Sunday, November 06, 2005

The *Horrors* of Divorce


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.)

5 comments:

  1. Aaron,

    You quote a line about Constance Ahrons and her study

    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.


    But then you attribute that study to the author of the WaPo piece, Elizabeth Marquardt.

    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.

    Perhaps a couple of corrections are in order.

    I am a regular reader and commenter on the Family Scholar's Blog, where Elizabeth posts. www.familyscholars.org

    I'd like to address a few of your concerns. You raised the issue of the markers for "doing worse." Why the focus on feelings and not, as you wrote, "their scholastic or workplace achievement, their encounters (or lack thereof) with law enforcement."

    Elizabeth did not want to focus on exterior outcomes. She actually wanted to focus on the feelings, hence the subtitle, "The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce."

    When researchers attempt to show that children of divorce are more likely to serve jail time, for instance, the standard critique is that external factors such as poverty impact the set of children with divorced parents more than theset of children with married parents. Or as someone once told me, married parents is a marker for families that are not struggling financially.

    In an attempt to keep the comparisons as even as possible, all 1,500 people in her study sample were college graduates. The 750 with divorced parents kept in contact with both parents. This selection criteria probably kept out the extreme cases where the potential for other negative factors (extreme poverty, parental abandonment).

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  2. You write that the statement "Divorce is fine if you handle it right" is a distortion.

    I've heard this statement many times. The closest citation I can find is this one:

    The good news is, kids are resilient. They can survive a divorce just fine, as long as they know that both parents love them, said Charlene Anaya, coordinator of Kids First.
    http://starbulletin.com/2003/05/27/features/story1.html

    And then there is this:

    These situations are typical of a trend toward “a gentler divorce”, one where arrangements can truly be made “in the best interests of the children”. The latest research reveals that if parents are able to cooperate and not engage in battle through their children, many children turn out just fine.

    “Divorce is much more common today and that can make it less traumatic for those going through it,” says Melanie. “You have examples of people who have friendly relationships with their ex-spouses and who are handling things gracefully. This gives you role models for how to do it yourself.”

    http://www.parentsknow.com/articles/article.php?id=1099260287


    As for trying to find an "authoritative voice who would take the position that on the whole kids aren't best off in a stable, two-parent household" -- hmm, haven't you moved the goalposts on this one?

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  3. Your first comments focus on "feelings". But part of being a grown-up is taking responsibility for your own feelings. And while you correctly state that I quote the Washington Post's description that 75% of Ahrons' interviewees described themselves and their parents as better off, you don't challenge the accuracy of the Post article (which I found through Ahron's own website) - so what's your point?

    Your second post is a red herring. So you found two articles which you purport to state something similar to what Ahrons depicts as the standard view (but which are actually entirely consistent with my interpretation of the conventional view of divorce), and none which actually took the position described by Ahrons? Why didn't you save yourself the time and concede my point

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  4. Aaron,

    Sorry if I did not express myself more clearly. I’ll try again.

    The first thing I tried to point out was that you seem to be confusing Ahrons and Marquardt.

    You wrote, “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. . . .”

    Marquardt, who wrote the op-ed in the Washington Post, challenges the idea of the “good divorce.” However, she did not conduct the study in which 75% of the children believed that they were better off because of the divorce. That study was conducted by Ahrons, who firmly believes in the idea of the good divorce.

    You can argue that Marquardt did not adequately address Ahrons' findings, but you can't suggest that Marquardt conducted Ahrons' study. And yes, Marquardt raises questions about Ahrons' study, but not in her op-ed.

    In your response to my comments, you seem to confuse the two women again. You stated that you found the Post article through Ahron's own website. Ahron’s website http://www.constanceahrons.com/index.htm does not link to the Washington Post op-ed or the Washington Times article. Both are linked from Marquardt’s website http://www.betweentwoworlds.org/pages/reviewslist.php

    On to the issue of feelings. Yes, adults are responsible for their feelings. I don’t think I claimed otherwise. Marquardt set out to study the affects of divorce on the moral and spiritual lives of young adults. It would seem hard to do that without talking about feelings.

    Finally, I brought in those two quotes because you complained that Marquardt, in her Washington Post op-ed, did not support her claim that "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."

    I believe that Marquardt correctly summarizes the ideas that are currently put forth by experts such as Ahrons and Vicky Lansky.

    I believe that you misrepresent Marquardt when you suggest that she claims that the current idea is that "divorce is cool."

    There have been at least two waves of "conventional thinking" about divorce. The first could be characterized as stigmatizing children whose parents divorced. Divorce was perceived as an awful thing that caused great harm to a child.

    That line of thinking was challenged by writers such as Ahrons. They showed that, by and large, children could make it through their parents' divorce without being horribly scarred. I'll call this the second wave of conventional thinking. What mattered, these experts argued, was how the parents behaved during and after the divorce.

    It’s common for each generation to challenge the conventional thinking of the previous generation. That’s what’s going on. Should Marquardt’s ideas gain currency, you can rest assured that they will be challenged by younger writers in 20 years.

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  5. You know, the biggest problem with your argument, and with the thesis you are trying to defend, is that it attempts to blame the mistakes of the parent for an otherwise high-functioning child's choice not to grow up and take responsibility for her own life, and her own feelings. You want to, well, divorce the sequelae of divorce from any objective measure, assert that the only thing that counts are "feelings", and ignore the evidence that most kids of divorce describe themselves and their parents as better off? Fine. But that's editorializing (and weak editorializing at that), not social science. And don't expect me to be convinced.

    You complain that the statement, "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." doesn't effectively translate into "Divorce is cool for kids" - I disgree, particularly given the full explanation I provided, "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.'" before condensing the contention to that paraphrase.

    Red herrings and semantic games don't impress me, which probably played a role in why I dissected the Post editorial in the first place. Can you bring more meat to the table?

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