When Divorce Is Best for the Children

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 1, 2000 -- Many couples have faced the agonizing decision of whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or risk hurting their children by divorcing. Here's some information that might make the choice a tiny bit easier: Research shows that, in the long run, divorce may be better for children than growing up in a family in which there is chronic discord.

The results of studies done over the past decade support the idea that most children of divorce do not become dysfunctional, Joan B. Kelly, PhD, writes in her review article, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Kelly is former director of the Northern California Mediation Center.

"If parents in high-conflict marriages can divorce and walk away from that conflict, or find a forum in which to have their arguments, such as mediation or the courts, then the kids probably will end up with a significantly improved home environment," Kelly tells WebMD.

But in families where there has been little obvious conflict between the parents, divorce may hit the kids much harder, she says.

"It is easy to explain divorce to children who have seen their parents fighting constantly, but when kids come from low-conflict homes they often don't have a clue what is wrong," she says. Kelly says this can create all kinds of anxiety in children: They don't escape from conflict, because they weren't aware of any within the family, but they lose the daily attention of both parents and usually lose economic resources as well.

Several studies published during the 1990s found that marital conflict was a more important factor in child development than divorce, Kelly writes. The intensity and frequency of the conflict between the parents, the way they handle the conflict, how it is resolved, and whether there were buffers to offset it all affected how well adjusted the children turned out to be.

Such buffers can include a good relationship with at least one of the parents and, perhaps most important, support from brothers and sisters. A 1992 study found that children growing up in high-conflict homes who had close relationships to their siblings were as well adjusted as children in low-conflict homes. A later study found that the value of a close relationship with brothers or sisters lasted throughout the teen years, with those who reported such relationships having higher self-esteem and better social relationships.

The studies also found that marital conflict hurts the quality of parenting. Mothers in high-conflict marriages may be less caring toward their children, more unpredictable and harsh in administering discipline, and may use more guilt- and anxiety-inducing techniques than mothers in low-conflict marriages. And fathers in combative marriages are more likely to withdraw from their parenting role.

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."