Myths About Divorce
Though young adults are statistically more likely to repeat their parents’ mistakes, they are not doomed to do so.
The victory of life-long marriage stems from the commitment of both husband and wife. You must be able to say, “As strongly as I believe in marriage, I’m equally firm that I do not believe in divorce.” Your actions will flow from your beliefs.
Entering marriage convinced of divorce’s harm is a strong antidote against it. In this culture, where divorce comes easy and often, it’s essential for singles contemplating marriage to have good reason to be against divorce. That’s where Dr. Stanley comes in.
This article was adapted from Scott Stanley’s book, The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love. For the complete text and more advice on forming matches that will go the distance, please consult his book.
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With the rise in the divorce rate that began in the 1960s, there came a rise in the belief that If I’m not happy in my marriage, my children may do better if I divorce, because they will do better in life if I am not so unhappy.
This belief is widespread, but is it true? Part of it probably is true. All other things being equal, most children would benefit from their parents being happy in life. It’s certainly true that children will fair best when living with both parents in a loving and happy home in which there is clear commitment to the marriage and the family. People argue about many things in academic circles, but no researcher or theorist seriously doubts that children do best when raised by both parents in a loving home.1 The hot debate among marriage experts focuses on whether or not children do better when they live in a divorced household or when they live with parents who have chronic, serious conflicts. The answer depends on the kind of social scientist you talk to.
On the psychological side, there are clearly documented negative effects on children, both boys and girls, who are exposed over the long term to parents who have significant levels of open conflict.2 This is one of the most profoundly clear, consistent set of findings in my field. Because of these findings, some people suggest that some parents should divorce “for the sake of the children.” Of course, one major problem for children whose parents do not get along well is that many of those parents don’t suddenly start getting along well after they divorce. The children remain exposed to the open warfare between the two most important people in their world, and they often do not do much better even when their parents divorce.
That brings me to some advice for those of you who are married, have children and have a lot of conflict in your marriage: Learn to handle it better. You can do it, and many resources are available to help you. For example, see the book I co-wrote with several colleagues that includes large sections on handling conflict constructively.3 While you may have to swallow some pride and work at it, it’s important for your children. Even if you cannot muster the motivation for the sake of your marriage, although it’s better if you can do it for your marriage as well, do it for your kids. Couples can learn to manage conflicts better, and in doing so they can turn their marriages around and help their children.
If you are divorced and have children from that marriage, one of the best things you can do for your children is to make peace with your ex-spouse. If you are still battling over things, do your best to compromise and quit fighting. If you don’t battle, you’ll be doing your children an immense service. You want the best for them, and they need you to do this.
However, I realize that you may believe you are right in a major dispute regarding your children, and you may feel compelled to fight for certain rights or arrangements. Or there might be abuse involved, and it is unwise to make peace with an abuser. But if what you and your former spouse are disagreeing about won’t really greatly impact your children, it is much better to quit battling. The battling will definitely harm your children over time.
Ending your battles is of course most possible when both of you agree to “bury the hatchet” and perhaps even forgive one another. It’s not always possible to make peace with another, of course, but go as far as you can to control your end of the conflict. If you cannot end it, go as far as you can together to shield your children from it. It’s essential.
The other kind of research relevant to how marriage and divorce affect children is sociological. In that literature, compelling data show how much better children do when they live with both parents: They are better off economically, do better in school, are less likely to engage in precocious sexual activity, are less likely (especially boys) to become criminally involved, are more likely to stay physically healthy and have access to good health care and are much more likely to retain a relationship with their father.4
It’s also important to know that step families can be less-than-easy for children to negotiate. While many families manage it very well, the evidence is pretty convincing that, on average, children often do not fair better in step or blended families.5
To have a healthy and secure family, you need to work at and invest in your marriage. And if you do well in the marriage you’re in, your children are almost always going to do better in life.
