Divorce is not all broken homes and neglected children

August 11, 1997
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—The popular images associated with divorce—broken homes, dysfunctional families, neglected children, and selfish parents—don’t give an adequate picture of the realities of divorce.

An 18-month study of 160 Boston-area families undergoing divorce demonstrates that the complete picture should include images of painful personal growth, increased freedom from gender constraints and positive transformations in the ways families operate, according to Abigail J. Stewart, professor of psychology and of women’s studies, and director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, at the University of Michigan.

Stewart and her colleagues conclude that “overall, conventional wisdom about divorce isn’t very wise.”

The findings of the study are presented in a new book, “Separating Together: How Divorce Transforms Families,” which will be published by Guilford Publications this month. Stewart’s co-authors are Anne P. Copeland of Boston University, Nia Lane Chester of Pine Manor College, Janet E. Malley of Radcliffe College and Nicole B. Barenbaum of the University of the South.

“One of the satisfactions of the project was sifting through the dominant cultural beliefs about divorce and discovering nuggets of wisdom that too often were obscured by some of the dangerous and ‘dusty’ myths,” Stewart said. For instance:

Myth: Divorce happens because parents don’t care about their kids’ well-being. “We were struck by the depth of most parents’ guilt and anxiety about their children’s welfare. We also noted that in some cases parents actually decided on divorce only when they were convinced that remaining in the marriage was more harmful to the children.”

Myth: Divorce is a catastrophe for children that leaves misery in its wake. “We found no evidence to support this folk belief, though many parents in the study feared it was true. It is undeniably true that the children felt bad about the divorce but in general they adjusted and, over a relatively short timespan, reported feeling less bad about it.” Also, the children’s well-being was linked to the parents’. As the parents did better, particularly the mothers, so did the children.

Myth: Divorce leaves at least one of the post-divorce family units economically vulnerable. “Most custodial mothers and their children are worse off financially after the divorce, and there is clearly reason for concern. But in this sample of mothers, most of whom were employed before the separation, mothers generally felt that the gains in personal financial autonomy offset the losses in financial resources.

“There is no doubt that single mothers and their children face serious economic problems, but married couples also often struggle with issues of power and control over economic resources. Our public discourse about divorce needs to reflect both realities.”

Myth: Mothers should stay at home after the divorce to be available to the children. “We found no evidence to support this idea. In fact, we found that, for the most part, working outside the home was generally beneficial to the mothers’ well-being, which, in turn, was beneficial to the children’s well-being.”

Myth: If a divorce takes place, everything else should stay the same. “Nearly all the parents believed that change would be bad for the kids but there was no evidence to support this belief. Changes should be considered in the light of the capacity to improve or threaten the family’s situation or sense of security rather than as uniformly dangerous.”

Myth: Parental conflict is inevitable. “Some families experienced little or no conflict once the decision to divorce was made and, in others, the conflict was contained and the children were protected from it. Parents who did contain the conflict were best able to focus on creating new, co-parenting relationships.”

Myth: It is important to maintain regular routines for children, particularly non-custodial parent visits. The findings about non-custodial visits—generally with the fathers—were mixed. “Emotionally close relationships with fathers were uniformly good for children, but regular non-custodial visits were not always good when parent conflict was high. In these cases, more irregular, spontaneous visits might help minimize conflict and be more helpful to children.

“Also, while regular visits were helpful to boys, particularly younger boys, they were not necessarily so for girls, particularly for older girls, either because the girls were uncomfortable about managing their relationships or because the fathers did not relate as well to the girls or, possibly, value them as highly.”

Truth: Conflict between parents is always bad for children. This belief was probably the one most supported by the study, as it has been by other studies. Parental conflict is destructive and getting away from it through divorce is one of the benefits for children.

“The conflict was particularly bad for children under age nine and when it was violent or persistent. Even more powerfully, we found that being directly drawn into the conflict, creating loyalty strains, was the single most consistent predictor of worse adjustment for children,” Stewart said. Notably, the destructive power of conflict seemed to die off after the divorce was final.

“In the end, divorce is just one event in an individual’s and family’s life course that includes many significant events, and it is a mistake to weight it too heavily,” she added.

Data from the study will be held at the Murray Research Center of Radcliffe College. The Center is a multidisciplinary social science data archive.

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