When future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmers struggled with the game, Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver asked him: “Are you going to get any better, or is this it?” Millions of husbands and wives struggle with that question in connection with their marriages. Secretly troubled that something in their marriage does not work, they fear it is not going to get any better and that this is as good as it gets. Sad more than miserable, disappointed more than chronically unhappy, they suffer melancholy: a brooding sadness about them that often lacks an obvious, tangible cause. In sooth, they know not why they are so sad, to paraphrase Shakespeare. The dream they once had for marriage slips into a soft focus, yet it tugs at them hauntingly. After several years, a marriage becomes a third person, a whole not reducible to the sum of its all-too-human creators, any more than a child is. For better or worse, the marriage has a life of its own and its own personality.
Sometimes, when they divorce, the melancholy spouses tell the world, “It is nobody’s fault, we just grew apart.”
These marriages – the so-called low conflict marriages – are ones where the river has reached sea level: there are rare arguments and partners treat each other with respect. Neither partner lives in a constant state of euphoria but both are satisfied. Some experts refer to this as a “good enough marriage” – not a fairytale but satisfactory.
The couple may see themselves as an average, middle class family, with two cars in the garage of their beautiful home and an active social life where friends and family gathered for regular get-togethers. It is a marriage where most of the needs of both spouses appear met. The children are secure, healthy and happy, and they have a good relationship with both parents and are not subjected to domestic violence in the home. One man likened his marriage to a pair of old shoes: worn out but too comfortable to throw out.
Naturally, when the couple announces they have reached the end of the road, their plans to divorce jolt family and friends who never suspected the couple would part ways.
Yet about 55% to 60% of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages, and here is where divorce does its damage. Divorces in these low-conflict marriages are very damaging to children, says sociologist Dr. Paul Amato of Penn State University, because the surprised children have not been aware of the discord. The first time they discover something is wrong is when they come home to find Dad gone. Dr. Amato says “[T]he irony is that these divorces occur in marriages where there is some kind of reconciliation, some kind of positive outcome possible if there were appropriate intervention.”
A study by Dr. Amato found two categories of children who are most at risk for future psychological problems: those who grow up with parents who stay married but remain conflicted and hostile, and those whose parents are in low-conflict marriages and divorce anyway. “Two different kinds of marriages that end in divorce have very different impacts on children as adults,” says Dr. Amato, whose research was published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
Amato and University of Pennsylvania sociologist Alan Booth tracked a sample of 2,000 couples and 700 of their children beginning in 1980 and interviewed them every three to five years. The researchers tried to learn what factors affected marital happiness, what predicted divorce, and how these factors, including divorce, affected children’s ability to form and maintain intimate relationships as adults.
After examining 300 failed marriages, the researchers identified high-and low-conflict marriages headed for divorce. The conventional wisdom is that most marriages that end in divorce are fraught with conflict, but Amato and Booth found the reverse: 60% of low-conflict marriages ended in divorce, compared with 40% of high-conflict ones. “I didn’t trust these findings, because they were counterintuitive,” Amato said. They checked the statistics against an independent sample of 5,000 married individuals who, before divorcing, were also interviewed every few years by researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The results were the same: 60% of low-conflict marriages ended as compared with 40% of high-conflict unions.
Amato’s research shifted the debate of divorce because “it changed the prevailing wisdom, which held that it was mostly families of high conflict that divorced,” said psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein, co-author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce with psychologist Julia M. Lewis and writer Sandra Blakeslee. “What I found was most people who divorce are not in high conflict,” Wallerstein added.
Amato and Booth, authors of A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval, found that, post-divorce, children of high-conflict homes fared better than those of low-conflict marriages. “Being stuck in a household where there is a lot of discord puts children at greater risk for depression, problems in their own marriage when they do marry, problems in friendships and a tendency not to go on to college,” Amato said. “Divorce benefits these children because it removes them from an aversive, conflict-ridden, hostile home.” Perhaps most important, Amato said, divorce excises a negative role model of love from the home.
“If you ask what is wrong with the marriage, these couples just go on and on,” Amato said. “These are what you would call terrible marriages – marriages that fit our preconception of divorcing couples.” But children whose divorced parents had low-conflict marriages (that is, they rarely fought and reported being pretty happy during the marriage, then continued to socialize and said they still loved each other after divorce), fared worse in adult romantic relationships. “When kids grow up in families with parents who had these ‘good enough’ marriages that end in divorce, they do badly,” Amato said. “They are more likely to see their own marriages end in divorce and have problems in general forming intimate relationships.”
Children in low-conflict households grew up thinking everything was OK, Amato said, and then the marriage suddenly ended. To them, the divorce was inexplicable. “These children,” Amato said, “have trouble making a commitment, question how much one can trust love and commitment, and in marriage, they have a lower threshold for problems which trigger thoughts of divorce.”
Wallerstein found similar effects upon children whose parents’ divorces were not precipitated by conflict. “What I found from the children was that as adults they suffer from the fear of the second shoe dropping,” Wallerstein said. “I associate this with the fact that their parents’ divorce came out of the blue. They were horrified when their parents met them at the door after school and said, ‘We have decided to divorce.’ Some came home to find a parent gone.”