A large number of well-designed research studies on the children of divorce demonstrate that it is now impossible to make the case that divorce does not harm children. Although it was once possible to believe that the nation’s high rates of divorce, cohabitation and non-marital childbearing represented little more than lifestyle alternatives – brought about by the freedom to pursue individual fulfillment – the evidence is now such that many marital experts and advocates believe that these parents’ choices can be damaging to children, who have no say in them, and to the society that enables such lifestyle choices.
In the first major study (published in 2010) of American adolescent psychopathology of ten thousand teenagers, forty-nine percent of the youth met the criteria for one psychiatric disorder and forty percent met the criteria for two disorders. This research demonstrates that youth are major victims of the divorce plague.
Penn State sociologist Paul Amato’s research on the long term damage of divorce to children showed that, if the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and approximately 70,000 fewer suicides every year. Turning back the family-stability clock just a few decades could significantly improve the lives of many children.
Dr. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has written:
social scientific evidence about the connection between violence in youth and broken homes could not be clearer. A 2013 study revealed that male children are the most traumatized by divorce and tend to fare particularly poorly, with effects apparent in almost all academic and economic outcomes” (referring to Autor & Wasserman, 2013).
In the wake of their parents’ divorce, children are likely to experience a family move, marked declines in their family income, a stressed-out single mother, and substantial periods of paternal absence – all factors that put them at risk. In other words, the majority of divorces involving children in America are not in the best interests of the children.
A number of research studies are now demonstrating that from a child’s perspective there is no such thing as a “good divorce.” In one study children whose parents had a “good divorce” fared worse compared to those whose parents had unhappy marriages. Dr. Norval found that the negative effects of divorce on children couldn’t be avoided merely by the parents being cooperative. Rigorous analysis of the idea of “good divorce” revealed significant conflicts in the children as a result of the breakup.
The experience of those of us who work to help strengthen marriages and prevent divorce supports the research showing that many couples give up too quickly on their marriages. In part, this is often the result of three factors: (1) failure of family, friends, clergy and mental health professionals to support the Sacrament of Marriage; (2) lack of confidence that most marital conflicts can be resolved; and (3) denial of the severe harm done to children, spouses, the extended family and the culture by divorce.
One study found that only about one-third of divorced respondents to a national survey – conducted by the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas at Austin – said that both they and their ex-spouses worked hard enough to try to save the marriages.
Data from the National Survey of Children (NSC) indicate that approximately 80 percent of divorce cases in this country are forced divorces. In other words, the vast majority of divorces occur because one spouse puts an end to the marriage through legal coercion, even while the other is fighting to save it.