Divorce is hard on kids. We know that with certainty, but exactly how and why it is hard is complicated. We spend a lot of time, as a culture, discussing it and I spend a lot of time, as a student of the blended family, thinking about it.

I read this with great interest: Recognizing When Kids Benefit from Their Parents’ Divorce.

(Huge disclaimer: Dalton Conley is a weird/interesting dude.)

I read it for the title which was ultimately misleading because, aside from abusive circumstances, there’s no real benefit of divorce for kids. This piece suggests only the possibility of an equal damage.

There’s a lot of personal anecdote, some citation of research, and perhaps cherry-picking, but the point is well taken. What I got out of it was this: maybe it’s not the divorce that’s messing everyone up. Maybe it’s the shitty marriage.

Unhappy parents spend so much time fretting about whether it would be better for their kids if they stayed together or if they divorced. But maybe it’s too late to worry about it at that point. The damage – to whatever degree there is damage – may already be done and continue to be done regardless of that choice. Based on inferences from that no-fault study, whether or not unhappy parents divorce seems to make little difference. If you married the ‘wrong’ person and then had children with that person, you’ve already messed up. And if we believe that divorce affects not only our children as they come of age, but their own likelihood to marry young or marry with whatever baggage they may have, and subsequently divorce, we must believe that our mate choice sends ripple effects down the genetic line.

If all of that is true, it means the fretting should be done at the time we choose to marry. And we are obviously not doing nearly enough fretting.

How many people are thinking about their children’s children when they make the decision to marry their boyfriend of two years because they’re in their late 20s and it seems like the right thing to do? I don’t think people really, deeply consider the idea of “forever” in terms of their own lives, let alone the lives of people several generations down the line. But I don’t blame people. How can we? What do we know of forever? We know nothing of forever.


Image credit: Erin Althea

6 thoughts on “don’t marry the wrong person

  1. so true. They say love is blind, and maybe that is natures way of ensuring the species carries on. We marry the wrong person, thinking it is the right one, and the children are already there by the time our eyes are opened again. When you are young, forever is a concept that is just too far away to really comprehend and think about I reckon.


  2. I felt meh about his article– John Gottman has much better stuff. I can’t remember which book he wrote but the research actually points to conflict being bad for kids. Most of the time, there is conflict in and around divorce, but, as I think Conley points out, it’s hard to really compare families with lots of conflict v. families without conflict and then see the outcomes from there. Or a study that examined children from families of origin without conflict, families of origin with conflict and then children from divorced parents who figure out how to manage their lives without conflict and finally children from divorced parents who still continue to have conflict. That would be a truly useful study. I actually have a bunch of other thoughts but they are too long for a comment.


  3. I love Gottman!

    The Conley article was underwhelming, for sure. I should have emphasized that it was the title that drew me in, but the article itself was pretty incomplete, even as an excerpt from his book.

    But- Conley did make me look at that one question (divorce or stay together for the kids) in a way I hadn’t before. Conflict issues aside, maybe that one decision doesn’t matter. Like, if we isolate that one variable, what if we find that it has no effect? That seems really interesting to me because it is a question that people really agonize over, maybe at the expense of the more salient issues. I think couples perceive the effects of conflict as more intuitive/obvious (though they may not be in reality) and when asking that stay-or-go question, they assume as an inherent part of the question (naively, I’m sure) that they’ll be able shield the children from the inevitable conflict. Because no one is going to agonize over a question of “do we fight in front of our children for the rest of their lives or do we not?” It’s more “do we stay together and try to hide the fighting or do we just split?” So in their way, they are attempting to isolate that variable on their own, within the question. Of course it doesn’t actually work out that way.

    I can’t even tell if that makes any sense…

    We would really, really benefit from a study like the one you describe. I wonder if/when/how we’ll ever get good data on those issues.


    • Another thing we’re going to want in our dream study is a socioeconomic subanalysis – I think we’ve seen that a lot of the reason kids fare worse after divorce is due to the economic fallout that tends to come with the divorce. I don’t have a citation for this so it should be taken with a grain of skepticism, but I think kids from higher income families weather divorce much better than kids from lower income families do…. but a higher income is going to help anyone weather pretty much anything better so who knows.


  4. Well, my highly anecdotal evidence would push back on that a bit. Or maybe it’s also about being specific about what outcomes we’re looking at, when we talk about “weathering successfully?” Also, I would want to add in the parental ability to help their children cope with hard emotions. Again, in my highly anecdotal evidence, I have seen quite a bit of parents wanting to act like nothing happened, or believe that it didn’t affect their kids– THAT’S a HUGE variable in how kids respond to traumatic events. Again, John Gottman’s “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child”= AWESOME. Maybe that’s where I got the other quote– I know he has a section on helping kids cope with divorce and a lot of it is about helping kids identify and then work through hard feelings. Lots of parents are not so ready to do this, because, well, did their family situation/marriage previously have structures to handle conflict/hard emotions? Again, going back to adding in other variables rather than just “divorce v. not divorce.”


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