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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

What is the case for divorce? Researchers in the sociology of family tend to find that divorce's impact depends on what the comparison is: compared to a distressed marriage, divorce has its benefits. Meanwhile, policy makers and general audiences alike get much of their information about divorce research via the news media, where the negative consequences of divorce tend to be exaggerated, especially when comparisons, selection bias, or other research issues are neglected. Over the past 20 years, U.S. news coverage of divorce illustrates two key, intertwined topics: moral entrepreneurship using divorce as an issue and divorce research using (or not) careful methods of comparison. Three cases discussed below (in 1988–1989, 2002–2004, and 2008) illustrate these two themes. The underlying research on the health and mental health effects (including by gender) of divorce on children and adults reviewed in this article makes a case for divorce. The overlay of media reporting on divorce research illuminates the purpose for offering a case for divorce.

The U.S. divorce rate did not start increasing in the 1960s. Our divorce statistics began to be recorded in 1880, and starting then, our rate of divorce increased steadily for the next 80 years (Ruggles 1997). It then doubled between 1960 and 1980. By the end of that period, about half of marriages ended in divorce. Since 1980, our 50 percent divorce rate has leveled off, and we haven't seen much change (Goldstein 1999).

Divorce, then, is a fixture in family life – and a ‘problem’ to be understood, interpreted, analyzed, and fixed (Coltrane & Adams 2003). But what exactly is the problem? A better understanding of divorce – and divorce research – clarifies the reasoning behind making a ‘case for divorce’. By extension, this understanding informs us about the realities faced by contemporary families. Some perceptions of divorce as a problem emerge because research fails to ask a simple question: Divorce is a problem, but compared to what?

Put another way, the case for divorce asks: Are there some cases where divorce is a better outcome than remaining married? Using research developments from three distinct time periods, this paper demonstrates that research on the impact on adults and children points to yes. These three episodes also provide an opportunity to understand why‘a case for divorce’ is being made. Each of these three episodes involves paired research results. Studies that include a comparison group (that analytically represents that divorce is a choice made most often in already bad circumstances) are paired in each of three cases with studies that do not provide a comparison. The discussion of the three episodes includes description of media coverage of the work.

A second, related question is: Do we have reasons why we value divorce, as part of our liberal democracy? The history of divorce goes hand in hand with our history of individual rights that have improved the status of women, minorities, workers, and people without property throughout our history. Since the shift in divorce laws in the 1960s and 1970s to allow unilateral divorce (‘no-fault divorce’) in the United States, the rate of suicide among wives, domestic violence, and spousal homicide have declined (Stevenson & Wolfers 2006). Meanwhile, part and parcel with declining fertility rates in the United States, the number of children involved in any given divorce has gone from 1.34 children to less than 1 child per divorce (Cowen 2007). Hence, there is a decline in the impact of any given divorce on children. These data do suggest that divorce is associated with outcomes that we value in a liberal democracy.

Divorce research: Two themes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

In research and public conversations, researchers and journalists have earnestly parsed the causes and consequences of divorce in light of the hastened growth of divorce between 1960 and 1980. Researchers find that divorce's impact depends on what the comparison is: compared to a happy marriage, divorce is associated with many disadvantages for the divorced couple and their children; compared to a harsh marriage, however, the research generally shows that divorce has benefits. Meanwhile, policy makers and general audiences alike get their information about divorce research via the news media, where the negative consequences of divorce tend to be exaggerated, especially when comparisons are neglected. At least some of the time, this neglect is advanced by special interest groups seeking to promote a conservative family agenda. Over the past 20 years, U.S. news coverage of divorce illustrates two key intertwined topics: moral entrepreneurship using divorce as an issue and divorce research using (or not) careful methods of comparison. Three cases discussed below (in 1988–1989, 2002–2004, and 2008) make the case.

Moral entrepreneurs

What information about divorce enters into popular awareness? Over the years, when research results produce apparently conflicting results, the more alarming (and simpler) results consistently get more ink. In the context of divorce research, sociologists Scott Coltrane and Michele Adams (2003) have argued that moral entrepreneurs act to heighten collective anxiety in order to promote ‘family values’ and their more traditional gender norms.

Moral entrepreneurs (Becker 1973) seek to adopt or maintain a norm or tradition. Enterprising opinion leaders seek to shape public awareness about the ‘case against divorce’ by making knowledge claims grounded in a version of social science that, especially in the most conservative cases, reinforces traditional, two-parent, in-tact, biologically related families. A knowledge claim is a statement that we know something is a fact. Where research shows that divorce harms children or women or the economy, the case seems to be clear. In the cases presented here, the claims against divorce are made based on research that fails to make reasonable comparisons or to provide representative samples.

