Children of couples who fight the most and loudest tend to fare better psychologically and socially after divorce than do the children of couples whose marriage reflects few outward signs of strife, according to research published in the February edition of the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
The effects of divorce on children are determined long before a marriage ends and can be either negative or positive depending on the level of conflict between the parents, say Pennsylvania State University sociologists Alan Booth and Paul Amato. Their research is the first to examine not only how marital conflict shapes the impact of divorce on the long-time well-being of children, but also the personal attitudes and social factors that influence low-conflict couples to end a marriage or remain together.
The longitudinal study of marital conflict and stability involved a national sample of more than 2,000 married persons initially interviewed in 1980 and contacted again in 1983, '88, '92 and '97. The two later interviews included samples of nearly 700 offspring who had lived in the family home in 1980 and were 19 or older when interviewed.
Well-being indicators of post-divorce offspring included overall happiness, psychological distress, the number and quality of kin and friend networks, and (among married offspring) marital happiness. Children ending up with the highest levels of anxiety and depression either had low-conflict parents who divorced or high-conflict parents who remained together.
The termination of high-conflict and often hostile marriages can be relatively inconsequential or even beneficial to children as it removes them from an antagonistic and stressful environment, Booth explains.
Children of high-conflict marriages tend to see their parents' divorce as a welcomed escape from an aversive and dysfunctional home life. As adults, they are better off in terms of the quality of intimate relationships, social support from friends and relatives, and general psychological well-being.
On the other hand, children from low-conflict marriages tend to see their parents' divorce as a personal tragedy and appear to experience inordinate adversity, both psychologically and socially, including their own ability to form quality intimate relationships.
"From the child's perspective, there is no evidence that anything is drastically wrong," says Booth. " It is an unexpected, uncontrollable and unwelcome event where one parent leaves the home and the other is overwhelmed with the demands of single parenthood and a lowered standard of living."
Low-conflict couples who divorce may account for as many as 50 percent of the divorces. As part of their study, Booth and Amato wanted to know what kind of people end conflict marriages. Couples who ended low-conflict marriages, in contrast to high-conflict couples who divorced and low-conflict couples who remained married, appeared to lack strong ties to home, community and friends, held favorable attitudes toward divorce and had a predisposition to take risks.
Low-conflict couples tended to be unattached to pro-family institutions, such as church, and to networks of other people who might emphasize that it's important to stay together.
Low- conflict parents who divorce were much less likely to have experienced the divorce of their parents, so they could have been naïve and underestimated the consequences for their own children, says Booth.
"With little encouragement or criticism, it's easier to get a divorce," says Booth. "Both the personal commitment to a marriage and barriers to leaving it are weak.
Ironically, the results suggest that divorces with the greatest potential to harm children occur in marriages that have the greatest potential for reconciliation, according to Booth. If preserving the marriage isn't an option, these parents should make every effort to ensure that their children's needs are given first priority when a divorce occurs, he says.
The Booth and Amato research is social science at its best, according to Journal of Marriage and the Family editor Robert Milardo, professor of human development at the University of Maine. "Through interviews spanning 17 years and a variety of measures, these researchers allow parents and children to speak of their distinct experiences, and the findings are clear," he says. "Divorce has no simple, uniform effect on children. It depends on the type of marriage that is terminated."
The Journal of Marriage and the Family is the quarterly publication of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), 3989 Central Ave. NE, Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55421. Telephone: 763-781-9331. The article, "Parental Pre-Divorce Relations and Offspring Post-Divorce Well-Being" is available on the NCFR website: www.ncfr.org/.