What are the long term consequences of divorce on the children of the relationship? Are they always negative?
New research suggests that being a child of divorce nearly halves the likelihood that a young person will earn a bachelor’s or graduate university degree compared to someone whose parents remain married.
Researchers at Iowa State University analyzed 15 years of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, a U.S. Labor Department survey that studies young people born in the early 1980s. The most recent iteration looked at their outcomes at ages 26 to 32.
The Iowa State researchers found that just 27 percent of young people with divorced parents had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 50 percent of those with married parents. Looking just at advanced degrees, they found that the split was also wide: 12 percent of young people with divorced parents had or were working toward a graduate or professional degree, compared to 20 percent whose parents were married.
Susan Stewart, an Iowa State sociology professor and one of the researchers, said in an interview that the new findings show that while children of divorce are disadvantaged when it comes to completing a bachelor’s degree, divorce hinders young people “even beyond just a four-year degree.”
Causes for the difference in attainment aren’t exactly clear since research shows that married and divorced parents have similar educational expectations for their kids. But the survey also found that married parents were more educated than divorced parents.
Stewart said income may also be a factor: in most divorces, parents’ incomes take a hit, and most divorce settlements are silent on how families will pay for college.
But income is not necessarily the primary driver, she said. Researchers should also consider a student’s self-concept: “Sometimes children of divorce don’t feel as entitled to go to college,” she said. “They feel ‘lesser’ somehow.”
More data is needed to find out exactly what’s at play, she said.
Meanwhile, two of the longest term studies of children of divorce have reached different conclusions. One was the 25-year longitudinal research study conducted on about 60 children in Marin County, California, begun in the early 1970s by Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly. The other study was the research of E. Mavis Hetherington, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, who for three decades followed about 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children.
These two authors came to very different conclusions about the long-term consequences of divorce on children. Wallerstein’s research concluded that a significant minority of children have permanent scars that linger through adolescence and well into adulthood. Such scars are seen as depression, delinquency, poor grades, fear of failure, fear of commitment, and fear of following their parents’ path. These young adults recall their parents’ divorce as a major trauma in their lives, from which they feel cheated out of a healthy childhood and destined to repeat the pattern, should they marry and have children.
Hetherington’s research reached very different conclusions. While she did find that 25% of children from divorce do have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems (in contrast to only 10% of children from intact families), the great majority (75% to 80%) of children of divorce show very little long-term damage and, as adults, are functioning well. Specifically, she found that within two years of their parents’ divorce the vast majority of children are doing reasonably well again, and that 70% of divorced parents are living happier lives than they did before divorce.
Why are the results of each study so different? For one, these two studies had very different methodologies; Wallerstein’s subjective study used a small sample of children who were individually interviewed, intensively and extensively, for thousands of hours over several decades. In contrast, Hetherington studied the objective records of several thousand children over three decades and based her conclusions on statistically analyzed group, rather than individual data.
However, the question of whether divorce is very bad, or not so bad for children is far too simplistic. Researchers have found that there is a wide range of individual differences as to how children deal with divorce, so that it is not really possible to say how all children will respond to divorce, but only how a particular child will respond to a particular divorce. Moreover, there is a host of external factors that predict the effects of divorce on a given child. These factors include the following:
- the child’s age at the time of separation (much evidence suggests that younger children are more negatively affected by divorce);
- the child’s gender (boys have a harder time than girls with social adjustment following divorce);
- the access and frequency of contact and meaningful relationships with both parents; and
- the degree of conflict between the parents (in general, the higher the level of conflict, the worse the outcome for the children).
In general terms, if you’d like to limit the negative consequences of divorce for your children, the crucial aspects are to reduce the conflict between you and your ex-spouse, and to ensure that your children are able to have healthy and meaningful relationships with both of you following divorce. It goes without saying that if domestic violence is an issue, then this may not true for you.