One of the more popular divorce myths goes like this: “Divorce may cause problems for many of the children who are affected by it, but by and large these problems are not long lasting and the children recover relatively quickly.” From this, people unhappy about their marriages drew several postulates and corollaries. “When parents don’t get along, children are better off if the parents divorce than if they stay together.” And from that, “If I’m not happy in my marriage, my children may do better if I divorce, because they will be better in life if I am not so unhappy.” Or put simply, children typically fair well during and after a divorce.
Until the liberalization of divorce in the 1970s, many unhappy couples stayed married “for the sake of the children.” Many spouses endured an unhappy marriage to prevent children from growing up in a broken home.
The truth is, divorce hurts children, and even under the best conditions, it is traumatic for them.
Judith Wallerstein, the author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study, suggests that children, once thought very resilient to the dislocations of their parents’ breakup, struggle for a lifetime with the residue of a decision their parents made.
Wallerstein’s 2000 study tracks a group of 131 children over 25 years. According to her, “If the truth be told, and if we are able to face it, the history of divorce in our society is replete with unwarranted assumptions that adults have made about children since because such assumptions are congenial with adult needs and wishes. The myths that continue to guide our divorce policies and politics today stem from these direct attitudes.”
Some qualification is in order. Most therapists and counselors differentiate between what are called high- conflict and low-conflict marriages. In both, the partners are unhappy. High-conflict marriages, however, are those where the home atmosphere is actually dangerous to wife and mother as well as the children. Most authorities agree that high-conflict marriages must and should end. Low-conflict marriages, the ones heading for the rocks because the partners cannot get along, sometimes can be turned around if the spouses want to save the marriage.
Cathy Meyer, who writes about marriage and family issues, suggests that the happy parent-happy children idea objectifies children. Unhappy parents fail to understand that, though they may be unhappy, “their children are probably quite content and don’t care if their parents don’t get along as long as their family is together.”
“A child’s happiness is not dependent on their parent’s happiness. A child’s happiness stems from routine, having a home, two parents, friends to play with, school activities to be involved in and being able to count on these things being constant day in and day out,” Meyer writes.