The Myth of the ‘Good Divorce’

The American College of Pediatricians notes that “with few exceptions, children fare better when parents work at mending and maintaining their marriages.”

(photo: Image credit: Michelle Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow made news a couple of years ago when she called the split with her husband, rocker Chris Martin, a “conscious uncoupling.” Their divorce has been finalized and Paltrow tells “InStyle” magazine she believes she and her ex “have contributed something positive to the culture of divorce.” By her description the two are amicable and involved in their children’s lives. “He’s at my house every day. We have our own lives, but we still have our family life.”

How could one would argue that an amicable divorce isn’t better than a bitter one, and that situations in which divorced parents remain closely connected to their kids aren’t better than the alternative? The question is: better for whom? Maybe for the parents, but the evidence shows there is no such thing as a “good divorce” when it comes to children.

Penn State University professor and sociologist Paul Amato and his research team shattered that myth with their study of 944 post-divorce families. As detailed in a piece in “The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy,” the researchers divided them into three categories as follows:

[1] those with high-contact or “cooperating coparenting,” meaning parents with a “good divorce,” who report the highest scores in terms of their children talking to them, visiting with them, and staying overnight with the nonresident parent; [2] “parallel parenting with some conflict,” where nonresident parents have only moderate levels of contact with children; and [3] “single parenting,” in which the nonresident parent, in most cases the father, rarely sees his children and has little communication with the mother.

Children of “good” divorces scored significantly higher than their peers in the other two groups in only two of the twelve measured categories: childhood behavior problems (as reported by parents) and close ties to fathers in adulthood (as reported by children). In the other ten categories, children of “cooperating parents” showed no significant differences. Those categories included school grades, self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance abuse, number of sexual partners, and losing one’s virginity before age 16.

Authors Bryce Christensen and Robert Patterson summed up the results of Amato’s study this way:

In essence, the children of “good divorces” ended up a lot more like the children of bad divorces and very little like peers whose parents did not divorce at all. Indeed, Amato’s preliminary analysis established that children of continuously married parents had significantly higher levels of well-being on all twelve indicators…than children of divorced parents.

In a position paper titled “Divorce is NOT the Best Solution,” the American College of Pediatricians notes that “with few exceptions, children fare better when parents work at mending and maintaining their marriages.” This does not mean that parents need to be miserable. Author Dr. Jane Anderson says there’s great hope for couples who seek counseling and marriage fulfillment. “Research has shown that two-thirds of unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later.”

Paltrow graces the cover of “InStyle” magazine next month and in the accompanying interview gives herself and her ex a pat on the back for handling their “conscious uncoupling” (otherwise known as divorce) so well. While it may have been better for them, the magazine’s readers – along with Paltrow herself – shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it was anything but bad news for their children. Their efforts would have been better spent staying consciously coupled for the sake of their kids.