Many children of divorce, of course, do very well in life, showing few negative effects in their adult lives. However, it’s quite clear from many studies that divorce raises the risks for various negative outcomes for children by a factor of two to three. For example, the likelihood of children from intact homes having behavior problems is 10 percent while it is roughly 30 percent for children from divorced homes.6 So, most children of divorce do not exhibit behavior problems, but the odds are significantly greater that they will. Divorce does not doom children, but children have a leg up in life if their parents have a reasonably healthy marriage and make it work.
In addition to the increase in the likelihood of behavioral problems, various findings also show that divorce increases children’s risk for other problems. Keep in mind, however, that these negative effects may well be related to both divorce and to ongoing, nasty conflicts between parents, or both. And it’s important to remember that not all children will experience all or any of these potential problems listed here.7
- Greater risk for mental health problems.
- Greater risk of divorce as an adult: When one marital partner is a child of divorce, the odds of divorce for his or her marriage double. When both partners are children of divorced parents, their odds of divorce are nearly triple that of other couples.
- More difficulties, especially in the relationship with the father: 70 percent of children of divorced parents report having a poor relationship with their father while only 30 percent of those from intact homes report the same.
- Greater difficulty believing that their own marriage will last, no matter how much they want it to—this can become a self- fulfilling prophecy.
- Lower levels of educational, occupational and financial attainment in life.
- A 2 to 2.7 times greater likelihood that they will reject their faith and religious involvement as adults compared to those whose parents did not divorce.
From what we can see here, there is no substitute for marriage when it comes to the best possible foundation for family life. Many single, divorced and remarried adults are doing a great job raising their children, but there are many benefits from raising children within the context of a committed, and thriving, marriage.
“Good Enough” Marriages
One of my colleagues, a widely esteemed researcher at Pennsylvania State University named Paul Amato, has for years studied the long-term effects of marriage and divorce on children. While there are several other social scientists who have done important work on this subject, including Mavis Hetherington and Judith Wallerstein8, I am focusing on Paul’s work because of some very specific points he makes.
Paul has shown that there is such a thing as a “good enough” marriage.9 Such a marriage is pretty good, but generally not spectacular. Good enough marriages are not passionate, not deeply fulfilling (at least much of the time), and not marriages wherein, day in and day out, the partners feel happy they found one another. In fact, in many of these marriages one or both partners often wish they had married someone else. Yet, as research shows, adults in these marriages as well as their children get most of the major benefits that come with family stability and support.
To Paul’s way of thinking, good enough marriages usually exhibit little overt and destructive conflict, but also little in the way of depth of connection. Their chief problem is that they are vulnerable, particularly to attractive alternatives. Good enough marriages, then, are good enough, but they are also susceptible —sort of like someone who is in basically good health but has a chronically weakened immune system. A good enough marriage that is not severely tested, such as by major health problems or one partner becoming attracted to a co-worker, is likely to continue until one of the partners dies, and all family members’ lives will be the better for it—though the couple’s relationship will be less rewarding than they might have hoped.
Paul has also found, from conducting a very long-term study of divorce with Alan Booth, that children of high-conflict parents tend to do better, not worse, if their parents divorce (compared to the parents staying together in chronic nastiness). In contrast, children of low-conflict marriages that end in divorce (including many good enough marriages) clearly do worse if their parents divorce. For them, the divorce usually comes out of the blue and they are surprised, making the concept of security a mystery. When these children become adults, they tend to be commitment phobic, bailing out of relationships at the first sign of trouble.
So, what if you are married and it’s tough going? If you are in a dangerous relationship, do all that is needed to be safe. Get help and advice and support. You may need to call a domestic violence hotline. If you are in a high-conflict but non-dangerous marriage, the single best thing you can do for your children is to change the pattern with your spouse by doing all you can to treat one another differently.
But what if you’ve been thinking about leaving your marriage for greener pastures—or pastures that appear to be greener? You may be telling yourself a lie if you’re telling yourself that your children will do best if you do. To be frank, most likely your children do not care a great deal about whether you and your spouse feel passion for one another. Your children are deeply comforted by the fact, not the quality, of your marriage. Your marriage gives them a secure platform from which they can operate in the world.
