Chapter 2: Is Divorce Harmful?
Chapter 2 Preface
Since 1975, more than one million children each year have seen their parents divorce—a number that sharply contrasts with the 480,000 children affected by marital breakup in 1960. Although the number of divorcing couples began to decrease after 1980, many social scientists and family therapists have become increasingly concerned about the potentially harmful effects of divorce on such large numbers of children.
Many researchers, such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a former research associate at the Institute for American Values, maintain that children of divorce often suffer long-term damage. According to the information Whitehead gathered from several recent studies on children and divorce, one-third of the surveyed children suffered from depression, emotional insecurity, and school underachievement more than five years after their parents’ divorce. In addition, she asserts, children of divorce are more likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, abuse drugs, suffer from physical or sexual abuse, become pregnant as teenagers, or experience serious problems in adult relationships. Because such large numbers of children see their parents divorce, Whitehead concludes, America’s societal foundations are threatened by these adverse consequences of marital breakup.
Several researchers dispute Whitehead’s conclusions, however. Divorce researcher E. Mavis Hetherington notes that, on average, 20 to 25 percent of children from divorced families...
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Divorce Harms Society
America’s divorce revolution has failed. The evidence of failure is overwhelming. The divorce revolution—by which we mean the steady displacement of a marriage culture by a culture of divorce and unwed parenthood—has created terrible hardships for children. It has generated poverty within families. It has burdened us with unsupportable social costs. It has failed to deliver on its promise of greater adult happiness and better relationships between men and women.
Relationships between men and women are not getting better; by many measures, they are getting worse. They are becoming more difficult, fragile, and unhappy. Too many women are experiencing chronic economic insecurity. Too many men are isolated and estranged from their children. Too many people are lonely and unconnected. Too many children are angry, sad and neglected.
We believe it is time to change course. The promises of the divorce revolution proved empty, its consequences devastating for both adults and children. It is time to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage. It is time to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships.
The truth is that every child needs and deserves the love and provisions of a mother and a father. The loving two-married-parent family is the best environment for children—the place where children gain the identity, discipline, and moral education that are essential for their full individual...
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Divorce Harms Children
Originally, notes family historian John Sommerville, marriage arose to create “security for the children to be expected from the union.” Yet nowadays “the child’s interest in the permanence of marriage is almost ignored.” During the divorce boom that began in the mid-1960s, divorces affecting children went up even faster than divorces generally, and today most crack-ups involve kids. Since 1972, more than a million youngsters have been involved in a divorce each year.
The result is that at some time before reaching adulthood, around half of today’s children will go through a marital rupture. Most of these youngsters will live in a single-parent home for at least five years. A small majority of those who experience a divorce eventually end up in a step-family, but well over a third of them will endure the extra trauma of seeing that second marriage break up.
The typical divorce brings what researcher Frank Furstenberg describes as “either a complete cessation of contact between the non-residential parent and child, or a relationship that is tantamount to a ritual form of parenthood.” In nine cases out of ten the custodial parent is the mother, and fully half of all divorce-children living with their mom have had no contact with their father for at least a full year. Only one child in 10 sees his non-custodial parent as often as once a week. Overall, only about one youngster in five is able to maintain a close relationship with...
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Multiple Divorce Harms Children
First, Annie and Ivan married.
They had two children. They divorced. Later, Barry moved into Annie’s house. Annie loved him. Her children did not. Three years passed, and he was gone. Two years later, Annie moved her children into Lee’s house. Annie loved him. Her children did not.
For nearly three years, Annie and Lee and her children have circled one another warily, trying to decide whether this newest family could endure.
Annie’s children, like countless across the country, are part of an increasingly common American family—the one that is formed, shattered, reformed and shattered again in the wake of repeated divorces and breakups. These children struggle to navigate a bewildering succession of stepparents, stepsiblings and live-in relationships that have no formal name.
