Divorce isn’t easy. But I didn’t know any better, at age nine, when my mom broke the news that she and my father were no longer going to be together. I was relieved. I naively interpreted the announcement as an end to their fighting and stress. What came instead was a messy separation, complicated by addiction, spanning over 11 years.
It’s estimated that there is one divorce in America every 33 seconds. Snuggle up on your couch to watch your favorite romantic film — which almost always ends with a version of happily ever after — and know that once the credits finish, an estimated 194 divorces have occurred.
Those who have longer marriages these days are the products of the most-divorced generation in America. To be fair, adults are currently waiting longer to get married than they have in generations past, so there’s something to say about marriage and divorce rates declining together. But just how much does divorce impact children? Or to be more precise: How much does it impact the adults these children will become?
Almost 30 years of research indicates that children living with their married parents show increased physical, emotional and academic health, and that in most cases, divorce causes some level of trauma for children. The same goes for parents, who often see divorce as a devastating failure, and carry guilt about the way it impacts their children.
But in examining other studies of divorce and its impacts, it seems that children who aren’t exposed to any hostility during a divorce are able to process the end of their parents’ marriage in a healthy manner — and are able to go on and have lasting marriages for themselves. Researchers Christy Kleinsorge and Lynne M. Covitz found, “the fact that a child experiences the divorce of (their) parents does not in and of itself doom that child to significant adjustment problems.” When a marriage ends in divorce studies have found the biggest negative impact isn’t always the divorce itself, but how the divorce is carried out and how the parents treat each other — and their children — once the separation is final.
Marriages not working out is nothing new. The earliest known divorce laws were written on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia 2038-1990 B.C. By the French Revolution, new divorce laws allowed several grounds to separate a union, including adultery, violence, desertion and mutual consent. When European colonists arrived to the rocky shores of the East Coast, they brought divorce with them. As divorce was a legal process that was recognized or not on a state-by-state basis, certain states quickly became destinations for couples looking to dissolve their unions. First, there was Connecticut. Then Illinois and Ohio. As the U.S. expanded westward, divorce destinations moved westward, too. By the second half of the 19th century, the Utah and Nevada territories became a hub for those looking to become divorcées, with lawyers from eastern cities like New York and Chicago establishing offices in the frontier for divorces only.
In the late 1960s, as Elvis sang “Heartbreak Hotel,” then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law. This evolved into the story of divorce as we know it today.
Sleeping on the couch while the other sleeps on the bed. Marriage counseling. Separation. “This isn’t going to work anymore, please just sign the papers.” And with it, divorce rates soared. By 1980, there was a historic spike in divorces in the U.S., with one divorce occuring for every two marriages between 1970 and 1980.
Despite the legal acceptance of divorce and its prevalence, a cultural distaste for ending marriages prevailed. During the peak of divorce rates, the term “broken home” was replaced by the more-palatable nomenclature “single-parent home.” And then came the backlash. The rhetoric became: “If you get divorced, your kids will be damaged.” As the millennial generation entered the world after 1981, research papers about the negative impacts of divorce on children and families showed that children of divorce had lower measures of “academic success, conduct, psychological adjustment, self-concept and social relations.”
But at the turn of the millennium, research began to show that it wasn’t always divorce that was causing negative impacts on children, but the circumstances that occurred around the process.
Psychologist and family therapist Constance Ahrons introduced the idea of a “good divorce,” to combat the stigmatization and shame of separation. In the first pages of her book, “The Good Divorce” Ahrons makes a case for co-parenting, “In a good divorce, a family with children remains a family. The parents — as they did when they were married — continue to be responsible for the emotional, economic, and physical needs of their children.”
According to this logic, parents should maintain healthy relationships and continue the healthy structures they’ve (hopefully) built with their kids prior to the divorce, such as bedtime routines and other practices kids rely on, like predictability, residential stability and minimal exposure to conflict. When done successfully, children can thrive.
“It’s in the best interest of the child to have positive relationships with both parents,” Leslie Silva, a family and matrimonial lawyer, says. And that understanding seems to be widely coming into practice for families experiencing divorce. “For the most part, we are seeing a trend where folks are saying, ‘I’m prepared to co-parent, I want to co-parent positively, and I want what’s best for my child.’”
That doesn’t mean that divorce isn’t tough on kids. Just like divorce can create a negative experience (as can an unhealthy marriage) so can co-parenting, if it isn’t done right. “Negative co-parenting behaviors have been shown to be harmful to children’s development,” writes researcher Catherine K. Buckley. Children who are at risk for high levels of ongoing parental conflict will likely have various emotional and behavioral problems. In one of her final interviews prior to her death, Ahron clarified to Slate magazine, “I would never want to minimize how difficult it is for children to go through (the) transition (of divorce), but it doesn’t mean they are damaged.”
Recent research shows that divorce does not necessarily cause behavior problems in children, nor does it manifest adjustment issues in academic performance, self-esteem, expression of emotions, well-being and social relations. Those impacts, cited in the 2017 research paper Children of Divorce, are correlated to the other circumstances divorce can expose family members to, such as changes in routine, emotional dysregulation and high conflict.
Research published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family found behavioral problems were not limited to children of divorce; high levels of conflict in those who stay together can be just as damaging. Researchers Donna Ruane Morrison and Mary Jo Coiro concluded 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.” Reasonably then, ending high-conflict marriages can have positive effects.
“I was relieved, to be completely honest, when my mom finally broke the news to us,” Asia Bown, a 23-year-old writer in Salt Lake City, says. Bown was 13 when her parent’s decision to divorce was delivered. “She reinforced (to us kids) that the divorce was absolutely not our fault and had nothing to do with us, which in my mind was obvious. Even though I was 13, I knew not to feel responsible.”
In the cases where parental divorce provides relief to the family, it makes sense to consider divorce a solution, rather than a threat to interpersonal adjustment. Researcher Paul Amato found the overall psychological health of adults with and without divorced parents overlapped 90 percent. In other words, 10 percent of adults with divorced parents demonstrated negative impacts and poor mental health.
And 42 percent of children whose parents divorced and who are now adults surpassed the average psychological health of adults with married parents.
Divorce served as a solution in my life, rather than shattering the ideals of a happy marriage. I never fantasized about a “Parent Trap” triangulation plot, but the same can’t be said for children who are caught in the middle of conflict and a custody battle. There is the dividing of time (“whose house are you at this holiday?”), the duffle bag that gets shuffled around on weekends, and, well, the witness to an end of something that wasn’t supposed to end. But the split decision, which seemed to threaten an egregious impact may only be just that: a split moment of distress in time. More so than the sustaining of a marriage or the decision to divorce, the greatest threat to a child’s well-being is what the relationships around them show them.