Divorce Sucks For Kids But The Alternative May Be Even Worse
The idea that kids are damaged by divorce is not a new one. Children of divorced parents are constantly underperforming those whose families stayed intact. We know boys especially suffer consequences when they are raised apart from their fathers. Every time I hear these statistics, I can’t help but wonder why? My own experience with my parents divorce may be clouding my judgment here, but I was miserable in a household where two parents who didn’t belong together, stayed together.
Dalton Conley, Professor of Sociology at NYU, wrote a piece for the Atlantic today in which he examines the effects of divorce on children, and questions what happens in the alternative situation of a couple staying together. He makes some very interesting points:
There is so much cultural heat surrounding the issue of divorce that even academic studies can get a bit singed. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies showing that kids from divorced families do worse on scores of outcomes. The problem with all of those research papers is that we can never know the counterfactual: What if those particular parents who divorced had actually stayed together?
This “what if” has always bothered me. Who is to know if kids wouldn’t be even worse off if instead of living through divorce, they were living through parents who constantly argued or totally ignored each other? All of the screwed up dynamics that exist in a home where a couple is unhappy have got to affect children just as much as those dynamics of dealing with divorce, don’t they?
No, we must confine our inquiry to the ones who did divorce in our sliver of the quantum universe. Would their kids really be better off if they had stayed together in some other quantum state—fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?
Again, I can only speak to my personal experience, but living in a home where parents stayed together way longer than they should was awful. The tension. The not speaking. There was no joy there. I am certain it has impacted the way that I approach most relationships in my life.
This non-ascertainability is magnified by the plethora of studies showing little to no impact of divorce as well as research arguing that any ill effects of divorce can all be traced to the economic circumstances of the families who divorce and the downward economic mobility of the custodial parent (usually the woman) afterward.
So this speaks to a certain situation where maybe the mother is not receiving the financial support that she needs from her ex. It’s understandable that this would cause stress – as financial problems always do.
Namely, I found that the eldest female child was the most disadvantaged kid in the aftermath of a divorce because of the added, adult roles she tended to take on. While having to care for younger siblings in light of an absent parent and serve as the substitute partner of sorts to the remaining parent may be a maturing experience, it more often resulted in a child becoming resentful about having to grow up too fast and sacrifice his or her childhood autonomy for the sake of younger siblings and the family in general.
What I take away from his piece is that breaking up a family sucks. But the break doesn’t necessarily occur when the person leaves – it occurs long before. We always have to be in tune to the needs of our children, but adding an element of separation makes it even harder. Still – I’d rather not raise my kids in an environment where they didn’t look at their parents and see a loving relationship. So I guess the answer is – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.