Helping those in need with your divorce issues today

Should You Leave? The Research on Divorce and Children You May Not Know About

I see one woman in my practice who is married to a guy who is, for lack of a better term, a total stinker. He’s negative, controlling, unreliable, thinks screaming is a wonderful way of communicating, and is not just un-nurturing to her, but also to the children. And, to add insult to injury, he doesn’t even make a decent living, so the couple is always hand-to-mouth, which yields, of course, more screaming. I’m truly hard-pressed to come up with too many good reasons for my client to stay in the marriage, but she is determined to stay until her last child leaves the house, because, as she insists, “divorce is just terrible for the children.”

And I’m not here to stand on a soapbox and tell you how wonderful divorce is, and how it’s always the answer. There is enough proof in the form of life experience and clinical research to show that divorce can yield major and persistent damage to its children.

But I am a believer that sometimes divorce is the answer–and I have reason to believe–again from my experience and from research–that your children will survive your divorce. There is considerable and valid research by big people in the field that support the hypothesis that children of divorce just might turn out alright.

A July 13, 2003 article in USA Today by Karen Peterson entitled “Kids of Divorced Parents Straddle a Divided World” presents both sides of the argument surrounding how children may be impacted by divorce. It begins by asserting the damage done to children of divorce, which I read, but found overly familiar. Go ahead and read that first part, if you’d like, even if it reinforces all your dreaded beliefs about what divorce can do to children. The article quotes important researchers in the field, and there’s a point for each of their sides.

What catches my eye more and more, however, is the research indicating that children of divorced parents may not, in fact, do more poorly than their counterparts with married parents, despite society’s long-held beliefs to the contrary. So it’s the article’s second part that I found more intriguing. Sociologist Constance Ahrons, PhD, author of The Good Divorce,notes that there is “an accumulating body of knowledge based on many studies that show only minor differences between children of divorce and those from intact families, and that the great majority of children with divorced parents reach adulthood to lead reasonably fulfilling lives….” And, published after the USA Today article’s publication, is a second book by Dr. Ahrons, We’re Still Family, where Dr. Ahrons forcefully asserts that the majority of children from divorced homes believed their parents’ divorce had positive outcomes–not only for their parents, but for themselves, too.

And Joseph Nowinski, well-known clinical psychologist and author, while noting that a significant minority of children of divorce will exhibit problem behaviors, also remarks on the research that finds that three years after divorce, “the divorced children were, as a group, more similar to children of intact families than different. In other words, divorce does not invariably lead to psychological, social, legal or academic problems. At the three-year mark, the majority of children of divorce appear to have weathered the storm, psychologically speaking, and are no different from their non-divorced peers.”(See his June 20, 2011 web article, “Does Divorce Inevitably Damage Children?”)

And what seems to be a given in research is that subjecting children to ongoing high-conflict marriages does not in any way assure them of a better outcome than if their parents divorced. In fact, pre-divorce conflict is a major indicator in how well children will do post-divorce. Alan Booth and Paul Amato, Penn State researchers on marriage, divorce, and their effects on children, write in their February 2001 article in the Journal of Marriage and Family that recent studies that “…divorce among high-conflict couples appears to have a relatively benign or even beneficial effect.”

That’s a pretty strong word, that ‘beneficial,’ but if you and your spouse are emotionally and/or verbally abusive [real physical abuse, it goes without saying, requires divorce and protection], Booth and Amato are telling you that your kids might very likely do better if you divorce. It’s something pretty serious to think about.

And, finally, any discussion on the results of marriage–not just among children of divorce, but among the partners, too–needs to contend with E. Maivis Hetherington’s For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. Hetherington is professor emeritus at the department of psychology at University of Virginia. She’s authored a number of books on child development, but is best known for her work on the effects of divorce and remarriage on children’s development.

After nearly 30 years of research that studied almost 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children, Hetherington found that about from 75-80% of children from divorced homes are “coping reasonably well and functioning in the normal range” and are successfully able to adapt to their new lives. I don’t find the idea of looking at potential for difficulty in 20-25% of these children particularly appealing, but Hetherington reminds us that it’s compared to 10% of children in non-divorced families who experience who experience major behavioral or academic problems. It’s true that that’s double, but if you’re putting your children through trauma with your and your spouse’s fighting every day, it seems more than likely that the statistics must come at least very close to evening out.

I never want to sound like an advertisement for leaving a life-partner, and it’s clear that divorce’s damage to children can be long-term and profound. But I truly question my patient’s decision to stay with her ‘stinker’ of a husband, and I believe her support for her staying and suffering–that it saves the children–may not bolster her remaining as much as she would think.

If you’ve asked should you stay or should you go, and come to the conclusion that you must go, I just wanted to make it clear that you should not perceive your move as necessarily ruining your children’s life. In fact, depending on whom you ask, it just might be ‘beneficial.’ Fancy that.

Candida Abrahamson is a Chicago-based mediator and counselor with a nation-wide practice via phone session. Besides mediating, she does family and couples therapy, grief and cancer counseling, and works on coaching clients in life management skills. Find out more about Candida at []. To read more of Candida’s thoughts on a variety of topics, check out her blog at

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