The Three Legged Race: Strengthening Families
Before, During, and After Divorce

Joni Mullock
Northwest Missouri State University


It is estimated that over half of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce. Over the past few decades, most studies on the effects of divorce have concluded that divorce has adverse effects on children, adults, and society as a whole. We, as family and consumer sciences professionals, need to focus on what can be done to help the individual family members cope with the issues that surround divorce. If we can begin to accept that divorce is inevitable in a free society, then we may be able to take the focus from blaming and shaming and begin to focus on providing resources, information, and support to those who are feeling the effects of divorce. Then we will make a difference in the lives of the families that are in a divorce process, whether it be pre-divorce, during the divorce, or post-divorce.


            Despite recent declines of divorce rates, the rate in the U.S. still remains high. Since the first historical recording of a U.S. divorce in 1890, divorce rates climbed steadily between 1890 and 1970 (with the exception of the Depression and post-World War II years), rising an alarming 300% in the late 1970s (this statistic not only includes first marriage, but subsequent marriages as well). Since the late 1970s, the divorce rate has been on a very slow decline (Cahn, 2000; Napier & Whitaker, 1988). In the year 2000, the estimated divorce rate for the U.S. was 41% per capita (National Vital Statistics System, 2001).

Stages of Divorce

Divorce is a process with several stages. Because divorce is process, it could begin as early as the day a couple marries, and it will continue until the parties are truly and honestly satisfied with their lives after the legal divorce (Morgan & Coleman, 2001). Before, during, and after the legal divorce there are emotional, psychological, community, and economic stages, as well as a co-parental stage if there are children involved (Goldenberg, 1998).

Each divorcing spouse, whether he or she initiated the divorce or not, will go through emotional and psychological stages. Emotions may include feelings of relief in which one party sees this process as a second chance for happiness. On the other hand, most parties who are going through the experience express feelings of depression and helplessness. Coping mechanisms may include clinging to families and friend and/or seeking out professional help. Some without coping mechanisms might find themselves on a downhill slide of self-isolation from which they may never recover (Amato, 2000).

Having a good support system to lean on is a key component to a less stressful divorce. The community surrounding a divorce is made up of individuals with many different beliefs and ideas. Family and friends give much needed support. However, family and friends will have mixed emotions about the event of the divorce and may not know what to do for the member who is going through the divorce process. Professional counseling support groups are essential in helping persons feel more comfortable in talking about their personal life. However, it is imperative that professionals do not discount the depth of isolation and depression clients may experience. If this happens, individual counseling will help counter the loss of self-esteem that one feels as a result of the divorce (Amato, 2000).

When there is a divorce, there are two households instead of just one to maintain. Financial resources decline and adjustments need to be made to prevent financial difficulty. In this economic stage, the divorcing couple may have to seek out financial counseling to help prepare for the changes in financial condition. The father usually gets the burden of paying child support or alimony each month and the mother and father usually are forced to take a second job outside the home to make ends meet. Children become a resource to help more within the household (Morgan & Coleman, 2001).

Most parents are concerned about their children in divorce. After a divorce, parents must accept that they can no longer control the other spouse and need to focus on their children and their needs (Morgan & Coleman, 2001). The co-parenting stage is a negotiating stage and the more this stage is simplified, the better the children will adjust and develop. Divorced mothers and fathers bring into a marriage their own set of values, beliefs, needs, and attitudes. Because of this, they may share the same divorce-related events and circumstances, but their perceptual realities may be quite different.

Many scholars encourage divorce education and mediation programs. One example of a divorce education program is the PEACE program (Parents’ Education About Children’s Emotions). This program is based on social learning theory and it trains parents in parenting skills and teaches parents about child development, but mainly focuses on structuring each child’s environment and seeing the environment from the child’s point of view (MeKenry, Clark, & Stone, 1999). 

Many divorcing parents find help through the court system itself. Between 1994 and 1998 mandated court-connected divorce education programs had tripled in number in the U.S. (Kelly, 2000). In these programs, the common objective is stressing the importance of informing the parents about how children respond to divorce and to alert the parents to the potential negative effects of continued high conflict and other harmful behaviors on children. These programs also educate the parents on positive parenting.

Divorce mediation has provided powerful and effective results. The emphasis on “win-win” rather than adversarial approach provides some sense of satisfaction to most parties, but with that said, mediation is not for everyone. If there is a party involved that will not take anything less than to have it all, then the courts will have to set guidelines for division of proper and custody (Kelly, 2000). Mediation and divorce programs will help the parties maintain as much control over their lives as they can and help each party to receive something positive and meaningful out of the divorce.

After the legal divorce process is over, the parents and children now will face the effects of post-divorce. The focus is often centered on the parents and their individual wants and needs rather than family obligations. Children left to fend for themselves do not know how to cope with the processes of divorce. Ineffective parental practices, depression, and the tendency to become anti-social play a major role in the development and well-being of the children (Simons, Lin, Gordon, Conger, & Lorenz, 1999). This cannot be in the best interest of any child.


Social support for the whole family is one of the most reliable interventions for people who are going through or who have gone through divorce proceedings. Support from informal and formal social support groups can have positive impact, both directly and indirectly upon the functioning of the parent, family, and child (Dunst, 2000). One approach that can be taken is family-centered support. Family-centered practice places families in central and pivotal roles in decisions and actions involving child, parent, and family priorities and preferences. Family-centered help is made most effective by giving both relational and participatory elements. Relational elements consist of good clinical practice in active listening and empathy. Other effective strategies include believing in family competence and capabilities and educating families on how to use their power and resources.

Family research has provided convincing evidence that children of divorce tend to experience more psychological, social, and academic difficulties than do children living in two-parent families. In the past, family research treated divorce as an isolated event that affects children only after the occurrence. Today divorce is viewed as an ongoing multistage process that may have begun long before the legal divorce and will continue for many years afterwards. Treating divorce as a process and providing appropriate interventions at all stages may be the best strategy for family and consumer sciences professionals dealing with divorcing families.


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Napier, A. Y., & Whitaker, C. (1988). The family crucible: The intense experience of early therapy. New York: Harper Collins.

National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). (1999-2000). Divorce rates and marriage rates—What happened. Monthly Vital Statistics Report, 49(6). Retrieved February 12, 2002 from http://www.divorcereform.org/rates.html.

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