When Divorce Is Best for the Children
In fact, the studies suggest that the most important thing divorcing parents can do is to avoid putting the children in the middle of their battles.
Social worker Hanna McDonough agrees, but says parents don't find that easy to do. McDonough, author of Putting Children First: A Guide for Parents Breaking Up, tells WebMD that approximately one in four breakups are high-conflict.
"The tendency in these high-conflict homes is to use the children as pawns or mediators, and that does enormous damage," McDonough says. "It's not that the parents are terrible people. ... A lot of times parents are so hurt that they aren't aware they are hurting their children."
"Divorcing parents have to give up the fight and stay focused on the kids, but that doesn't often happen in these high-conflict situations," McDonough tells WebMD. "Kids have a biological right to good connections with both parents, and a parent doesn't have a right to interrupt that because of problems with a spouse. If this happens, the child suffers, and, ultimately, their relationship with that child suffers as well."
So how can parents learn to contain their anger at their partner and act in their children's best interest? The research findings suggest that interventions like divorce counseling or mediation work well to reduce family conflict during the breakup of a marriage.
The number of court-connected divorce education programs in the United States tripled from 1994 to 1998, and in many areas of the country custody mediation is now commonly used as a first step in resolving conflict. Kelly reports that mediation works in 50% to 85% of cases -- a remarkable figure, she says, considering that the courts send many couples to mediation against their will.
"We have had mandatory custody mediation in California since 1981, but the couples only have to try mediation; it doesn't have to work," she says. "Still, it has proven to be very successful. And with divorce counseling, we have found that people go in very low numbers when it's voluntary, but when it is mandated by the courts, they go. Most say [in the beginning] that they don't like being forced to come, but by the time it is over, something like 88% call it a positive experience."
But McDonough says forcing people into counseling or mediation doesn't work because these methods only help people who want to resolve their problems.
"Mediation is for people who have stopped blaming each other and are looking toward the future," she says. "High-conflict couples don't want to mediate. They want to fight. You have to be very mature to manage a good divorce, and these couples are not."