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Is Divorce Really Worse for Kids Than a ‘Normal” Family?

Does divorce really set a child’s life on the path to ruin? Is it better if parents stay “for the kids,” even if they no longer love each other?

This has been much debated by academics, therapists and others.

A study from 2010 acknowledged, yes, “in the short-term, kids go through a one- to two-year crisis period when their parents divorce,” but the idea of staying together for the kids is problematic, especially if it’s a high-conflict family, and that previous research indicating people should stay together “has been plagued by many data problems — reliance on small samples derived from one therapy clinic, retrospective reports, and cross sectional data.”

But, you may say, not all divorces involve high-conflict families. In fact, according to one study that has been used as the study by those who seek to make divorce harder for parents with minor children, between 55 percent and 60 percent of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages, marriages that are considered “good enough marriages” and might be salvaged given enough work, marital therapy and etc.

Then, while sitting in the chair at my hairdresser, where much of my reading on popular culture occurs, I stumbled upon an article by Turkish author Elif Shafak in this month’s Vogue magazine. I’d never heard of Shafak before (I wish I did), but her intellect and engaging writing resonated with me.

Shafak knows about being a child of divorce. Her parents divorced when she was very young (which created all sorts of problems for her mother in a country where women need to be married), and when a college boyfriend she broke up with told her she was incapable of love because she came from a “broken family,” she wondered — was that true? Throughout her life, sometimes she agreed with him, other times not. As she writes:

I have observed, with a critical eye, both myself and others; compared global statistics, and read research papers written on this subject. Children of divorced parents and unusual family structures are more likely to experience emotional turbulence in their own relationships and have a higher risk of going through breakups in their marriages, study after study claims. But while researchers are busy focusing on the repercussions of imperfect marriages, no one knows the extent of damage caused by a “normal” and “perfect” family, if there is such a thing. Is there a method to assess the wear and tear domestic bourgeois life inflicts upon our souls and our imagination and our creativity?

Because that is probably the most important question of all to ask, and one that the “good-enough” marriage proponents don’t consider.

Sure, a marriage may be salvageable and be restored to something that resembles a “normal” one, and their kids may benefit from not having to shuffle back and forth between houses or losing contact with one parent (typically dad) or suffering the economic hit that often comes with divorce, but what damage is being done, perhaps emotionally?

I often read stories on how children of divorce love differently, but who knows if they would have been worse off if their parents stayed together?

I think all of us know people — perhaps ourselves — who didn’t grow up with a lot of parental conflict but still suffered other types of dysfunction: a depressed parent, an adulterous parent, an emotionally cold parent, a smothering parent, an absent parent, an angry parent, a passive-aggressive parent, a narcissistic parent, and addicted parent. Not every person seeking therapy or buying self-help books or avoiding romantic commitments or divorcing comes from a “broken family.”

I didn’t, and yet there was enough stuff going on in my intact household — with a Holocaust survivor mother and an adulterous father — to create a certain type of dysfunction that has impacted my sister and me to various degrees. Like many people, I think my parents — and maybe my sister and I — might have been better off if they divorced (although living apart for some 10 years may have saved their marriage or at least their sanity).

Divorce was not a big issue for children in decades past, but they were often abandoned, sold into slavery, indentured into domestic service, orphaned at childbirth. Even today, in the States and throughout the world, children are still being sold into slavery or married off young or living on the streets or in shelters, yet there’s nowhere nearly the societal concern and research as there has been over what parental divorce might do to kids. And should we even consider the children whose childhoods are being lost in the Syrian refugee crisis?

That is incredibly disturbing.

But, let’s get back to the original question — what is the extent of damage caused by a “normal” and “perfect” family?

I am reminded of Madeline Levine’s ground-breaking book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. And I am thinking of Hanna Rosin’s recent article in the Atlantic. Both are about children raised by wealthy, college-educated, involved and hands-on married parents — as close to “normal” and “perfect” as you can get, and the kind of families being lauded as ones more likely to remain married for the long term (20 years) — who are committing suicide at alarming rates.

Now what?

Want to individualize your marriage? Learn how by ordering The New I Do on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

Originally published at

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Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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