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Does a Broken Home Equal Broken Kids?

10.11.14

n my novel Profile (yeah, you knew I’d get back to that eventually, huh?), the idea of unhappily married people staying together for the kids is brought up. Arden, my protagonist, has the following exchange with his grown daughter:

“I didn’t want you to be raised in a broken home.”

“Well that sucks, Dad. Parents shouldn’t put that on their kids. I mean I know divorce is hard on children, but so is living in a home with unhappy parents who can’t stand each other.”

“Wouldn’t it have been harder to be shuttled back and forth between two homes?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t live through that scenario, so I couldn’t say if it would have been harder. But I remember a lot of times, sitting there at breakfast during the cold silence. I remember seeing the anger and hatred flashing back and forth between you. I remember hearing your loudly whispered arguments. And I remember how uncomfortable all of that was for me.”

“I thought we were shielding you from that.”

“You know what they say about kids being perceptive. You can’t really hide something that pervasive from them.”

His daughter, Lanelle, was a particularly bright, well-adjusted girl, who took after me – I mean him. But what does the research show for the general population in this situation?

To be honest, I didn’t really research the topic when I was writing Profile. Lanelle’s response seemed to make sense, and it worked with the story, so that’s what I went with. But now, as I research the topic for this blog, I’m finding that I must be a particularly bright, well-adjusted man, who apparently knows a great deal about psychological and emotional well-being.

Because the research overwhelmingly supports what Lanelle said. That’s not to say that a happy, balanced home life with two cooperative parents still isn’t the best atmosphere for kids. But if the parents are not getting along, perhaps the love has died, and couples counseling and other attempts to save the marriage have failed, is staying together still better for the kids?

Here are some things to think about:

In one study of over 1400 families, nearly 80% of children with divorced parents grow up to be as well-adjusted and happy as children whose families remained intact. “The other 20 percent developed some kind of psychological, emotional, or academic problem, compared to 10 percent of the non-divorced group.” (For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered – E. Mavis Hetherington, Ph.D., and John Kelly)

On the website Parents.com, Jeff Palitz, MFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), made the following observation:

There is no reason to believe that staying together at any cost is better for children than divorcing. In fact, when parents who are unhappy together and engage in unhealthy relationship habits stay together “for the kids” it can often do more harm than good. The behaviors you display in your home will set the stage for how your children will behave as adults. They learn what it means to be married, how to be a husband or wife and how to effectively (or ineffectively) deal with conflict in a relationship.

We’ve all heard the analogy that kids are like sponges. They absorb what they are immersed in. So when they are constantly exposed to the antagonism of their unhappy parents, or even just their coldness in the aftermath, that’s what forms a pattern in their minds. Palitz continues:

Over the course of day-in/day-out, year after year, these messages accumulate, and take root, increasing the likelihood that your kids will repeat the very same patterns they have seen in their home growing up.  The good news is that when couples do decide to get divorced and they handle their divorce in a mature and collaborative way, there is plenty of reason to believe that the children can be just fine in the long run.  In other words, it is not necessarily divorce itself that determines whether or not your kids will be ok, but rather how each adult behaves during and after the divorce.

As might be expected, there were some reports of psychological scars on children of divorce. As an example, one study followed 59 divorced families over the course of 25 years and found that the majority of children of divorce grow up with some amount of doubt about their own ability to have a long-lasting happy relationship.

That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless for them. Some form of therapy might be necessary, and certainly a supportive spouse or partner could help a lot. But it also doesn’t mean that all children of intact families grow up completely psychologically and emotionally sound. However where the children of divorce are concerned, “growing into adulthood was definitely harder for them.” (The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce – Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D.)

We all know that divorce isn’t easy on anybody involved, so this really isn’t surprising. But the amount of information I found discouraging staying together “for the kids” was fairly overwhelming.

Again, if the marriage can be saved, that would obviously be best for all involved. But if it’s beyond repair, there’s no need to “tough it out” and stay together for the kids.

Take it from me. No, I’m not a psychologist. I’m better: I’m a writer.