“Don’t stay together for the sake of the children” trumpets the family law organisation Resolution in today’s Guardian, following their new survey of 514 young people aged 14-22 who had experienced parental separation an average of ten years earlier. 82% of these young people said that “I’d rather my parents separated or divorced rather than stay together if they were unhappy“. The counselling organisation Relate also piled in with their observation that “eventually many come to terms with the situation and adjust to changes in family life“.
So that’s all OK then.
Except that it’s not at all OK. At a time when nearly half of all our teenagers have experienced family breakdown, the very last thing lawyers – who surely see more than their fair share of miserable separations – should be doing is encouraging ever more misery for ever more children.
There are so many things wrong with a conclusion based on a single loaded question that asks teens and young adults to speculate about their history from ten years earlier, and that is based on the highly questionable assumption that their parents would have remained unhappy had they stayed together. I’ll come back to how our research shows that most parents who split weren’t even unhappy in the first place. But I suggest the results would have been very different had they left out ‘if they were unhappy‘, or perhaps replaced it with ‘and tried harder‘ or ‘if they had hung on a bit longer and found a way to work things out‘?
If I were a member of Resolution, I’d want to distance myself very quickly indeed from this irresponsible and unjustified pronouncement.
Let’s remind ourselves what proper outcome research on divorce actually finds.
The overwhelming majority of academic studies ever published on this subject (88% of US studies, 94% of non-US studies, according to this OECD paper) finds an overall negative effect of divorce on children, whether on their well-being, behaviour, academic results, or subsequent relationships on into adulthood. The effect sizes are generally small but universally negative, rather than positive. The respected US sociologist Professor Mavis Hetherington says that about 25% of children reach adulthood with a serious social, emotional or psychological problem if their parents divorced whereas 10% have problems if their parents are married and still together. Quite clearly, plenty of children do cope fine with parental separation.
The main reasons for the overall negative effects of divorce are pretty obvious. Following a divorce, the residential parent is reduced to one pair of hands rather than two, which brings a reduction in resources of time and money. That can affect the quality of parenting as lone parents overcompensate by being too strict or too relaxed. It also means a reduced influence of the non-residential parent, most often the father. Another respected US sociologist Professor Sarah McLanahan recently showed that father absence plays a causal role in child outcomes.
But there’s another issue here that is frequently overlooked. From the child’s point of view, it’s not what happens after the divorce or separation that matters so much but what happened before. If a child sees a high level of conflict between his/her parents at home, he/she is bound to feel a huge sense of relief when the parents split and the immediate stress is removed. Children tend to do better as a result. Nobody seriously proposes that two fighting parents should stay together for the sake of the children.
However the reverse is true where there is a low level of conflict and no obvious reason for the parents’ separation. “Mummy and daddy don’t love each other any more” makes no sense. It is the children of low conflict “amicable” divorces who do worst.
The failure to acknowledge, or even recognise, the very different outcomes from high and low conflict separations exposes the flawed conclusion of Resolution’s new survey.
Unhappiness may matter like mad to the parents. But it’s the presence or absence of conflict that matters most to a child. It’s what the children see before the split that helps them make sense of what happens later. Or not.
In the UK, (as in the US), Marriage Foundation research shows that only a tiny minority of divorces and separations come from high conflict relationships. Just 10% of divorces involve previously high conflict married couples who argued constantly and were also deeply unhappy. The proportion of unmarried separations attributable to high conflict couples is even lower at 5%.
These are the shockers, the small minority of marriages and relationships that are better off ended. And of course these acrimonious disputes are disproportionately the high conflict ones that lawyers see. Ask the children what they think afterwards and they are bound to say they are better off out. Nobody disagrees, least of all me.
But as for the rest, an astonishing 60% of divorcing couples (and 80% of separating unmarried couples) were mostly happy and not arguing much a year before their split. Should they have stayed together for their kids? Why ever not. Their marriages may not have been easy. But a matter of months before the split, they looked little different from most other marriages that kept on going.
What made all these mostly happy marriages come to an end seemingly out of the blue? Maybe for some it was discovery of an affair. Fair enough. But for most it will have been a disposable attitude to commitment of the kind peddled so thoughtlessly by Resolution. ‘It’s time for a change. I’m not in love with you. The kids will cope fine. Everyone is doing it.”
Except that the kids don’t cope. They might say they do in response to a hypothetical loaded question ten years after the split. But rigorous long term outcome studies invariably say the effects of divorce bubble on into adulthood.
The Resolution survey does have one very interesting – and unpublicised – finding which rather undermines their conclusion that young people were better off. Roughly 48% said their relations with their mum had got better since the split while 15% said it had got worse. For dads it was the exact other way round. 49% said their relations had got worse with 21% saying it was better.
Stay together for the sake of the kids? Too right. If you’re not at each other’s thoats, you can turn your marriage around. Happiness and unhappiness go up and down with the wind. Almost everyone who is in a happy marriage today will tell you that they’ve been through a bad patch. Divorce won’t necessarily make you happier. But if the reason isn’t obvious to your children, you can be sure they will see it very differently to you.
I have a very personal take on this whole subject. My parents split when I was three. However I wouldn’t have appeared in any negative statistics until my marriage hit the rocks thirty three years later. For me, the link between the two, thirty three years on, was very obviously causal. Throughout my upbringing, I coped with my parents split by being very independent but emotionally closed. That’s good for careers but bad for relationships. Eventually my marriage paid the price.
Had Resolution asked me ten years on from the divorce if I thought it was better that my parents split than stayed unhappy, I would have agreed. Was I actually better off? Not a chance.
So how can I suggest unhappy marriages can be turned around? Because my wife and I did it. It wasn’t easy, we had wise friends, and it took time, patience and change in attitudes. Twenty years on, our children have been given a secure base from which to grow and make their own way in the world.
Thankfully Resolution weren’t around at the time to spout their nonsense.