Researchers who follow these children say their ranks are swelling and their lives are often rocky. Studies comparing families of multiple divorce with families of single divorces have found that children with more family disruptions report higher levels of anxiety and depression, worse academic records and more troubled marriages of their own. The more breakups children experience, the studies show, the worse they fare.
“You get cumulative effects,” said Lawrence A. Kurdek, a professor of psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of one such study. “You’re losing or gaining a lot more than a...
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The Harmful Effects of Divorce Have Been Exaggerated
No one seems much concerned about children when the subject is welfare or Medicaid cuts, but mention divorce, and tears flow for their tender psyches. Legislators in half a dozen states are planning to restrict divorce on the grounds that it may cause teen suicide, an inability to “form lasting attachments” and possibly also the piercing of nipples and noses.
But if divorce itself hasn’t reduced America’s youth to emotional cripples, then the efforts to restrict it undoubtedly will. First, there’s the effect all this antidivorce rhetoric is bound to have on the children of people already divorced— and we’re not talking about some offbeat minority. At least 37% of American children live with divorced parents, and these children already face enough tricky interpersonal situations without having to cope with the public perception that they’re damaged goods.
Fortunately for the future of the republic, the alleged psyche-scarring effects of divorce have been grossly exaggerated. The most frequently cited study, by California therapist Judith Wallerstein, found that 41% of the children of divorced couples are “doing poorly, worried, underachieving, deprecating and often angry” years after their parents’ divorce. But this study has been faulted for including only 60 couples, two-thirds of whom were deemed to lack “adequate psychological functioning” even before they split, and all of whom were selfselected seekers of family...
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Divorce Does Not Necessarily Harm Children
In his 1992 Public Interest article entitled “For the Sake of the Children,” Richard Gill criticizes a study several collaborators and I published in 1991 on the effects of divorce on children. Gill first charges that our methodology and our interpretation are flawed, then launches into a broader discussion of contemporary marriage and divorce. In a 1991 Public Interest article, “Day Care or Parental Care?”, Gill expressed similar concerns about the direction of family policy and the well-being of American children.
Gill’s concern about children is well-founded, and we share it. It was never our intent to conduct a study that would absolve divorcing parents of guilt. In our current research, in fact, we have found some harmful effects of divorce on young children who were assessed shortly after their parents’ marriages broke up. Nevertheless, we think that Gill’s procedural criticisms are groundless and, more important, that the underlying themes of both his articles are unhelpful as a guide to public policy concerning children and families. In this viewpoint, I will address Gill’s specific criticisms and then respond more generally to his two articles.
For our study of divorce, we analyzed statistics from two surveys, one British and one American, that had followed national samples of children and their families for several years. We identified about 12,000 seven-year-old British children and 800 seven- to...
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The Harmful Effects of Divorce Can Be Mitigated
Editor’s note: The names of the characters in this article have been changed. When Fred Louis looks back at everything that went haywire in 1993—leaving school, drinking heavily, feeling bottomless misery—it seems as if his parents’ divorce a decade before was at the root. An earnest, barrel-chested 17- year-old with a broad, mild smile, he didn’t understand the full extent of the damage at first. In fact, he thought he had come to a kind of truce with the divorce. Instead, his feelings about the divorce sneaked up and uncoiled on him.
Divorce is often held responsible for the difficulties of millions of children like Fred. Divorce and unwed motherhood are being blamed for children’s school troubles, delinquency, and drug abuse, as well as a renewed cycle of teenage pregnancy and family collapse. Yet the reality is far more complex than the cartoon.
Sarah and Bill Louis divorced when Fred, their second of three children, was seven years old. All Fred recalls prior to the divorce is his parents’ “fighting about everything.” Although Bill Louis had been attentive to Fred early in his childhood, in the year before the divorce Bill was home only on weekends. Though he was pleasant with Fred, he seemed in another world, glued to the television or tinkering endlessly with his sports car.
Although Fred was aware of trouble in his parents’ marriage, the divorce blindsided him. One day his parents were together, it...
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