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How Bad is Divorce?
November 14, 2005
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D.
Media and researchers incorrectly compare low-conflict marriages to divorce

According to a new study by writer Elizabeth Marquardt and sociologist Norval Glenn, children of divorced parents have a variety of problems that those of married parents don’t have. Divorce has negative consequences for the children, even in the so-called “good divorce”.

Now to the skewed interpretation: According to Marquardt, parents with low-conflict marriages should “get help and stick it out” (Newsweek). In her opinion piece in the WashingtonPost, Marquardt added:

Couples in low-conflict marriages may manage a so-called "good" divorce, but many of them could also manage to, well, stay married and spare themselves and their children a lot of pain.

Huh? First of all, how can she say anything about parents’ sparing themselves pain? The study didn’t interview or survey parents; parents were not part of the study at all. She simply cannot evaluate the pain or any other aspect of the divorce for the parents.

But there are even problems with the more substantive (and swallowed) claim: that children of divorced parents (from low-conflict marriages) are worse off emotionally than they would have been if their parents hadn’t gotten divorced. Marquardt tried to get at this question by comparing children of “good divorces” with children of unhappy, low-conflict marriages. She found the kids of the married parents felt less emotional trauma.

But you can’t really compare kids from these two types of families to get at what would have happened if the good divorces hadn’t happened. The people who decide to stay married despite being unhappy are not the same (in personality, family values, outlook on life) as those who get divorced. Maybe they are more complacent, maybe they are more religious, maybe their lives revolve more around the kids in general. Maybe they aren’t actually all that unhappy in their marriage.

In order to really know what life would be like for kids if the “good” divorces hadn’t happened, you’d have to take a group of people all about to get divorces, and let one group divorce and forbid the other, and then see what happens. Just a touch unethical.

CBN introduced their interpretation, “Until now, most research has shown that the majority of these children are leading successful adult lives. But a new national study shows otherwise.” What? Apparently the bar has gone up for success. Now people that have issues with their parents divorce are no longer considered successful. The underlying moral message is clear; don’t divorce because your kids will otherwise fail in life.

But what are the consequences of staying married only for the sake of the kids? Unfortunately the study doesn’t consider this. Does avoiding divorce in a low-conflict unhappy marriage turn unhappy parents into extremely depressed ones? Does it teach children how to have important relationships with little fulfillment and love, to accept less than they deserve? Does it teach children that they should accept and expect less from their emotional lives? Do parents give kids a sense of “wholeness” at the expense of living a lie and sacrificing their own intimate lives?

The implications of the research on children of divorced parents is profound; as a society we need to recognize that there is a lot of pain out there due to these separations. But the study is quite far from showing that it would be better if the divorces didn’t happen. We simply don’t know what it would be like, for the children or the parents, if people stayed married despite it all.

Please note that the authors of the study have responded to this criticism, and their comments and Dr. Goldin's response can be read here.