Nasty Divorces’ Silver Lining?

A new analysis suggests daughters of ‘bad divorces’ may enjoy stronger marriages than those of ‘good divorces.’

Jake Wyman / Corbis

My ex-husband and I had a messy divorce. For years I fought—unsuccessfully—logging weeks in New York courtrooms to keep my family intact after I learned he was cheating. It was a nightmare, but I’m glad I did it. When I’d married 20 years earlier, I’d said my vows for life.

Now, research suggests that my drawn-out, contentious “bad divorce” and its fallout may have an unlikely silver lining: it could mean that my two daughters will enjoy happier marriages than if I’d attempted to go quietly into the night and achieve a so-called good divorce.

The finding was included in a working paper released last month by the late Norval Glenn, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, which sought to assess just how “good” the “good divorce” is for children.

Perhaps surprisingly, in-depth research into how divorced parents’ postmarital relationships with one another impacts their kids is limited (PDF). Over the past few decades, however, the most notable exception may be the work of psychologist Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce, who coined the term—which describes divorces in which, over time, both parents remain involved in children’s lives after they split, contain their anger, and avoid involving the kids in their divorce conflict.

In her research, which began in the late 1970s, Ahrons found that roughly half of the ex-spouses she interviewed managed to establish amicable, well-functioning “binuclear” families, which in turn promoted the well-being of their children. Despite significant limitations of her investigation (98 couples, all from Wisconsin), therapists, courts, the media and other professionals have since extended her premise, proselytizing that “good divorces” can insulate children from negative consequences of family breakup. Some followers have even hinted that “good divorces” outshine mediocre marriages. Ahrons’ study tested neither of these hypotheses.

Subsequent research, including Glenn and Marquardt’s investigations, casts considerable doubt (PDF) on the premise that good divorces eclipse mediocre marriages when it comes to the welfare of children. In 2003 after conducting in-depth interviews with 71 adult children of divorced and intact families, the duo developed a telephone survey that polled (PDF) 1,500 young adults from divorced and intact households across the country—and found that, even outwardly successful children of good divorces carried heavy emotional scars into adulthood. And a newly reported analyses of this data, released in their working paper last month, suggests that while good divorces are generally preferable to bad ones, in two areas bad divorces may be no worse for kids—and in one actually preferable to good ones.

The researchers’ most startling discovery was that daughters of bad divorces were more likely than daughters of good divorces to report, to a statistically significant degree, that they had achieved a “good quality, lasting first marriage.” (The tenor of the divorce had no appreciable effect on marital outcomes for males.) Glenn assumed he’d find the exact opposite: that by modeling poor relationship and conflict-resolution skills, bad divorces would lead to poor marital outcomes; conversely, parents who achieved good divorces would serve as positive role models.

The reasons for these findings haven’t been fully investigated—and to be sure, they are preliminary—but Glenn guesses that children of nasty divorces may be highly motivated to avoid their own marital failures, or remain optimistic by blaming their parents personally rather than the institution of marriage itself.

Child psychologist and author Michael Bradley isn’t surprised by the findings. “Good divorces confuse kids,” he says. They conclude that the institution of marriage is “nuts” because they can’t understand why their parents put them through all the agony of divorce only to turn around and be nice to each other. Girls are often even more baffled, Bradley says, and therefore, can become more jaded by “good divorces.”

On the other hand, kids often better grasp high-conflict marriage. He agrees with Glenn that, in bad divorces, children may retain confidence in marriage by blaming parents individually. By the same token, Bradley says females generally take their marital vows more seriously (like I did) and “stick it out and fight.”

Previous studies suggest that children of divorce display lower academic achievement than those from intact families. Yet Glenn and Marquardt’s also found, to their surprise, that children of good divorces and bad divorces achieved similar scholastic success; in other words, kids of good divorces weren’t better off at school than kids of bad divorces over the long term. Glenn believes this finding may have to do with the fact that all divorced parents may lack the financial resources or time and energy to supervise homework and provide encouragement.

The Glenn/Marquardt study isn’t the only one taking a closer look at the perceived benefits of good divorce on children. Last year in an analysis of post-divorce parenting, Penn State’s Paul Amato and his team found only modest support for the positive effect of good divorces versus contentious ones. Children of good divorces had closer ties to their fathers and fewer behavioral problems—however, the study found no significant differences between good and bad divorces in 10 other areas, including self-esteem, substance use, school grades, early sexual behavior, and life satisfaction. In many arenas, it seems, divorce is divorce is divorce.

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Amato concludes that parents in low-conflict marriages might do well to focus their attention on rebuilding their relationships, cautioning that couples’ “willingness to accept the good divorce hypothesis is reason for concern if some parents are lulled into believing that their children are adequately protected from all of the potential risks of union disruption.”

Meanwhile, confidence in marriage continues to erode (PDF), divorce rates remain high, and society continues to focus on the good divorce, with limited attention paid to fully investigating its limitations. Marquardt says this is because “the ‘good’ divorce has emerged as our soothing answer for what to do about the problem of divorce and its impact on children. To question widespread divorce is to invite a firestorm upon oneself. Few want to do that.”

I know about the firestorm all too well. And yet, thanks to my bad divorce, perhaps my own daughters will one day enjoy the lasting marriage their dad and I failed to. With divorce rates for children of divorce much higher than those for children of intact families, it’s one legacy I’d be happy not to pass on.