In today's Washington Post, there is an editorial which asks "Just Whom Is This Divorce 'Good' For?" The answer, from the author's perspective, is "Not me!" It's an interesting editorial, not so much for its (lack of) analysis, but for the way it frames the issue, and scrambles data to confuse the reader about its findings.
Before the divorce rate began its inexorable rise in the late 1960s, the common wisdom had been that, where children are concerned, divorce itself is a problem. But as it became widespread -- peaking at almost one in two first marriages in the mid-1980s -- popular thinking morphed into a new, adult-friendly idea: It's not the act of divorcing that's the problem, but simply the way that parents handle it. Experts began to assure parents that if only they conducted a "good" divorce -- if they both stayed involved with their children and minimized conflict -- the kids would be fine.So we start by misrepresenting the conventional wisdom. That is, we take the notion that "Divorce is going to happen anyway, but by reducing conflict and staying involved we can avoid harming the kids" and distort it into "Divorce is fine if you handle it right." The author doesn't cite anybody as actually supporting her distortion; it would be rather hard to find any authoritative voice who would take the position that on the whole kids aren't best off in a stable, two-parent household. Instead she presents the following claim:
Countless newspaper articles, television reports and books quote therapists and academics arguing on its behalf. A holiday article last year in Newsweek, titled "Happy Divorce," featured divorced families who put their conflicts aside to spend Christmas together. Researchers, it said, "have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself."With "countless" examples to choose from, she picks the one example which doesn't actually support her point? (Actual passage: "Although researchers like Ahrons have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself, some parents still have trouble not putting their children in the middle of conflict".)
Her "evidence" for the new attitude of "Divorce is cool for kids" is presented from two sources: The first, an exchange between a parent and child from the movie "The Squid and the Whale" - which I suppose is rationalized by the claim that the movie is based upon the director's own experience with divorce. The second,
In 2002, The Washington Post Magazine featured a cover story about Eli and Debbie, a handsome, smiling, divorced couple with three preteen daughters. Although their marriage was, according to Debbie, "all in all, an incredibly functional" one, they divorced when she became troubled by their "lack of connection."A three-year-old magazine article....
I followed a few of the review links on the book's website to see what others had to say about the author's analysis. The Washington Times observed,
In her study of 173 adult children of divorce, Ms. Ahrons found that most of the children had blossomed into effective adults who were connected to their families. Three-quarters thought they and their parents were better off because of the divorce.It astonishes me that, to advance her theory of the horrors of "good divorce", she glosses over the fact that 75% of the children of divorce whom she interviewed believed themselves and their parents to be better off as a result of the divorce. Over at its alter-ego, the Washington Post, the reviewer comments,
Given the personal pain that Marquardt spreads through the pages of this book, it's hard to take at face value her claim that she does not intend to write a book against divorce or blame any parents who have subjected their children to it. She certainly makes exceptions for "high-conflict" marriages and circumstances in which a spouse or a child is endangered. But when she quotes a couple who have "an incredibly functional marriage" but divorce because one spouse is "troubled by their 'lack of connection,' " she makes a persuasive case against the culture of casual divorce.Neither marriage nor divorce should be casual decisions, particularly where children are involved. But we're back to discussing a magazine article she read, and not her research.
In her Washington Post editorial, the author apparently forgot that 75% of the people she interviewed believed themselves and their parents to be better off following divorce:
We found that children of so-called "good" divorces often do worse even than children of unhappy low-conflict marriages -- they say more often, for example, that family life was stressful and that they had to grow up too soon; and they are themselves more likely to divorce -- and that they do much worse than children raised in happy marriages. In a finding that shatters the myth of the "good" divorce, they told us that divorce sowed lasting inner conflict in their lives even when their parents did not fight."Doing worse" within this context apparently means giving those responses to questions about their childhood, as opposed to, say, their feelings about the divorce itself, their scholastic or workplace achievement, their encounters (or lack thereof) with law enforcement, or even their own self-assessment of whether they are better off. It's a polemic disguised as social science research.
I'm in the same class of kids as the author - she's slightly younger than me, but our respective parents divorced when we were two. She seems to have come from a significantly more privileged background than I, with a post-divorce level of access to both parents that I did not personally enjoy. I agree with the general thesis that even low-conflict, cooperative divorce, divorce will have an effect on kids, how they relate to their parents, their perspectives on relationships and marriage, and their perceptions of their childhoods. But as they say, you can't unring the bell - and I'm not particularly interested in fantasizing about how much better my life would be had my parents not divorced, or attributing every problem in my life to my parents' divorce. Part of growing up is accepting that bad things happen, and sometimes you just have to deal with it. For that matter, more often than not the unhappiness you feel in your grown-up life comes from your own choices and actions, not the decades-old decision of your parents to divorce.
Given the reality of divorce, it is a very good thing that there are researchers who are finding ways to reduce parental conflict and improve the experience for children. I also encourage efforts to help reduce the divorce rate - not through making it harder to get divorced, but by giving people a more realistic view of marriage and providing the resources and information that can help couples work through their problems and remain married. Beyond possibly getting a few people to take divorce more seriously, exaggerating the consequences of divorce does nothing to actually help kids. (Nor, for that matter, does an argument for allowing civil unions but blocking gay marriage in the name of protecting children from possible harms that the author can't even articulate.)