Effect of Parents’ Split on Children Is Divided


Although legislators hoping to restrict divorce say it hurts children and that too many parents divorce too casually, researchers have yet to reach any definitive conclusions.

“The research is just a mess,” said Richard Weissbourd, a specialist in children’s issues at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “There is research out there that can support almost any position on divorce.”

Likening the situation to a food fight, a group of academic researchers founded the Council on Contemporary Families in Washington, D.C., last fall. Its aim is to counter widely publicized anti-divorce research from the New York-based Institute for American Values with studies that address what families need, regardless of whether the parents are married.

Social scientists disagree even about why the debate is occurring now, when divorce has leveled off and slightly declined. Some contend that the anti-divorce movement represents a cultural shift toward traditional values, others that it is a response to new norms.


Part of the conflict concerns the research itself, characterized by a mix of methods and measures, small or unrepresentative samples, and the fact that human passions are involved: Researchers, who possess varying degrees of awareness about how their own opinions influence the result, are often interviewing volunteers who possess varying degrees of willingness or ability to talk about their personal lives.

Legislators with established agendas are widely acknowledged to pick and choose whatever study or survey best supports their proposals. And some family law judges, making custody decisions, fall back on their own experience when faced with competing and legitimate experts.

“Everyone is upset now and hunting for new answers,” said Ira Lurvey, former head of the family law section of the American Bar Assn., who is organizing a joint venture with the American Psychological Assn. for a new think tank on marriage and divorce.

In fact, the overall findings of divorce research have never been clear-cut. Although most of it describes harmful consequences for children, usually the trouble is neither severe nor long-lasting.


“The conservatives will look at that and say the evidence is clear that divorce is bad for kids. People on the left will say the effects are very weak for most kids, so what are we getting so worked up about? It’s the oversimplification of the story that’s the problem,” said University of Nebraska researcher Paul Amato, co-author of a recent quantitative report on family breakdown, “A Generation at Risk.”


Until recently, most everyone agreed that children whose parents are stuck in “high conflict” marriages would be better off if the parents split up. Most of those children express relief to have escaped a volatile, sometimes abusive environment. Now, researchers disagree over when a troubled marriage crosses the line into “high conflict.”

Sociologist Amato, analyzing results from a 15-year study of 471 children and an equal number of their parents nationwide, found that only a third of divorces involved hitting, yelling and quarreling. Two-thirds involved couples who had been “just going along, year to year,” bored and unfulfilled, when one person decided to strike out and find happiness elsewhere.


Rather than feel relief, children from the lower-conflict homes saw their lives become less stable and more fragmented. “They experience surprise. They weren’t prepared. They have a hard time accepting it,” Amato said.

He concluded that unhappy couples should try to make it work if there is even the slightest bit of hope. “People shouldn’t divorce with the assumption it will be good for the kids. It doesn’t always work that way,” he said.

According to Barbara Risman, co-editor of Contemporary Sociology, every researcher has a different definition of “conflict.”

Another random survey of Pennsylvania couples found that 75% of marriages ended for “hard reasons"--physical or mental abuse, addictions or infidelity. Those are the issues, she said, “that anyone, even the people in Institute for Family Values, would say create conflict that is harmful to children.”


Whether based on numbers or anecdote, however, there’s no denying that children can suffer in a divorce. In 85% of divorces, mothers get custody and thus take on more responsibility with perhaps less time, less support and less money. Only a quarter of children have weekly visits with their divorced fathers, and more than 20% have virtually no contact with them at all.

Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, using data from a long-term survey of 25,000 children, concluded that teenagers who have lived apart from one parent at some time are twice as likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to have a child before age 20 as those who grow up with both biological parents. As adults they divorce more often.

Many caution that associations such as these are not the same as cause and effect. Although children of divorce may be more troubled than their counterparts, their problems may last only a year or two and the large majority turn into reasonably competent adults.

Only about 20% of children of divorce have severe behavior problems, compared to about 10% of children whose parents did not divorce, according to University of Virginia psychologist Mavis Hetherington, whose studies are considered classics.



It is not clear that problems of children of divorce stem from the divorce itself: “It may be that those kids were in families with parents who were miserable and would wind up in jail and abusing drugs anyway,” Weissbourd said. “We don’t know how the kids would have done if their parents stayed together in rotten marriages.”

A report scheduled to be published later this month from sociologist Andrew Cherlin confirms that although adults whose parents divorced are at higher risk for mental health problems, most are doing well, and many of the problems were apparent before the divorce. The study is based on 11,000 British children followed from birth in 1958 to age 33.

“Looking backwards, at age 7, before anyone’s parents got divorced, we already see [more] anxiety and aggressive behavior in children whose parents would later divorce than in children whose parents stayed together,” he said.


Because his study did not use control groups, Cherlin said, “I can never prove it’s divorce that causes the problems. Nor can anybody else you talk to.”

The current sense of alarm might be exaggerated, he said. “We sometimes overestimate the effects of divorce when we mistakenly think all of the problems of children of divorce are due to the divorce itself.”


Other studies have shown that children’s adjustment to divorce can depend on myriad factors, including whether or not their mother is depressed, how the parents handle their bitterness or loneliness, whether the mother falls into poverty, whether the child has an easy-going or difficult temperament, how many times the child is forced to move or adjust to a new family or school, or whether the child feels compelled to divide his or her loyalty between the two parents.


Researchers admit that when it comes to divorce, a pure control group can never be created. No set of unhappy parents can both divorce and not divorce. Couples cannot be randomly assigned to break up or stay together.

Researchers do agree that legislation changes very little about how people fall in and out of love. No-fault divorce had little effect on the divorce rate. If anything, restricting divorce will probably only increase the rising rates of couples living together, Cherlin said.

Already, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Demography, 41% of births to unwed mothers are actually births to unwed parents living together--who are increasingly apt to split up.

No matter what legislators do, researchers predict that more children in the coming decades will be coping with their parents’ ever-shifting lives.



Divorce in the U.S.

The number of American divorces has soared from 385,000 in 1950 to 1.15 million in 1996.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau