New research calls into question an operating assumption of U.S. society about divorce and makes clear that many couples who end their marriage are placing their own priorities over what is best for their children.
A generation ago, most Americans believed that parents in unhappy marriages should stay together for the sake of their children.
Today most people, including virtually all professionals who study and counsel families, have abandoned the belief that parents should stay together until their kids are grown.
The currently prevailing view is that parental unhappiness is worse for children than parental divorce: It is better for parents to separate rather than expose their children to ongoing marital conflict and distress.
As the family scholars Philip and Carolyn Cowan of the University of California at Berkeley recently wrote in the New York Times: "Children are at risk when their parents fight a lot – and it is this conflict, not divorce, that is so harmful to children."
Writing recently in The Atlantic, Francine Russo sums up today's conventional wisdom: "Children are damaged less by divorce per se than by exposure to intense conflict, whether their families are intact, dissolving or broken."
But an important new book fundamentally challenges this view and raises questions about this operating assumption, which has taken hold among academics, social-service professionals, judges and policy-makers.
In A Generation at Risk, published by Harvard University Press, Paul Amato of the University of Nebraska and Alan Booth of Penn State University painstakingly analyze child data from a large national sample of families, following them from 1980 to 1995. They sought to isolate the independent effects of divorce on children from the effects of pre-existing marital conflict.
The results call into question the prevailing academic and popular rationalizations of our high divorce rate.
That many children are harmed by parental conflict is not in doubt, nor is the fact that some children benefit from parental separation because it lessens their exposure to conflict.
But Amato and Booth estimate that only a fourth to a third of divorces involving children are so distressed that the children are likely to benefit from the divorce. The remainder, about 70 percent, involve low-conflict marriages that apparently harm children much less than do the realities of divorce.
Moreover, Amato and Booth estimate that, as the threshold of dissatisfaction at which divorce occurs becomes even lower, an even higher proportion of future marriages will involve low-conflict situations in which divorce will be worse for children than the continuation of the marriage.
This reasoning leads to a startling conclusion, especially coming from two liberal social scientists. For the majority of marriages in trouble that are not fraught with conflict, "future generations would be well served if parents remained together until children are grown," the authors contend.
This book undermines many popular justifications of culture. Consider, for example, the notion that as divorce becomes more widespread and socially acceptable, its consequences for children become less harmful. As the family scholar Stephanie Coontz recently put it: "Children whose parents divorced in more-recent generations are experiencing less severe problems than those whose parents divorced when laws and social stigma were stricter."
Not only does Coontz offer no evidence for this assertion, but Amato and Booth's findings clearly point in the opposite direction: As divorce becomes more common and acceptable, the typical net effects on children appear to become worse, not better.
Of course, no one study is definitive, and this book will not be the last word on the exact proportion of parents in troubled marriages who would benefit their children by staying married. The 70 percent figure may turn out to be too high or too low.
However, even if the correct percentage is 60, or even 50, it is still much higher than we would ever guess by listening to most of those who are viewed as experts in this area and who maintain that the desires of parents are almost never in conflict with the needs of children.
The uncomfortable truth seems to be that such conflict is present in a substantial proportion, probably a majority, of those cases today in which child-rearing parents contemplate divorce.
There is clear appeal in the notion that whatever parents do to be happy is also best for their children. However, this belief may often be little more than self-comforting denial. The time has come to recognize that the contemplation of divorce often involves choices between self-interest and self-giving, between desires and obligations.
Simply recognizing this moral tension, of course, does not solve it. We do not argue, nor do Amato and Booth, that children's need must always prevail over adult priorities. However, as we look at the suffering of so many of our children, in a nation plagued with the world's highest divorce rate, we concur with Amato and Booth's basic conclusion:
"Spending one-third of one's life living in a marriage that is less than satisfactory in order to benefit children – children that parents elected to bring into the world – is not an unreasonable expectation."
This remarkably counter-cultural conclusion is bound to cause a furor among family social scientists and other family professionals. It will provoke many predictable reminders about toxic marriages and many repetitions of the familiar bromide that marital unhappiness, not "divorce per se," is the real problem.
Of course, unhappy marriages are a serious problem, and we should do everything possible to prevent and repair them. And, because no research is without flaws, it will prompt much concentration on weaknesses in Amato and Booth's study.
However, because of this book, we also will have a different discussion, and a more informed one, about the moral dimensions of the decision to divorce.
Amato and Booth have helped us see more clearly the potential conflicts between parental responsibility and adult desires for freedom, romance, sexual gratification and self-actualization.
This article originally appeared here.