Embarking upon a college career is a rite of passage. It is a foray into the realm of adulthood; it is a time to test the waters intellectually and emotionally, socially and professionally. But new adults are not immediately minted as soon as the dorm room is set up and the parents have waved good-bye. College is a formative time during which young adults are especially needful of parental security and support. But for students whose collegiate journey precipitates their parents’ divorce announcement, their lives are suddenly thrown into a tailspin, making an already challenging transition even more difficult.
For parents who decide to "stick it out" in order to provide a stable life for their child, the decision to divorce once the child is in college is usually rooted in the belief that the child is adult enough to finally do without the parent’s union, says Paul Amato, Penn State professor of sociology, demography and family studies. These couples consider college to be an emotional and social marker indicating their child is mature and independent and that the marriage has served its purpose. However, this is a limited perspective, says Amato.
"It’s a mistake to think college students are completely separated from parents. They’re still very dependent on their parents for economic support, emotional support, advice and guidance," says Amato. "Ideally, students would like to come and go from being dependent to being independent, and gradually have that be under their control. But divorce might take away that sense of control — the process of separation and individuation."
Each year, Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) sees many students who are struggling to make sense of their parents’ announcement of divorce.
"For a lot of students, it’s a loss of their security," says Mary Anne Knapp, counselor for CAPS. "They think, ‘I just got here and am getting my bearings. I wanted something constant to go back to. I wanted to know there was security at home.’"
The number of couples who choose to divorce later in marriage — late enough to have a college-age child — is relatively small when considering that most divorced couples break up after about seven years of marriage. Although a couple who divorces after about 20 years of marriage is less common, Amato says that population still represents a significant portion of U.S. divorces.
"The trend is for couples to divorce fairly early, rather than to stick it out for the long haul. Nevertheless, given the large number of divorces that occur in the United States — almost half of all marriages end in divorce — that’s still going to be a relatively large group in absolute numbers."
The infrequency of divorce after 15 or more years of marriage makes this situation even more unique in terms of its psychological impact. The very fact that a couple has been together for so long before divorcing is quite jarring to family and friends who perhaps never expected the break. However, to couples who defined their relationship predominantly though the day-to-day rearing of their child, divorce may seem like a natural progression once that child has left the household for college.
"What holds some parents together is the fact that they are parents. They might have a relationship that is empty in lots of other ways, but what keeps them together is their kids," says Amato. "Then when the child leaves home, suddenly it’s just the two of them. They’ve lost that day-to-day parenting role. It forces them to confront that emptiness and gets them to thinking about splitting up."
In many cases where the parents have stayed together for the sake of their children, they are in marriages that are not extremely hostile or violent, Amato says. Often, these are parents who have just disengaged from each other but have resolved to stay married to sustain the family unit. The question of whether or not it is better for children if parents remain together despite a desire to divorce has been the focus of many recent studies.
"Research indicates that if parents have a hostile relationship and fight frequently, children are better off, in the long run, if their parents divorce. This is especially true if there are repeated episodes of violence in the marriage. If parents have a cooperative but emotionally disengaged marriage, however, it’s usually better for children if the parents remain together," explains Amato.
"In cases where parents are civil and there is not any overt fighting, it’s a pretty tranquil home environment. And often the kids don’t really understand how alienated the parents are from one another," he continues.
So, if the divorce occurs when the child is a first-year student in college, and he or she did not see it coming, it has the potential to severely destabilize the student’s life.
"It causes you to question your whole past and your relationship with parents, as well as the whole meaning of family: ‘What did my family life mean? Was it real or was it just a sham?’" Amato says, "It really brings a great deal into question."
Knapp has seen a range of different reactions among college students impacted by recent parental divorce. Emotions may run the gamut. Students might express anger, confusion and sometimes guilt. Sometimes they’re dealing with caretaker reversals in which they find themselves strained to provide emotional support for each parent. At other times, a student may feel relief because they have sensed the strain or been exposed to fighting for years.
"Part of CAPS’ job is to figure out exactly how the student has been affected, and how this news fits into their view of relationships and security."
Most students who contact CAPS for help are seen for individual or group counseling, but if the student wishes, a CAPS counselor can facilitate a family conversation, as well.
A common issue among this student population is difficulty concentrating on academics, Knapp says.
"There’s a lot of emotional processing going on and that might take time and energy away from academic performance," says Knapp. "The part of their brain that would be studying is busy worrying instead, so they may have a hard time taking in new material."
Students might have difficulty concentrating, sleeping and getting to class because they are preoccupied, worrying about their family’s situation. At a time so full of confusion and emotion, CAPS is able to offer some objective guidance, keep students apprised of academic deadlines and facilitate conversations with faculty, advisers or student aid, if need be. All services are confidential and are performed only at the student’s behest.
In addition to negative academic implications, the stability of the student’s relationships with others — even their own romantic partners — may be called into question.
"Whether it’s conscious of not, the longest marital relationship most people have seen day to day is their parents," says Amato. "When parental divorce occurs at this stage in the student’s life — when just venturing into more serious relationships — his or her ability to form stable, meaningful romantic attachments might also be challenged."
Students might wonder what their parents’ divorce suggests about their own understanding of serious relationships, if their parents ever loved each other, and if there is any surety that their own partners will stay with them. In the most extreme cases, Knapp says, students may even break up with significant others amid this confusion.
As with any life crisis, there are no easy answers when dealing with a parental breakup, but Knapp suggests students reach out for support — either to CAPS or to friends and other family members.
"It’s best to talk through emotional issues rather than allow the pain to consume and offset your life.
In addition to seeking emotional support, connecting with the campus community through participation in student activities, academic clubs or athletics might be comforting to students and may help them channel their energies positively.
"There’s never a good time or a good age for children to learn their parents’ marriage has fallen apart, but universities like Penn State understand how uniquely devastating this situation can be for college students," says Knapp. "And we want to do whatever we can to help them navigate through this."