The authors of the Longevity Study believe that while divorce doesn’t hold the same stigma today as it did during the childhood of the study participants, it does still present a threat to the well-being and economic-being of children and teenagers and these threats may impact long-term health and well-being. The effects of parental divorce however can be mitigated if children go on to experience a stable and meaning relationship with a partner and find passion and fulfillment in their work.
A natural follow-on to this then is to ask if delaying divorce until children are young adults mitigates the impact of divorce. That is what researchers Frank F. Furstenberg and Kathleen E. Kiernan examined in their study Delayed Parental Divorce: How Much Do Children Benefit?*
Furstenberg and Kiernan used data on 11,409 British children born in 1958 and followed until age 33. They concluded that children’s long-term welfare appears to be linked both to conditions preceding and following divorce. They also found that some limitations of existing studies on divorce and recommend caution in drawing conclusions about average effects of divorce.
More specifically, the authors found some evidence of the following::
- no single and distinct pattern of outcome exists based on gender;
- children who experienced parental divorce after the age of 20 did not differ from those in intact families with respect to becoming parents or forming partnerships at a young age;
- those children who saw their parents’ divorce in adulthood still had significantly higher probabilities of cohabiting or the breakup of a partnership compared to the intact group;
- women who experienced parental divorce in childhood had significant differences in educational attainment, level of household income, receiving welfare and living in social housing compared to women raised in intact families;
- living in social housing was also more common among women who experienced parental divorce later than women from intact families;
- men who experienced parental divorce in the age range of 17-20 were no different in educational qualifications and economic situation than those brought up by both parents;
- men who experienced parental divorce in childhood or after age 20 were less likely to have high level qualifications and showed higher odds of unemployment, receiving state benefits and living in social housing;
- women who experienced parental divorce in later adulthood were also more likely to be receiving welfare benefits;
- women who experienced parental divorce in childhood were more likely to be heavy drinkers and smokers as adults but this was not the case for women whose parents divorced later;
- men who experienced divorce at any time were no more likely to be heavy drinkers than those from intact families but men who had experienced parental divorce during childhood but not later, were more likely to be smokers.
Most of these differences were not considered statistically significant. The significant differences were:
- a greater incidence of early partnership among the women and early fatherhood among the young men whose parents divorced when they were young;
- women who experienced parental divorce in childhood were less likely to have educational qualifications;
- men who experienced parental divorce in childhood were more likely to be heavy smokers.
Furstenberg and Kiernan attempted to examine the impact of factors that existed pre-divorce. In particular, they found that although adults whose parents divorced when they were between the ages of 7 and 16 were likely to have lower educational achievement and were more likely to be poor, to some extent (especially for the men) this was likely regardless of the divorce because of the circumstances of their parents.
However, predivorce factors could not explain the increased likelihood of early and out-of-wedlock parenthood among children from early-divorcing families. The researchers also felt that their predivorce measures didn’t include factors that could explain why youth whose parents divorced form partnerships earlier and dissolve them more quickly regardless of when the parental divorce occurred. Could this difference be due to moral beliefs or social conservatism, for example? They concluded they lacked the evidence to answer the question.
Concluding, Furstenberg and Kiernan write:
Virtually, all studies to date overstate the potential divorce effects by limiting the scope of predivorce information. … Addressing the effects of divorce by calculating average differences between children in intact and nonintact families can only provide crude and often misleading conclusions about how marital dissolution affects children’s well-being in later life.
The Divorce Coach Says
So what does that mean for us? From my readings and many conversations, children will always be impacted by their parents’ divorce no matter what age they are. I think we tend to overlook the older children thinking that because they’re adults they have the skills and capabilities to cope. I don’t think that’s a given. Parental divorce means that all children have to renegotiate their relationships with their respective parents and the more we, as parents can do to facilitate that, then the better the outcome will be. To Nancy’s point, divorcing while your child is still at home should provide both the child and the parent with more opportunity to navigate this renegotiation.
For younger children, Furstenberg and Kiernan highlight the economic and social benefits of having two actively-involved parents: a larger network of individuals outside the family who may mentor, sponsor and advocate for a child; greater resources in the form of time, judgment and complementary skills; and greater income/economies of scale. These all play into raising children who can ultimately fend for themselves and contributed to the community. All of that seems obvious, and if two people can corral these resources when they’re married to each other, then many of those same resources should still be available regardless of divorce.
To their point about children of divorce engaging in riskier behaviors, my totally unscientific answer would be because they have more opportunity. With two separate homes, it becomes very easy to tell mom they’re going to dad’s when in reality they’re going to hang out with friends unsupervised. If relations between mom and dad are not great, then mom won’t call dad to make sure this is true or if she does, maybe dad doesn’t answer. And that is just one more reason why keeping the communication channels with your ex open is so important. And an occasional unannounced early return home doesn’t do any harm either.
What do you think? If you thought your child would do better, would you/did you stay married until he was in college? How did your adult children react when you told them you were getting divorced? What helped your college-aged children handle your divorce?
Photo credit: Mike_tn : http://www.flickr.com/photos/beginasyouare/1408891743/sizes/n/in/photostream/
*Journal of Marriage and Family 63 (May 2001):446-457