I know it can be hard, however, and I know that for some even huge amounts of investing are not always rewarded in their marriage. Most positive efforts in marriage eventually do result in good things coming back to you, but not always.
If you are not so happy with your marriage, I’d like to leave you here with a bit of encouragement. As part of my work with the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, a team of national scholars devised a survey that asked 2,300 adults in Oklahoma about their beliefs and experiences in marriage.10 One set of questions asked if participants ever thought that their marriage was in such trouble that they seriously thought or talked about divorcing. Thirty-four percent said “yes.” Of those people, 92 percent said that they were glad that they were still together.
Think about that for a moment. We live in a culture that implies that once your marriage is down, it’s out and will never be satisfying again. Yet, among people who had been at a very low spot, 92 percent were glad they had stuck it out. Of course, that does not mean there are not many others who left and are glad that they left. But the odds are not great that a person who divorces is going to end up happier, at least for years to come.11
If you choose to stick, there is hope that things will be better. But for that to happen you will likely have to do some things differently—including understanding the value of marriage to your children. And for those who’ve yet to marry, it’s essential that you understand that prior to saying I do.
Copyright © 2005 Scott Stanley. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
- Doherty, W. J., et al. Why marriage matters: Twenty-one conclusions from the social sciences/A Report from Family Scholars. New York: Institute for American Values, 2002. Stanton, G. Why marriage matters. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Pinon Press, 1997. Waite, L., & Gallagher, M. The case for marriage. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
- Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. Children and marital conflict. New York: Guilford, 1994. Emery, R. (1982). Interparental conflict and the children of discord and divorce. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 310–330. Grych, J., & Fincham, F. (1990). Marital conflict and children’s adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267–290.
- Markman, H.J., Stanley, S.M., & Blumberg, S.L Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2001. Stanley, S., et al. A lasting promise. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Inc., 1998.
- Fincham, F.D. Divorce. In N.J. Salkind (Ed.), Child Development: Macmillan Psychology Reference Series. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan, 2002. Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. McLanahan, S., & Sandefur, G. Growing up with a single parent: What hurts, what helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Stanley, S. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2002). The effects of divorce on children. Couples Research and Therapy Newsletter (AABT-SIG), 8 (1), 7–10 [available on the web at < href=”www.PREPinc.com”>Prerinc.com].
- Cherlin, A. J., & Furstenberg, F. F., Jr. (1994). Step families in the United States: A reconsideration. Annual Review of Sociology, 20, 359–381.
- Hetherington, E. M. (1993). An overview of the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage with a focus on the early adolescent. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 39–56
- In addition to all the other references noted in this chapter, see also Glenn, N. D., & Kramer, K. (1987). The marriages and divorces of the children of divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 44, 335–347. Halford, W. K., Sanders, M. R., & Behrens, B. C. (2000). Repeating the errors of our parents? Family of origin spouse violence and observed conflict management in engaged couples. Family Process, 39, 219–235. Lawton, L. E., & Bures, R. (2001). Parental divorce and the “Switching” of religious identity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 99-]–111.
- Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. Wallerstein, J. S., Lewis, J. M., & Blakeslee, S. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A Twenty-Five-Year Landmark Study. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
- Amato, P. R. (2001). Good enough marriages: Parental discord, divorce, and children’s well-being. The Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, 9, 71–94. See also: Amato, P. R.. & Booth, A. (1997). A generation at risk: Growing up in an era of family upheaval. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
- The report from this work is available at www.OKmarriage.org. The reference for the major report from this work is: Johnson, C. A., et al. (2002). Marriage in Oklahoma: 2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS). Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
- Waite, L. J., et al. (2002). Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a study of unhappy marriages. New York: Institute for American Values.
About the Author
Scott Stanley, Ph.D. is co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies and a research professor of psychology at the University of Denver. He has authored numerous research articles on relationships and is an expert on marital commitment. Scott co-authored the book A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage and authored the book The Power of Commitment. Additionally, he regularly contributes to print and broadcast media as an expert on marriage.