The Myth of the ‘Good Divorce’

Since the no-fault regime was established in the 1970s, the so-called helping professions have performed verbal gymnastics to soothe the consciences of divorcing parents, claiming that if they work hard and maintain a “good divorce,” the effects upon their children will be minimal. Yet a groundbreaking study by Paul Amato suggests that the very concept of a divorce that can accommodate children is pure fiction; the noted sociologist establishes that children of parents who claim to have achieved a good divorce fare not much better than peers whose parents make no such claim.

Amato and his research team at Penn State conducted a cluster analysis of 944 post-divorce families using data from Waves 2 (1992–94) and 3 (2001–03) of the National Survey of Families and Households. Within their sample, they identified three types of divorcing families: 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; “parallel parenting with some conflict” where nonresident parents have only moderate levels of contact with children; and “single parenting” in which the nonresident parent, in most cases the father, rarely see his children and has little communication with the mother.

The Penn State researchers then measured the differences between the three divorce-parenting clusters and six indicators of children’s adjustment and well-being when the children were between ages 7 and 19 (Wave 2), and another six indicators when the children were between the ages of 19 and 33 (Wave 3). In only two of the twelve measures (behavior problems in childhood, reported by parents, and having close ties to their fathers in adulthood, reported by children) did the children of the cooperating-coparenting cluster have significantly more desirable scores than their peers from the other two family types. Yet in every other measure (school grades, satisfaction with school, self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance abuse, number of sexual partners, losing one’s virginity before age 16, entering a marital or cohabiting relationship before age 20, and closeness to mother), the children of a “good divorce” did not differ significantly from the other children of divorce, whether in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

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 (p < 0.05 for each) than children of divorced parents.

As his findings counter much research that appears to show positive child outcomes of the good divorce, Amato suggests the possibility not only that many earlier studies “cherry picked” the data, but that also “many researchers and observers wanted [the good-divorce myth] to be true.” What an indictment of those who should know better. While not entirely dismissive of efforts to temper the downsides of divorce for children by parents, the sociologist nonetheless warns, “These interventions may be insufficient to counter the full range of problems associated with divorce.”

Given how Amato quantifies that reality, perhaps it’s time for American parents—and their enablers in the helping professions—to redirect their efforts into building a good marriage, and work hard at subordinating the abstract desires of adults to the concrete needs of children. 

(Paul R. Amato, Jennifer B. Kane, and Spencer James, “Reconsidering the ‘Good Divorce,’” Family Relations 60 [December 2011]: 511–24.)