A generation ago, most Americans believed that parents in unhappy marriages should stay together for the sake of their children. Today, most people, including virtually all professionals who study and counsel families, have abandoned that belief. The prevailing view is that parental unhappiness is worse for children than parental divorce: Better for parents to separate rather than expose their children to ongoing conflict and distress. As the family scholars Philip and Carolyn Cowan of UC Berkeley recently wrote in the New York Times: “Children are at risk when their parents fight a lot--and it is this conflict, not divorce, that is so harmful to children.”
An important new book fundamentally challenges this view. In “A Generation at Risk,” just published by Harvard University Press, Paul Amato of the University of Nebraska and Alan Booth of Penn State University painstakingly analyze data from a large national sample of families, seeking especially to isolate the independent effects of divorce on children from the effects of preexisting marital conflict. The results call into question the rationalizations of our high divorce rate.
That many children are harmed by parental conflict is not in doubt, nor is the fact that some children benefit from parental separation because it lessens their exposure to conflict. But Amato and Booth estimate that at most a third of divorces involving children are so distressed that the children are likely to benefit. The remainder, about 70%, involve low-conflict marriages that apparently harm children much less than do the realities of divorce. Moreover, Amato and Booth estimate that, as the threshold of dissatisfaction at which divorce occurs becomes ever lower, an even higher proportion of future divorces will involve low-conflict situations in which divorce will be worse for children than the continuation of the marriage. This reasoning leads to a startling conclusion, especially coming from two liberal social scientists: For that majority of marriages in trouble that are not fraught with conflict, “future generations would be well served if parents remained together until children are grown.”
No one study is definitive, and this book will not be the last word on the exact proportion of parents in troubled marriages who would benefit their children by staying married. The 70% figure may turn out to be too high or too low. However, if the correct percentage is 60 or even 50, it is still much higher than we would ever guess by listening to those who maintain that the desires of parents are almost never in conflict with the needs of children. The uncomfortable truth seems to be that such conflict is present in a substantial proportion, probably a majority, of those cases today in which child-rearing parents contemplate divorce.
There is clear appeal in the notion that whatever parents do to be happy is best for their children. But this belief may be little more than self-comforting denial. The contemplation of divorce often involves choices between self-interest and self-giving, between desires and obligations.
Simply recognizing this moral tension, of course, does not solve it. We do not argue, nor do Amato and Booth, that children’s needs must always prevail over adult priorities. As we look at the suffering of so many of our children in a nation plagued with the world’s highest divorce rate, however, we concur with their book’s conclusion: “Spending one-third of one’s life living in a marriage that is less than satisfactory in order to benefitchildren--children that parents elected to bring into the world--is not an unreasonable expectation.”
This remarkably countercultural conclusion will provoke many predictable reminders about toxic marriages and many repetitions of the familiar bromide that marital unhappiness, not “divorce per se” is the real problem. But because of this book, we also will have a more informed discussion of the moral dimensions of the decision to divorce. Amato and Booth have helped us to recognize more clearly the potential conflicts between parental responsibility and adult desires for freedom, romance, sexual gratification and self-actualization.