It’s the eternal question: When divorce becomes a possibility, is it better for parents to stay together for the sake of the kids, or separate in an attempt to find personal happiness? This real-life dilemma plays out for almost half of the population at any point in time. And there are conflicting studies and opinions.
Research conducted over a 25-year period by the University of California at Berkeley found significant differences between young adults from divorced and non-divorced households. Eighty percent of the children from non-divorced families were married in adulthood, compared to only sixty percent of the children of divorce. Twenty-five percent of children from divorced homes used drugs and alcohol before age fourteen, compared to only nine percent of the non-divorced group. The children of divorce were also more likely to marry before age 25, suggesting that their marriages were statistically more likely to fail.
But there’s more to the story. Dr. Constance Ahrons, author of “The Good Divorce,” makes a distinction between “good” and “bad” divorce. She says, “There are two elements to a good divorce. One is that the parents get along sufficiently well that they can still focus on their kids…. The other element is that children continue to have relationships with both parents.”
Interestingly, this squares with what I’ve observed for over three decades in my therapy practice. Young children, particularly pre-teens, tend to follow their parents’ lead. If the parents are comfortable with the new arrangement, the children generally adapt well. But if the parents engage in open conflict, it’s another story. If the kids continue to feel loved by both parents, they will almost always fare better.
In her book, “Between Two Worlds,” author Elizabeth Marquardt states, “What we found in the study of the young adults who grew up in divorced families … was that there is no such thing as a good divorce. A good divorce is better than a bad divorce, but it’s still not good. The way the parents divorce … matters less than the divorce itself.” She points out that it’s difficult for children to pass between the different value systems and lifestyles of the divorced parents. But what’s the alternative? Should the parents pretend to not have different values? Should they “fake it,” at great peril to their mental health, or is it better to be honest, set a good example, and move on?
I’ve seen it go both ways. Initially, as with any life change, it’s hard for kids to go back and forth between households. Yet, after the first six months or so, most adapt. The difference appears to be the degree to which the parents keep the children out of the conflicts. If each parent displays an attitude of tolerance while sticking to his or her own values, it goes better for the kids. That healthy attitude might go something like this: “Your father does things his way, and that’s his choice. And you have to deal with that when you’re there. But in our household, it’s different, and you have to respect my approach while you’re here.”
Obviously this can only be stretched so far. You can’t tolerate things like physical or verbal abuse and pretend that they’re just “a different way.” Yet most things don’t fall into those categories, and a healthy attitude shows the kids that people can disagree without trying to change one another. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for a child or young adult to learn this fact sooner rather than later. From a psychological point of view, nobody can advocate or condemn divorce across-the-board except in cases of outright abuse or neglect.
Parents considering divorce primarily for personal fulfillment should, (1) think things out from a self-interested point-of-view, since divorce is hard on everyone, and, (2) be aware of research that suggests that children of divorce may display more personal problems over the long term. Children learn about commitment and permanence by observing their parents. Help protect and strengthen that sense of commitment by marrying someone you’re sure you can love — and live with — for a long time.
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