Arts, Culture & Humanities

Is divorce immature and selfish?

Christine Carter

Recently, the best-selling author and popular blogger Penelope Trunk declared divorce “immature and selfish.” She claimed divorce is “nearly always terrible for kids” (and “your case is not the exception”); that it is a sign of mental illness (specifically, of Borderline Personality Disorder); and that it is something that “dumb people” do at higher rates than well-educated ones.

Trunk tends to base most of her writing, for her blog and for national media outlets like CNN, on pretty solid scientific research, so I was surprised by this post. That said, she’s most famous for blogging about highly personal and controversial topics, and so this might be, in part, a publicity stunt.

Unfortunately, her post is freaking out thousands of people who are doing their best to raise happy and well-adjusted children. My former husband even asked me, in a panicky whisper outside of our teacher conference, if our own much-deliberated and highly-agonized-over divorce could have damaged our kids in ways we were not yet seeing several years out.

Is Trunk correct? Is it usually better for kids to have unhappily married parents who stay together? Or, are there some cases where divorce is actually better for kids than remaining married?

There is no denying that divorce is pretty tough on everyone involved. When you look at the general population, about 10 percent of kids have behavioral or school-related problems, but about 20 percent of kids whose parents divorce have these problems. While it’s true that 80 percent of kids with divorced parents are doing fine, divorce seems to double the risk that kids will have problems. Does this mean that unhappily married folks actually should stay together for the kids?

Not necessarily. This is because some of the risk factors that divorce can create for kids actually exist before an unhappily married couple divorces. As I’ve written before, conflict in a relationship is the real doozy for everyone involved. While it’s true that kids being raised by “harmoniously married” parents do better than others, both sociologists and psychologists consistently find that kids who are raised by unhappily married parents do worse than kids whose unhappily married parents get divorced. Let me state that again: The worst situation for kids is when unhappily married parents, particularly those in high-conflict marriages, stay together.

Are you wondering if you are in a high-conflict or distressed marriage?  Violence and abuse make a relationship high-conflict, of course; researchers also tend to classify relationships characterized by contempt, stonewalling (when one person ignores another’s attempts to engage), criticism, or defensiveness as distressed.

(The Wallerstein book that Trunk cites as evidence that “divorce is nearly always terrible for kids,” was, by the way, debunked ages ago. Wallerstein’s research looks only at children whose parents were being treated for mental illness, and so the results aren’t generalizable to all families. That study got so much press, however, that it inspired a plethora of high-quality research that is actually quite useful for helping us understand how or why divorce might hurt kids.)

“Does divorce harm kids?” is not actually the right question, although we ask it all the time. A better question is this: “What circumstances make divorce harmful or beneficial to kids?” And the answer is that, on average, divorce actually helps kids when it ends an unhappy, high-conflict marriage.

There’s another important factor: The quality of the divorce itself. The difference between a “bad” and “good” divorce can be critical for kids. Researchers refer to divorce-related problems as “post-disruption effects,” and studies of them are numerous and complicated. Post-divorce problems—such as losing contact with a parent, or financial hardship, or having parents who continue to fight bitterly—tend to accumulate. When they do, children benefit substantially from therapy and other forms of support.

So it isn’t that divorce never causes problems for kids. Children whose parents divorce actually do tend to have more problems than children whose parents stay together — but divorce may often be a symptom of a bigger problem rather than the cause of it. And the negative effects of divorce, on average, are surprisingly small, especially compared to some of the other things that can go wrong in childhood.

I would never call a process as difficult and painful as divorce “immature,” as Penelope Trunk did. I think divorcing well—in a way that won’t scar the children deeply and permanently—takes great maturity and courage—which, of course, not everyone has.

But is divorce selfish? Not if you are in a distressed or high-conflict marriage. If you are, but you are staying because you think it would be selfish to leave, don’t leave for yourself. Do it for your kids.

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (tag line: Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents).

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Comments to "Is divorce immature and selfish?":
    • Angel Kate

      The relationship between husband and wife is too much fragile so you have to spend time with great courage and understanding, when you will start to give priorities to your ego and id then definitely your relation will effect which will also have impact on your kids.

      [Report abuse]

    • Layton

      how is divorce immature and selfish? It takes a great deal of courage to get a divorce and pursue your own happiness. Choosing to remain in a bad marriage is a stupid decision. In the end everyone suffers, the children, the parents.

