How Damaging Is Divorce?

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In my search for statistics yesterday I ran across the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University which did have a variety of stats for the year 2008. It also had “Ten Myths About Divorce,” which quite frankly alarmed me (some of its observations were that children of divorce don’t get over it and in fact have more problems in adulthood). As a woman who has had three divorces and remarriages after my first marriage (in which all my children were born), the “report” wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read.

Then I ran across an article about “What’s Wrong With the Work of the National Marriage Project?” Not surprisingly, this article appears on the Alternatives to Marriage Project web site, but it was also included in a popular college textbook series, Taking Sides (see example), as a clear-headed response to the views the National Marriage Project has promoted.

I’m not one to bury my head in the sand and pretend that there is no harm done to children when it comes to divorce, but I still don’t agree with some of the National Marriage Project’s statements. In my case, as far as my first marriage goes, my children all agree that they can’t imagine how their father and I ever got together in the first place and that their lives were much happier (even if they weren’t easy) than if we had stayed married.

That doesn’t mean that divorce leaves no scars. Of course it does. But to say that staying married when there is  marital conflict is preferable, or at least equal, to getting a divorce, is ludicrous. There are too many variables in the equation to say for sure that divorce is always more damaging than staying together. Even if marital conflict is relatively mild, it can erode a child’s happiness if it is experienced day in and day out. Some divorces are less stressful than the marriages were.

Divorce isn’t easy, and remarriage is even harder. I say that because of how difficult it is to establish a successful step-family. Two of my marriages broke up largely because of conflicts within the step-family and the happiness of my current one may have a lot to do with the fact that my children are all grown now. I’m sure there are many successful step-families out there, but the truth is, the divorce rate is higher for subsequent marriages than for the first one.

The National Marriage Project appears to be invested in the idea that marriage is the ideal environment in which to raise children. How does that make the parents and children feel when there never was a marriage or the marriage ended in divorce? I see no advantage in treating children who are born out-of-wedlock or who end up in single parent families like second-class citizens. Why not spend more time strengthening the various forms of families that do exist?

I always told my children that just because their parents had divorced didn’t mean that they were from a “broken” family. We still made up a legitimate family even if their parents no longer lived together.

I also resent the rhetoric that makes it sound like children from single-parent families are severely disadvantaged. They have issues that two-parent families have but not as many as you might think. (The primary one is a lower standard of living.) Many single parents carve out a support network that takes the place of a nuclear family:  a church, extended family, full-time babysitters, after-school care, and role models and confidantes for both parent and child. In some cases, single parents have more lifelines than an isolated two-parent family does.

In my opinion, divorce is only as damaging as we allow it to be. Don’t apologize or feel sorry for yourself. Find new avenues of support, both emotional and financial. Continue to focus on your family and to love your children. Find new ways to celebrate your lives together. Allow and encourage your children to have a relationship with their non-custodial parent. Don’t make them choose sides or put them in the middle. And don’t rush into another relationship just because you’re afraid of being alone.

And always remember that marriage, in and of itself, is no magic talisman. It hardly solves all problems and unless it’s extremely healthy, it may cause new ones. It may be an ideal, but it is never perfect. Only we can make our families, whatever forms they take, strong and nurturing.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

2 thoughts on “How Damaging Is Divorce?”

  1. I know there are some families that fit the stats, but it doesn’t have to be that way. My parents divorced when I was 12 and my brother 8. They had already been separated for 3 years. I always disagree/d whenever my family situation was referred to as “broken,” even by my mother in the beginning. As far as I was concerned, saying so implied that I was broken, too, and even at 12 I knew for a fact I was not.

    I am glad my parents divorced. My father was unpleasant and a sometime drug abuser and cheater (though I didn’t discover this until adulthood). All I knew was that life became less tense and more loving. Who could possibly be broken by that?

    My high school-educated mother suffered a drop in standard of living, but managed to send both my brother and I to state university. We applied for every grant and competed in every college-money contest we could find (the VFW paid for my first semester!). She created a great support system for us – mostly family – and made sure we always knew we were loved and were not a burden.

    Now 31 and 29, my brother and I enjoy the benefits of our childhood: great childhood memories, advanced degrees and successful careers (though I just left mine to become a mother and homemaker), happy marriages, feminist beliefs and a deep appreciation of our mother’s sacrifices.

    At the end of the day the presence of love and respect is the ideal environment for raising children – and that wherever those are found, a family is also.

    1. Very well said. I appreciate your sharing your story. It sounds like your mother is quite a woman and I’m very happy for you and your brother and the way things turned out.

      Your last sentence should be on a plaque!

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