parent decides to withdraw from their lives.The hope of the parents that remarriage will gift them a happy family is just an assumption unless the expectations are realised and the roles are defined.Theloss is not likely to be diminished by the introduction of stepparents. The parent might fully be engaged in rebuilding their own lives economically, socially and sexually. Often the abandonment that the kids experience is magnified by remarriage when they see their parent’s life revolving around a different family.

Illustrative cases

 We recently saw a young 39-year- old woman who was insisting on getting divorce. She was separated from her husband and was living at her home with her two children 14 years and 9 years old. She was a government employee and said, she can’t continue anymore with the marital life. The case was already before the Family Court which had referred the case to us. The husband, an engineer,did not want a divorce and was feeling devastated, especially with the separation from his two young children. The wife said that her husband never cared for him when she was bedridden with severe back pain. She reiterated that his parents had behaved badly with her when her husband was away in the Gulf countries for job. She said that she had felt humiliated at that time and was unable to forgive them. Her husband was willing to make amends for each and every mistake committed in the past. But the wife said that she won’t be able to trust him.

We have been working with them, but realise that it is not an easy proposition to find a solution. We have met the children, who love both their parents and are feeling traumatised.

We have met another couple who are only in the second year of their marital life, but insisting on divorce. They do no have children. In this case, the husband says that he can’t adjust with her anymore as their personalities are diametrically opposite! To him, divorce is the easiest solution and should be secured before they have any children! The girl does not want a divorce and firmly believes that there is nothing wrong in her behaviour. According to her, it is the husband who has to change. It appears, the apparent easiness of a divorce is preventing the couple from making a serious attempt to stay together and adjust with each other!


While the parents consider about their future after divorce, especially about their finances and social support, they also often worry about the future of their children.  Despite this, most people are unwilling to travel that extra mile to keep the marriage intact. Hence the implications of divorce should be a matter of serious discussion in the Indian society now!

*Prof Roy Abraham Kallivayalil, MD,DPM,
Secretary General, World Psychiatric Association,   
Professor & Head, Dept of Psychiatry,

Pushpagiri Institute of Medical Sciences,  

Tiruvalla, Kerala- 689 101, India.


**Dr Soumya P Thomas, MD,

Senior Resident,

Pushpagiri Institute of Medical Sciences,  

Tiruvalla, Kerala- 689 101, India.