      Layton

      [Report abuse]

    • Molly

      The notion, as some people suggest, that staying in non-optimal relationships is best for the kids is laughable, moronic, stupid, and idiotic all at the same time :)! Affairs, cheating, and emotional abuse are just a few of the results of not having the brains, strength, and courage to see a hollow, deeply warped institution for what it is

      Marriage is a sham intended to control people within the confines of a political economic system which is designed solely to serve a ruling class. Want to lower the divorce rate? Get rid of marriage – in it’s traditional sense it is garbage.

      It is basically a fertility cult designed to control sexuality. If you don’t believe this fact, take a bit of time to research the history of chastity belts and doweries.

      Most of you, however, are “weak willed herd animals” so in the long run it’s probably best if you just go back to sleep. Keep telling yourselves that you’re “special” and “important” because you uncritically accepted idiotic religious-cult-dogma with zero psychological or philosophical knowledge.

      Penelope is a weakling and a coward and also cherry picks the $@&?! out of her data. Also, and this sooooooo obvious, Penolope is doing her best to cope with the searing emotional pain of the existential identity crises which accompanies divorce. Her entire article is a knee jerk reaction to her failed marriage (although judging by her success I’d say divorce was at least a good career move :b ).

      [Report abuse]

    • onlysayingthetruth

      Personally, I have high standards for parents. They are the ones that brought a child into this world; they are responsible for that life. Therefore, anything and everything they do from that moment on should be for the welfare and good of the child. Unless the parents are mental lunatics who abuse their children verbally and/or physically (in which case they don’t deserve to be humans), there should be NO reason for them to split. For the sake of that life/those lives that they brought into this world, they must stay together harmoniously. They can’t afford to make stupid mistakes once they’re responsible for another life.

      [Report abuse]

    • McGuire Gardner, PLLC

      nowadays ive seen more people separate and get divorced then i see long lasting marraiges. mine wasnt an exception, when one person isnt willing to change and come to the understanding that marraige is a two way street and that both parties must cooperate or it just wont work. and it didn’t im sorry to say. my children aren’t taking it well either.

      [Report abuse]

    • emma

      It’s not easy to paint everything is such black and white. Every situation is different and should be judged on its own merits – especially where children are involved. I remember the profound effect my parents’ divorce had on me and I wonder how it has shaped my world view. I also wonder if things had been different if they have got professional advice on relationships before resorting to the final breakup. I’ll never really know, I guess.

      [Report abuse]

    • Michael St. Clair

      I commend Penelope Trunk for taking a moral stand. Freedom cannot exist without personal responsibility and similarly, happiness cannot thrive without morality. Mature people make the correlation between happiness and morality, and act accordingly.

      [Report abuse]

    • Michaela

      Wow! Just read Trunk’s article. It seems that she gets controversial for publicity, but I just hope that people don’t let her crazy talk influence them too much. Her statement that divorce is for “dumb people” especially ticked me off! Since she got divorce herself, is she publicly acknowledging that she’s dumb herself?

      Also, I just learned in one of my classes that the American turbulence in relationships is due to the clash of two values — marriage and individualism. This debate about divorce fits right in. But also, people divorce all over the world, not just here.

      Good article Christine!

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    • The Thinking space

      I agree on your conclusion and I would like to add that children internalize the relationship between their parents as well and are very likely to repeat it with their partners later on in one form or the other. An unhappy marriage teaches the child to relate unhappily.

      [Report abuse]

    • Allison Pescosolido

      Divorcing with integrity can create amazing children. Many of our clients have been told by their children’s teachers that their kids are doing better now than previously (when their parents were married).

      [Report abuse]

    • Aaron Diver

      From my grad school cohort of eleven, eight are divorced. Of the eight, six are female. In fact, everyone of the women in the group is divorced. All of this group married similarly smart, well-educated, kind, progressive people, and then managed to somehow not stay together. Several of them have kids.

      What was going through their heads as they married wholesale and then divorced? And they write to each and say what decent and flexible people they are. But why can’t they stay together? I don’t think there was abuse or “distressed or high-conflict relationships.” So what was it?

      We can write columns and make straw men out of Penelope Trunk as we debunk her — but what is the problem these days? At least university-educated people have money and will most likely marry again, something that is often not available to less well-off people who will leave even greater wreckage behind them than their well-educated brethren.

      [Report abuse]

    • Avi Rosenzweig

      S. Freud liked to joke, when talking about the relationship between the id and the ego, that oftentimes the rider that looks most accomplished is the one that directs his horse to move wherever the horse was heading already.

      When has the Greater Good ever come to conclusions that didn’t confirm whatever direction most left-leaning metrosexuals were already heading in? Is it your job to comfort the comfortable?

      [Report abuse]

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