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Further Reading

Department: Home Front

The Good Divorce Myth

The Facts Reveal What's Best for Children

by Marcia Segelstein

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 35

TIME magazine recently featured an article called "Maybe It's Time to Stop Making Fun of 'Conscious Uncoupling,'" referring to Gwyneth Paltrow's kinder, gentler term for her divorce from husband Chris Martin. Calling it a "new collaborative vibe," author Susanna Schrobsdorff described the efforts of divorcing couples to get along with each other and to commit to good "co-parenting." Or, in a nutshell, "to achieve the coveted Good Divorce."

But there's strong evidence that there is no such thing as a "good divorce," at least when it comes to children.

As detailed in a piece in The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, Penn State University professor Paul Amato and his research team studied 944 post-divorce families, dividing them into three categories as follows:

[1] those with high-contact or "cooperating coparenting," meaning parents with a "good divorce," who report the highest scores in terms of their children talking to them, visiting with them, and staying overnight with the nonresident parent; [2] "parallel parenting with some conflict," where nonresident parents have only moderate levels of contact with children; and [3] "single parenting," in which the nonresident parent, in most cases the father, rarely sees his children and has little communication with the mother.

Amato reported that children of "good" divorces scored significantly higher than their peers from the other two family groups in only two of the twelve measured categories (six each in two age groups), namely, childhood behavior problems (as reported by parents) and close ties to fathers in adulthood (as reported by children). In every one of the other ten measures—which included school grades, self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance abuse, number of sexual partners, and losing one's virginity before age 16—children of "cooperating coparents" showed no significant differences, in either childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

In "The Myth of the 'Good Divorce,'" also published in The Family in America, authors Bryce Christensen and Robert Patterson summed up the results of Amato's study this way:

In essence, the children of "good divorces" ended up a lot more like the children of bad divorces and very little like peers whose parents did not divorce at all. Indeed, Amato's preliminary analysis established that children of continuously married parents had significantly higher levels of well-being on all twelve indicators . . . than children of divorced parents.

In a report produced by the American College of Pediatricians, principal author Dr. Jane Anderson reviewed two large meta-analyses, one from 1991 and the other from 2001, which show that "children with divorced parents continued to score significantly lower on measures of academic achievement, conduct, psychological adjustment, self-concept, and social relations." Prior to no-fault divorce laws, only the most dysfunctional marriages ended in divorce, she noted, and children removed from those highly dysfunctional environments probably did do better after the divorce. But, she continued, in most cases occurring since the implementation of no-fault divorce, "it is likely that the child has not experienced severe levels of parental discord, so the divorce has more adverse effects on the child."

Her suggestion? "The best scientific literature to date suggests that, with the exception of parents faced with unresolvable marital violence, children fare better when parents work at maintaining the marriage. Consequently, society should make every effort to support healthy marriages and to discourage married couples from divorcing."

While the stigma may long since have gone out of it, and "fault" may no longer be ascribed to it legally or morally, evidence continues to indicate that divorce inflicts long-term damage on children.

Maybe "staying together for the sake of the kids" is an idea whose time has come—again. 


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