-Single-Parent Families: The Legacy Of Divorce

Picture Frame Single-Parent Families: The Legacy Of Divorce Lives Interrupted By Divorce A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE – Part 4 “A Father to the fatherless, a Defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling.” Psalm 68:5 TNIV
This verse clearly delineates God as the primary and ultimate resource to parents who raise children in a singleparent household. The absence of a primary provider who cares for and defends the family and its offspring is implied in the representation of God as “the Father to the fatherless” and “a Defender of widows.” Most often it is the father who departs from the home leaving the children operationally fatherless and the mother living a life not unlike that of a widow, though with more complications. With that perspective in mind, let’s look at some of the realities of life in a single-parent family.

More Means Less/Less Means More Realities
When separation/divorce occurs and children are involved, two family units are typically formed to replace one. This usually results in two separate households where children spend time as determined by a custody contract. Consequently there is more pressure on each parent when children are in their custodial care, and fewer parental resources to care for the children. There is more stress on the children, less control by the parent and often more confusion and conflict for both the parent and the child, as children inherit more autonomy and the parent more responsibility. If one or both parents abdicate responsibility then children start to form their own boundaries and take more responsibility for themselves in the family. In any case, the singleparent family learns that in some ways more means less and in other ways less means more.

For example, about 90% of single- parent households are headed by women. The earning differential between men and women favors men; when coupled with the documented evidence that fathers are notorious for non-payment of alimony and child support, this means that mothers have more expenses and less income. One study of the financial status of men and women following nofault divorce revealed that the woman’s standard of living decreased by 23% while the man’s increased by 10%. On the other hand, with the reduction of adult resources, the tasks of the household fall more on children’s shoulders, which means children have more domestic chores in single-parent families. The positive side of this issue is that both parent and children find they have resources they didn’t know they had. Children learn to be more responsible and the parent (especially mom) learns to delegate and administer.

Danger Of Over-Extending Child Resources
The major vulnerability in singleparent families, however, is related to over-extending child resources. Physical responsibilities can and should be shared, but emotional burdens need to be disbursed by the single parent to other adults rather than to their children. Two signs of over-extended child resources are the “parental child” and the “parentified child.” The parental child is the one selected consciously or unconsciously by the single parent to replace the partner who has left. The parental child moves into the adult role from the sibling role and acquires the rights, privileges, responsibilities and power of an adult in exchange for providing support, companionship and resources that the ex-spouse took when departing. The parentified child moves up two levels in the family structure and becomes a quasi-parent to the parent emotionally (by listening to laments, complaints and perceptions of the parent) and physically (by taking care of the parent and siblings). Both forms of over-extending the child need to be avoided to function well as a single-parent family.

Types Of Single-Parent Families
One of the realities that many single- parent families have to face is that the single-parent state may not be transitional. Approximately 35% of divorced women never remarry. Therefore many children grow to adulthood in single-parent families. In any case, whether remarriage occurs or not there are four distinctive types of singleparent families, each with its assets and liabilities.

• Single-Parent Family With Cooperative Co-Parents: In this type, both biological parents cooperate in parenting their children. This form is by far the best with respect to the emotional and social well-being of the children, but it requires a good deal of commitment and self discipline on the part of the co-parents. Remember, these are two people who could not work together as marital partners, and it’s not any easier to work together as co-parents.

• Single-Parent Family With Little Or No Non-Custodial Parent: On the surface this looks ideal for the custodial parent in spite of the extra pressure, because there is little or no intrusion by the exspouse. Approximately 33% of fathers separate from their children after divorce. However, in times of turmoil, especially during adolescence, the “ghost” of the absent parent may emerge to create problems because the child has either idealized the absent parent or because the child is internally prompted to go on a quest to find the absent parent, an initiative that often raises old issues and problems along with new ones. It is not uncommon for a child to go on an identity search in adolescence or young adulthood that resurrects the pain of losing a parent sometimes long after the divorce has been finalized.

• Single-Parent Family With Conflictual Co-Parents: Ongoing custody battles (physical, emotional and material), antagonistic parenting styles, continued animosity between ex-spouses and different lifestyles of the former spouse often produce conflict between the two households with children caught in between. This type of single-parent family generates split-loyalty conflicts in children, creates pressure on children to become spies on their respective parents, and generally continues the marital-conflict patterns through the children. The conflict dynamics do not end, they merely shift to the parenting arena. This type of family unit is financially, emotionally, socially, psychologically and spiritually costly to parents and children alike.

• Single-Parent Family With Inconsistent Parenting: This type is by far the most damaging because it produces instability in the family and insecurity in the child. Parents who promise and then don’t produce generate confusion and disappointment in children and escalate negative emotion in the co-parent. For example, fathers who make arrangements to pick up their children and then don’t show up leave children and their ex-spouse in an emotionally precipitous position which, when repeated over time, erodes the child’s sense of self-esteem and deteriorates the parent-child relationship.

By James P. Trotzer

With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website:


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