Updated: Aug 1, 2022
Here's the cover picture for this post. It's me, in a Displaced Person's Camp in Germany, after World War II, after the Holocaust, and just before my parents were to get divorced. Not only that. But get divorced with my mom taking me and my brother to New York, and my father going off to Israel with my sister, disappearing completely from the rest of my childhood. I know, I look pathetic. But that's how I looked in all my pictures. I was a thoughtful, watchful child. I was also a happy, joyous, songful child.
In those days, parents--certainly parents like mine--never thought for a moment about the effect of divorce on their kids. But they wouldn't have had to worry. My brother and I, and my sister...we all turned out fine.
But what about you?
If you’re in a not-so-good relationship and you have kids, your number-one question usually is, “I think this relationship is too bad for me to stay in, but what about the damage that divorce will do to our kids?”
That’s the big question. Does divorce mess kids up? Do the children of divorce do less well in the near term and, worse, in the long term?
We thought a lot about this when we wrote our landmark, bestselling book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. We saw that people were stuck in iffy relationships and had no good way to decide whether to commit to staying or to decide to leave. After a lot of research, we knew just what things to look for so we could tell people if THIS is going on, then you’ll be happier and better off if you leave.
For example, take the issue of your being able to talk about the things you want to talk about. Hey, we should be able to bring up issues that are important to us and we should be able to rely on our partners to talk about those things with us. But, on the other hand, we ourselves aren’t always in a mood to talk about things, nor is the timing always good for us.
So where do you draw the line? Based on our findings, it had to do with the words “constantly and unyieldingly.” If your partner is constantly and unyieldingly making you feel shut down and shut up, then, well, you gotta go. It ain’t gonna be good if you stay, and you will feel good if you go.
Simple and clear. But what about the kids? If, to use just this example, you can never get your partner to talk about things that are important to you—like your needs!—do you stay in the relationship anyway because you don’t want your kids to turn out to be homeless drug addicts in 10 years?
Here’s where it got interesting. Everyone was saying that divorce was bad for kids. The only question was how bad. To support that assumption, everybody pointed to Judith Wallerstein’s book that seemed to show that kids of divorce were, yeah, pretty messed up.
Thank goodness my co-author, Dr. Charles Foster, was also a highly trained researcher, because when he looked at the research behind Wallerstein’s book he saw how deficient it was. There were huge problems with her study:
small sample size: only 60 families
lack of a control group: what about kids from equally troubled families who didn’t divorce? What about families who divorced but who were better at dealing with their kids’ problems?
selection effect: in this case, the parents signed their kids up after seeking therapy. In other words, the sample only included help-seeking families!!
But guess what? We’re WAY beyond Wallerstein now. As a recent piece in Slate nicely summarizes, research continues to pile up showing that, in short,
divorce doesn't hurt kids.
We can’t be clearer than that.
Now I get it if you’re scratching your head over this. There’s a generation or two of parents who’ve been schooled (mis-schooled, I’d say) in trauma theory. They are somehow convinced that if something bad happens to their kids, if their kids even see something bad (like on the news), their fragile little brains will be twisted sideways forever.
So it may be devastating news to some parents to learn that their kids are actually hugely resilient. They rock n roll through stuff because they—we—are simply tougher than we’ve been given credit for.
You know what kids really need? Parents who’ve taken parenting classes!! Yeah!! We now know that whether or not parents have taken parenting classes has THREE TIMES the impact on how well kids do than whether the parents divorce or not.
But there’s another factor. Divorce makes things better for a lot of kids. In its simplest form, divorce helps people end the unhappiness that comes from being in a bad marriage. It’s like how good it feels to stop hitting yourself over the head with a hammer. So after your parents divorce, you suddenly find you have somewhat happier parents. So obvious!
Also, the comparison we should be making is not between kids of parents who divorce and kids whose parents don’t divorce. It’s between kids whose parents are in bad marriages who divorce and kids whose parents are in bad marriages but DON’T divorce. And the research here is predictable and clear. Kids growing up in a home where the parents’ relationship is icy and unloving or hostile and abusive are negatively affected by that. Better to end those relationships.
Finally, a lot of divorces are caused because one person in the relationship is troubled or problematic. This is going to be hard on the kids no matter what. If divorce can create a buffer between the kids and this parent, it will generally make things better.
The bottom line for you is that you no longer have to think that you have to juggle priorities, trading off your wellbeing for your children’s future wellbeing. If after working with a therapist and reading our book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay you conclude your relationship isn’t worth staying in, you can assume not only that you’ll be better off after divorce but also that your kids will be fine.
And what does “fine” mean? It means they’ll have a lot of questions. They’ll be upset. They’ll be angry. They’ll be sad. They’ll be anxious. So will you!
Forgive me for saying so, but so what? This is a difficult transition, one that your kids didn’t ask for. Kids never like change anyway. But what IS this? They’re just having the feelings people have going through a transition into an unknown situation.
The right way to think about this—as with all difficult situations you and they will run into—is as an opportunity to learn coping skills. So if you talk to your kids as they’re going through all this, listen to them thoroughly, figure out where they need hope and support, they should be in good shape. There are tons of books for helping your kids cope with the divorce you and they are going through.
Most of all, remember this. There’s all the difference in the world between an unpleasant experience, which divorce certainly is for kids, and one that causes damage. Yeah, you’ll find adults who’ll blame their problems on their parents’ divorce (or on their parents not getting divorced, or on being too short, or on unseen forces working against them, or on poison in our foods), but in the overwhelming majority of cases it’s just a bad memory. Like the summer of the broken leg.
Besides, what better gift can you give your kids than their taking away from childhood the sense that “I’m good at coping with what life throws at me.”
If you’re actively wondering what to do about your marriage, do get ahold of Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. There’s a reason why it’s been a national and international bestseller, published in over 25 languages. It will give you the answer you’re looking for, the direction you need. Either way, the kids will be okay.