Does divorce help children, or does it hurt them? It’s the question on the minds of many parents in unhappy marriages, and it’s also a social-psychology issue that has been well researched and debated by experts in the field. Though there’s no definitive answer that applies to every situation, this information will explain what different factors matter in determining whether a divorce impedes or improves the lives of children.
What we do and don’t know about divorce
First, we must acknowledge what we do know: Divorce is a process that causes substantial turmoil in a child’s life. It’s an event that rubs many important and well-established developmental needs the wrong way. It is the implosion of a child’s family – their primary source of stability, love, and self-identity – and by its very nature involves a variety of changes to a child’s life that will be difficult to cope with. DIVORCE WILL HARM EVERY CHILD IN EVERY CASE, and there is no way to get around this. As Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee write, “family scholars who have not always seen eye to eye are converging on a number of findings that fly in the face of our cherished myths. We agree that the effects of divorce are long-term. We know that the family is in trouble. We have a consensus that children raised in divorced or remarried families are less well-adjusted as adults than those raised in intact families.” (2000, p. 297)
So the real question is whether or not children are helped in the long run: Do the potential benefits of divorce outweigh the costs of this immediate disruption? The answer to this seems to depend on a few key variables.
Dispelling the myth that if parents are happy, kids will be too
Probably the most pervasive myth surrounding divorce is that children will be happier so long as the parents are happier. Err go, if divorce makes a parent happy, it will eventually improve the child’s life too. This adult-centric view is wildly delusional, more wishful thinking than reality. After all, getting plastered every night and leaving the kids alone in a car outside the bar to fend for themselves may make some parents happy, but this hardly makes it of benefit to children. The needs of children very often run contradictory to what parents might desire. It’s what makes parenting so difficult at times. Speaking about this myth, divorce researcher Judith Wallerstein writes that “children are not considered separately from their parents; their needs and even their thoughts are subsumed under the adult agenda. This ‘trickle down’ myth is built on the enduring fact that most adults cannot fathom the child’s world view and how children think.” (ibid, p. xxix)
Like many myths, this one takes a bit of truth but builds upon it several false assumptions. It IS true that parental wellbeing has a profound impact on child wellbeing, and miserable parents tend to adversely impact kids. In fact, parental depression and/or mental pathology is probably the most under-the-radar threat to children that exists. Those kids living with such parents tend to fare substantially worse than those who endure hyped-up welfare concerns such as molestation, and may do even worse than kids who are physically or verbally abused in their home. (see our book Child Maltreatment – A Cross Comparison) Parents do matter a great deal, and are the most important variable in child welfare. Put in perspective, even something so seemingly subtle as having a narcissistic parent in the home can be a better predictor of lasting problems for a child than experiencing parental incest. (Moor, 1992) Experiences are not what matters most – it’s the psychological atmosphere of the environment a child is incubated in that has a more profound influence. And in this regard, happy parents are indeed important to children.
Yet the link between parental welfare and child outcomes isn’t always the straightforward link that one might assume it to be. When it comes to divorce, many of the same things that make parental depression and pathology so damaging – stuff like having a disinvolved and less-responsive parent, exposure to negative cognitive styles, and unhealthy emotional atmospheres in the home – are created anew by the circumstances divorce brings. The moment the household is divided and children begin splitting time between parents, children get less-attuned parents. As parents move on after divorce, children are often exposed to a great deal of negative pathology. If the fighting continues (as it often does) or if new stepfamily situations new create conflict, children are exposed to a negative emotional atmosphere for many years following a divorce. Parents may indeed be happy to be rid of each other, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into improvements for the child. Unfortunately, the benefits that come from a happier parent can be easily offset by the new challenges brought on by divorce – and this is assuming that the split will instantly bring both parents bliss. Quite commonly, divorce and the challenges it brings will induce depression in both parents, even if the other one feels overjoyed about their new life.
For reasons such as this, parental happiness and child welfare often diverge during a divorce. Thus, as researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe observe, “four fifths of divorced adults profess to being happier afterward, but a majority of their children feel otherwise.” (Thomas, 2011)
Conflict: The most important measure in determining whether divorce helps or hurts children
On most variables, research shows divorce to be beneficial to parents but detrimental to children. Yet there’s one important measure where this relationship is reversed: High-conflict homes. When it comes to conflict, divorce may offer a reprieve that actually improves a child’s long-term welfare.
Mechanic & Hansell (1989) found that those kids in high-conflict married families had significantly poorer adjustment than those in low-conflict divorced families. Amato, Loomis & Booth (1995) also found that the welfare of young people after parental divorce was most detrimentally impacted when there was less conflict before the divorce, whereas those who experienced high levels of conflict before the disruption seemed to fare better after divorce. Morrison & Coird (1999) found that “separation and divorce are associated with increases in behavior problems in children, regardless of the level of conflict between parents. However, in marriages that do not break up, high levels of marital conflict are associated with even greater increases in children’s behavior problems.” (p. 626) They conclude that “the experience of parental separation and divorce is uniformly harmful to children (at least in the first years after disruption), regardless of how often their parents quarreled beforehand. However, for parents to remain married is not a better alternative for children when conflict between the parents is high. Indeed, the largest increases in scores on the Behavior Problems Index were observed for the children whose parents remained in such marriages.” They add this cautionary warning: “neither alternative is without cost to children.” (pp. 634-636) Though this analysis dealt only with one measure of child welfare (externalizing behavior problems), it nonetheless illustrates the nuances of how conflict and divorce intertwine.
However, even this seemingly definitive rule comes with a caveat: divorce doesn’t always bring an end to the conflict. In fact, it can even escalate it in the near-term, and some researchers have found that a significant portion of divorced parents are still going strong at each other 10 years later, with the children still firmly caught up amidst it all. (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000) Divorce can only save children from bitter parental fighting if it actually ends the conflict. It doesn’t do so if parents merely continue their battles under a new arrangement.
When divorce helps kids
So to sum it up, here are the circumstances under which a divorce might be more helpful than hurtful to kids over the long run:
A) If the parents are miserable and visibly depressed before the divorce, and IF the divorce manages to lift this depression and pathology, thus leading to measurable improvements in the way parents interact with their kids while keeping both parents actively involved, then it may be beneficial for children in the long run.
B) In high-conflict households, divorce may be better for children, IF the conflict ceases or substantially diminishes after divorce.
C) In abusive households where the abusive partner has been unwilling to change – whether that be abuse directed at children or merely witnessed by them – children often fare better in the long-term following a divorce.
A parent’s right to be happy
As much as we care about the welfare of children, we’re equally concerned about the human condition in general. Our goal is always to advocate for the least destructive way to help everyone on this planet find fulfillment. And so we must end by saying that it’s not a parent’s duty to stay trapped in a miserable situation solely for the sake of their kids. It IS their prerogative, however, to ensure that if they make a choice that is likely to injure their kids in order to better their own circumstances, that they do so in a way that limits the pain their children are forced to endure.
Every parent owes their children at least that much. So whatever your present circumstances, if you find it necessary to divorce, please do so in a way that is considerate to your kids: take the time to read this information thoroughly, utilize the free resources we offer throughout this site, keep the split civil, and take the steps necessary to ensure that you’re looking out for their welfare while hoping to improve your own.
DES: Will getting a divorce help or hurt your children? Learn the different factors that will determine whether children are helped or hurt by divorce.