When it comes to the effects of divorce on children, all parental splits are not created equal. That is what recent research from the University of Pennsylvania has found--research that is changing conventional wisdom on divorce.
"Two different kinds of marriages that end in divorce have very different impacts on children as adults," said Paul Amato, a Pennsylvania State University professor of sociology whose research was recently published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
Amato and University of Pennsylvania sociologist Alan Booth drew these conclusions after they began tracking a sample of 2,000 married individuals and 700 of their children in 1980, interviewing them every three to five years. The researchers followed the couples to see what factors affected marital happiness, what predicted divorce, and how these factors, including divorce, affected children's ability to form and maintain intimate relationships as adults.
After examining 300 marriages that ended in divorce, the researchers found that there were two types headed for divorce: high-and low-conflict. The prevailing wisdom is that most marriages that end in divorce are fraught with conflict, but the sociologists found the reverse: 60% of low-conflict marriages ended in divorce, compared with 40% of high-conflict ones. "I didn't trust these findings, because they were counterintuitive," Amato said.
The researchers checked the statistics against an independent sample of 5,000 married individuals who, before divorcing, were also interviewed every few years by researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The results were the same: 60% of low-conflict marriages ended as compared with 40% of high-conflict unions.
Amato's "work has shifted the debate of divorce because it changed the prevailing wisdom, which held that it was mostly families of high conflict that divorced," said psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein, co-author of "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" (Hyperion, 2000) with psychologist Julia M. Lewis and writer Sandra Blakeslee. "What I found was most people who divorce are not in high conflict," Wallerstein added.
"There are many more families that I see fall apart because of loneliness, because of seven years of no sex or because they are bored."
Of particular interest to Amato and Booth, authors of "A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval" (Harvard University Press, 1997), was what effect each kind of divorce had on children. They found that, post-divorce, children of high-conflict homes fared better than those of low-conflict marriages.
"Being stuck in a household where there is a lot of discord puts children at greater risk for depression, problems in their own marriage when they do marry, problems in friendships and a tendency not to go on to college," Amato said. "Divorce benefits these children because it removes them from an aversive, conflict-ridden, hostile home." Perhaps most important, Amato said, divorce excises a negative role model of love from the home.
"If you ask what is wrong with the marriage, these couples just go on and on," Amato said. "These are what you would call terrible marriages--marriages that fit our preconception of divorcing couples."
But children whose divorced parents had low-conflict marriages (that is, they rarely fought and reported being pretty happy during the marriage, then continued to socialize and said they still loved each other after divorce), fared worse in adult romantic relationships. "When kids grow up in families with parents who had these 'good enough' marriages that end in divorce, they do badly," Amato said. "They are more likely to see their own marriages end in divorce and have problems in general forming intimate relationships."
Children in low-conflict households grew up thinking everything was OK, Amato said, and then the marriage suddenly ended. To them, the divorce was inexplicable. "These children," Amato said, "have trouble making a commitment, question how much one can trust love and commitment, and in marriage, they have a lower threshold for problems which trigger thoughts of divorce."
Wallerstein found similar effects upon children whose parents' divorces were not precipitated by conflict. "What I found from the children was that as adults they suffer from the fear of the second shoe dropping," Wallerstein said. "I associate this with the fact that their parents' divorce came out of the blue. They were horrified when their parents met them at the door after school and said, 'We have decided to divorce.' Some came home to find a parent gone."
The moral of the story is that parents who don't have a combative relationship but are bored might want to ditch divorce plans to work much harder at their relationship. Or they may want to pause before filing those divorce papers in hopes that their marital happiness quotient will spike.
Linda Waite, a University of Chicago researcher, discovered that 80% of people who rated their marriages "unhappy" in a national survey, when asked five years later, ranked it "happier." Of the couples who rated their marriages "miserable" (2%), about 77% rated them as "very happy" five years later.
"Marriages wax and wane," Waite said. "A lot of what made these marriages better was seeing it through difficult times like losing a job, working long hours and having a child. Some people just made peace with something that drove them nuts."
It is best for the children if their parents can save their marriage, Amato said. "The best situation for children is growing up in a home with two parents who are happily married," he added. "Parents give their children healthy role models for how to form relationships and maintain them."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.