Current research on the effects of divorce on children
The following was written by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.
In 1994 I wrote a book called The Good Divorce, which was based on a study I had done of parents and stepparents who were interviewed three times during the first five years after divorce. In that book I highlighted the huge variations in how families reorganize after divorce. I found good divorces and bad ones and dozens of variations in between. I found amicable ex-spouses who had worked out cooperative parenting relationships and angry ex-spouses who, even after five years, could not effectively share parenting of their children. The findings and the perspective I took in that book showed that divorce did not need to destroy families and that, in fact, many parents formed parenting partnerships after divorce that permitted them to meet the needs of their children. My research was met with opposition from those arguing that divorce destroyed families and had dire negative effects on all children. They claimed that children of divorce failed to achieve in school, in relationships and life in general. By the early 2000s, the national debate about divorce was heating up once again. After three decades of important hard-won divorce reforms, such as the introduction of no-fault divorce laws and joint custody legislation, a new backlash reform movement was gaining momentum. Proposals are now emerging to rescind no-fault legislation, calling it a “social experiment” that failed. Claims that joint custody is bad for children are growing, based on little or no evidence.
This is not to suggest that there haven’t been good studies. In fact, research on divorce has increased substantially over the past few decades, but translating good solid knowledge from esoteric academic journals to the general public is difficult. The available research about the impact of divorce and separation on children has generated useful knowledge, but it also has led to confusion and misunderstanding. Because divorce is such a hot, value-laden issue, complex realities become submerged in polarized discussions.
However, divorce is neither good nor bad. These extreme positions bury the accumulating body of findings that reveal a more nuanced picture of divorce, one that defies sound-bite conclusions.
Garnering most of the media attention, however, has been a twenty-five-year study conducted by Judith Wallerstein. Painting a very grim picture, Wallerstein claims that children of divorce are doomed to have serious problems that persist, worsening over the years and casting a dark shadow on their adult lives. What is most disturbing is her claim that her subjects are representative of typical American middle-class families.
Although the description of her original sample of sixty Marin County, California, families is suspiciously absent from her recent book, it appears in the appendix of her first book. Recruited through newspaper ads and flyers, divorced parents were offered counseling services in exchange for their participation in the research. Many that volunteered and became participants in her study had serious psychological problems. As noted in the appendix of Surviving the Breakup, “fifty percent of the men and close to half of the women . . . were chronically depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals, the men and women with severe handicaps in relating to another person, or those with long-standing problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses.” She and her coauthor, Joan Berlin Kelly, go on to say that an additional “15 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women were found by us to be severely troubled during their marriages, perhaps throughout their lives.” They “had histories of mental illness including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and the family.”
That a small sample of sixty such troubled families has made headlines
and given rise to sweeping conclusions about the long-term effects
of divorce only attests to our fascination with bad news. While Wallerstein
presents an elegant portrayal of children’s pain, with poignant
stories and intense, heartrending reactions, her conclusions about
the harm divorce causes are exaggerated and not as widespread as she
claims them to be.
Clearly, a study in which two-thirds of the parents range from the chronically depressed to the seriously mentally ill is not a representative sample. Reporting on the worst-case scenarios ensures that you’ll hear the worst stories. Given how seriously impaired many of their parents were, it is highly unlikely that the divorce itself accounts for all of the adult children’s struggles she describes.
Although Wallerstein’s findings are discredited in academic circles, they are still greeted with enthusiasm by the divorce reform movement. It feeds them with just the ammunition they need to pursue their fight to restore the traditional family by saving marriages and making divorce more punitive. This small, select sample is still being used to prove that “the unexpected legacy” of divorce is the insidiously harmful ways it leaves its mark decades afterward.
One has to wonder, what about the children whose divorced parents are mentally healthier than those Wallerstein studied? Do children in these divorced families experience their growing-up years differently from those in troubled families? As adults how do they evaluate their lives?
It was this omission that made me decide to continue my study. I had written numerous academic articles and two books about divorce but in recent years I had set my research aside. Now that the issue of the long-term effects of divorce on children was being vigorously debated, I knew I needed to resume my study, this time with the adult children. Although studies about the effects of parental divorce on young children and adolescents are numerous, long-term perspectives have been scarce because there simply hasn’t been an adequate adult population to study. But now that divorce has been with us for several decades, we at last have the opportunity to hear from children who have grown up with divorce as a fact of their lives and have gone on to make families and relationships of their own. Their voices reveal truths about divorce’s effects on kids.
Back in 1979, when I first began the study, I was on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin. With a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health I used a typical research approach to ensure that the sample was representative of the population of divorced parents in one Midwestern county over a six month period. My goal was to interview one hundred families, and based on statistics that can tell how large a population is needed to assure a certain number of subjects, I randomly selected every fourth name. The importance of this random selection from a general pool of divorces is that the study better represents the population because the sample mimics the variety of divorces we are likely to see in that population.
The divorced couples I first interviewed in 1979 had over two hundred children, now ranging in age from twenty-one to forty-seven, and finding them two decades later proved a challenge.
They were scattered across the country by now and of course many had families of their own. Much to my surprise, however, fully 90 percent consented to be interviewed. These grown-up children of divorce knew about my original interviews with their parents and stepparents and wanted to be heard about how they felt about their parents’ divorces, how it impacted their lives and how they felt about living in the new families created by divorce.
What I heard from them is that not only did they survive their parents’ divorces but the vast majority thrived, despite the stress and upheaval that are common in the early stages of parental divorce. The majority told us that they felt that their families were normal and their relationships with each of their parents had actually improved. As adults—most in intimate relationships themselves, some married, others cohabiting, still others looking for mates—most felt their parents’ divorce was a good decision and that both they and their parents were better off because of it.
Others spoke of warm relationships with their stepparents and shared happy stories of joyful celebrations that included both their biological and stepparents. Of course a small minority did not fare as well. They felt the divorce had deprived them of family, and as adults they felt their lives were worse off accordingly.
If you experienced your parents’ divorce as a child, I expect that you will find comfort in knowing how others like you reacted to their parents’ divorce. But, more important, you will learn that it is never too late to accept your parents’ divorce and make the most of the family you have, even if it’s not the perfect family you had hoped for. How you view your parents’ divorce, their marriage, and their remarriages also has important implications for you as you create intimate relationships in your own life. It matters in terms of who you marry, how good your marriage is, how you resolve conflict, how you feel about divorce in your own life, and how you parent.
What was perfectly clear from speaking at length with these adults is that many decisions parents make when they rearrange the family can either make it better or worse for the children— such things as how you tell your kids about the separation, what kind of living and custody arrangements you make for them, how flexible or rigid these arrangements are, how often the kids see their fathers, how they feel about their parents’ dating and new partners, how remarriages are handled, what it feels like to have an “instant” new family. One of the most consistent comments was that how parents relate to each other, both during the marriage and long after, makes the biggest difference of all.
As I sifted through the transcripts of the interviews, I realized that these adult children could provide an invaluable blueprint for what works in these rearranged families and what doesn’t.
That’s why I wrote this book.
Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.
Excerpted from We’re Still Family
by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.,
HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
2018 Mindful Pause / Proactive Mindfulness
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