Divorce is a traumatic experience for a child under any circumstances. They were certainly so in mine, in which several intervening factors complicated the ability to develop effective psychological coping mechanisms. I was nine years old when my parents got divorced. The divorce was not due to mutual consent or irreconcilable differences but the fact that my mother had an affair with my father's best friend, subsequently leaving the country. Being abandoned by my mother has had lingering effects on my psyche, impacting my ability to form intimate relationships and to trust others. Using my example, it is possible to evaluate the developmental, environmental, cultural, and systemic issues at stake during a major family trauma like divorce. Legal and ethical issues related to my personal case will also be discussed. The analysis will inform a thorough diagnosis and treatment plan, as well as suggesting possible alternatives.
The following issues are part of the primary diagnosis: low self-esteem; inability to trust others; inability to commit in personal relationships; inability to commit to long-term plans; lack of interest in parenthood. Although a lack of desire to have children is not necessarily a pathology, in my case I do believe that it is a symptom of the underlying issues related to my parents' divorce. Hess & Camera (2010) point out that a child who experiences divorce may under go "stress that interferes with normal development," (p. 79). When my mother left, my grades at school started to plummet, and my social life also took a turn for the worse. I became withdrawn and lacked interest in the activities that once made me happy. Friendships and family ties suffered. The "primary bonds with parents" that I had prior to the divorce were shattered (Hess & Camara, 2010, p. 79). Even my bond with my father was shattered, as I may have subconsciously blamed him for my mother leaving. The divorce shattered my trust in social institutions in general, pointing to what Hess & Camara (2010) call the "challenges to conceptions of social reality" that divorce causes in children (p. 79).
The inability to make commitments, both in terms of romantic relationships and in terms of career choices, also stems from the divorce experience. I also have a problem trusting others in most situations, including trusting people I love. Divorce is a serious trauma, ranking second only to the experience of the death of a loved one (Peck & Manochurian, 1988). The social support system that might have been in place in the United States were not present in Iran, where I grew up. Whereas divorce is relatively common in the United States, it is relatively rare in Iran. This makes for an extremely difficult time finding ways of expressing the complex array of emotions that I felt being abandoned. As Peck & Manochurian (1988) point out, "The sociocultural context of the family is another aspect to consider in understanding the impact of divorce, adding a vital and often overlooked dimension to the divorce process," (p. 1).
Moreover, "the ramifications of a specific culture's perceptions of divorce greatly influence the family's adaptational process," (Peck & Manochurian, 1988, p. 1). In a culture that traditionally does not recognize or accept divorce, my father had little means by which to deal with the trauma himself. My father likewise had few means by which to help me cope. He experienced the divorce with as much psychological confusion as I did, and it was difficult to adapt to the social stigmatization that arose once neighbors, friends, and family understood what was going on. Neither of us could count on friends or family, let alone social institutions, to support us during this time of great need. It was this lack of exposure to social support systems that bred within me a serious inability to trust others or make commitments.
In addition to being unique due to cultural and social factors, my situation was also unique in that the primary caregiver after the divorce was my father. My mother extricated herself from the family. I had little to no contact with her after she left the country. As Hess & Camara (1979) point out, the "negative effects of divorce were greatly mitigated when positive relationships with both parents were maintained," (p. 79). I never had this opportunity to maintain positive relationships with both parents, because my mother left and my father had his own set of difficulties coping. "The child's relationship with the non-custodial parent" is hugely important for promoting effective coping with stress (Hess & Camara, 1979, p. 79). In most cases, it is the mother that is the primary or custodial parent, and the father who is the non-custodial parent Not so with me. The experience may have upset my ability to inherently trust the social institution of marriage, or the ability of any woman to become a person worthy of my trust. It might have affected my ability to trust my wife to become a primary caregiver of our children.
Moreover, I did not miss my mother after she left. Whether due to resentment or anger that I could not process properly, I ceased to think about her. It was as if an emotional and cognitive wall was built within me. The wall sheltered me from the pain of having lost my mother, the pain of feeling abandoned, and the pain of feeling socially isolated. This emotional wall remains within my psyche, and is one of the reasons why I have difficulties opening up my emotions or trusting others. To open up to others and express feelings would require a dismantling of the only coping mechanism I ever knew. The wall has become a part of my identity and my personality; it is part of who I am. If I take down that wall, I might experience emotions that are too strong and uncomfortable. I am afraid that I might not be able to cope with the sudden onslaught of emotions that might emerge if I do decide to delve deeper into my feelings about the divorce -- or even into my feelings about my current marriage and other relationships.
Low self-esteem is another integral part of my diagnosis. The inability to trust and low self-esteem go hand-in-hand. I am unable to trust because I feel too poorly about myself, and I feel poorly about myself because I have trouble trusting others. One of the initial reasons I developed low self-esteem was because I could not understand my parents' divorce. I did not know why my mother left, or why she chose to have an affair and abandon her family. Because I could not answer the fundamental question of "Why did it happen?" I distanced myself from other people. I felt too ashamed to answer questions about my parents or to talk about the divorce. This caused me to have poor social relationships with others, including my peers. The poor social ties in turn caused lower self-esteem. Likewise, my performance in school suffered, as I did not have the emotional energy to devote to improving myself. I did not believe I was worthy of education, if I was unworthy of a mother's love. My poor performance in school created a vicious cycle in which I felt like I was no good at anything. Thus, I ceased trying at anything.
A treatment plan for my situation will address the root causes of problems like low self-esteem, fear of trust, and fear of commitment. The treatment plan will be culturally sensitive, taking into account the complexities of ethnicity, religion, and social norms. Systems theory takes into account all the intervening variables that might impact an effective treatment plan.
A treatment plan should consist of a combination of interventions, including individual therapy and group therapy. Before I speak about treatment plans that would be effective for my situation, I would like to mention the possible changes that might have occurred had I been exposed to more suitable methods of coping with the stress and trauma of divorce. In Iran, there are few avenues for psychological treatment and intervention. With regards to family issues in particular, it can be hard for individuals or families to seek counseling in their time of need. This is changing, but slowly. The mental health system in Iran is not as robust as it is in the United States. There are also stigmas associated with divorce that preclude a person like my father from seeking family counseling or individual counseling. Both my father and I felt a sense of shame and it was difficult to talk about the divorce with friends, family, or social workers. We did see a social worker once, but it was not with regards to the way I processed the divorce on an emotional level. The social worker addressed some systems issues with regards to economic and legal issues pertaining to our case. My mother had forfeited all her rights to my father's alimony because of the fact that she committed adultery and…