Organizations – ranging from the more moderate Institute for American Values to the more conservative Heritage Foundation – have skillfully spread the word about research – the kind that supports their concerns about the way they believe that divorce has contributed to the decay of American family life. From the perspective of moral entrepreneurship, worry is good for business – and consistent with a moral agenda that questions changes in family organization. Family historian Steven Mintz (2004) describes case after case of Americans’ fondness for the story of decay, and the penchant for worry about divorce is like hand wringing about teen sexuality, delinquency, the corrupting force of television, the problem of working mothers, the problem of mothers not working, etc. Indeed, worry about divorce is not new. As Mintz describes, moral entrepreneurs raved about the scourge of divorce, for example, from 1890 to 1920.

Research methods: Look for comparison groups

Scientists reviewing research will always ask whether or not it makes a logical and reasonable comparison. When researchers examine, ‘divorce compared to what?’ they are searching for selection bias or preceding factors that may explain a given set of results. People who end up divorcing may be different from people who remain married and it may be these pre-marriage differences between the two groups – and not divorce itself – that explain differences in health and mental health outcomes after divorce. This type of selection bias may influence results and the interpretation of results. In diverse studies, several factors suggest that the divorced group is, indeed, already different from the stably married group. For example, divorced couples are younger age at first marriage, more likely to be living in poverty, and less likely to have a college degree. Researchers must also answer the question about how whether and, if so, how, divorce causes problems for adults or their children?

1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

Three episodes of divorce research in the news – in 1988–1989, 2002–2004, and 2008 – exemplify themes of moral entrepreneurship and research issues with comparisons or selection bias. In the course of this review of several key pieces of research on the impact of divorce on children, adults, and society, research with no adequate comparison group consistently receives heightened media attention. Furthermore, such research tends to follow the pattern of moral entrepreneurship. But readers will also detect progress in the use of comparison groups that has refined our understanding of the impact of divorce on children and adults.

Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

In winter 1989, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on ‘Children of Divorce’ (Wallerstein 1989). This ‘hand-wringing’ article was an early entrant in the contemporary family values debate around divorce that continues today. The article helped popularize the phrase ‘adult child of divorce’. In it, psychologist Judith Wallerstein reported that children of divorce experienced more mental health problems than children who came from non-divorced, married families. She found that these children sometimes suffered a ‘sleeper effect’: their difficulty emerged as adults – hence the phrase ‘adult child of divorce’ that suggests that even if a person is doing well, a person is always at risk of ‘waking up’ to some unforeseen consequence of their parents’ divorce.

A few months earlier, in fall 1988, other research was capturing public attention. Psychologist Mavis Hetherington presented research at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (Hetherington 1988) suggesting that most children of divorce fare just as well as children from in-tact families. She established a rate of distress among children of divorce: while 10 percent of children in the general population have behavioral or school-related problems, 20–25 percent of children from divorced families have problems.

Hetherington reported specific kinds of distress that parents and children experience with divorce. She found a ‘crisis period’ of about 2 years surrounding the divorce. She learned that depending upon the timing of divorce, boys and girls had different responses: when boys had problems, they tended to ‘act out’; while when girls had problems, they were more likely to be depressed. But what Hetherington saw overall was the resilience of children of divorce (see Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan 1997). Most children did fine. They were able to use personal resources and social networks in their family and community to cope. Her work was covered in USA Today that year, but it did not make the pop-culture impact that Wallerstein's did. Indeed, that same year, USA Today conducted a reader call-in series that focused on the tribulations of grown children whose parents had divorced during their childhood.

In terms of the divorce-as-a-problem news story, Hetherington's news of resilience received less interest than Wallerstein's alarming tale for children of divorce. Wallerstein's research is regularly cited by the Heritage Foundation and the Institute for American Values, as they make the case for federal policies that make divorce more difficult and direct funding to marriage strengthening programs.

Important methodological differences account for the sharp contrast between the findings and especially the interpretations of the findings in the two studies. Both were prospective and longitudinal, but other aspects of their methods highlight the importance of having a reasonable comparison group.

Wallerstein studied a clinical sample of young, white, upper-middle-class teenagers who visited a clinic in northern California, and whose parents had been divorced (Wallerstein & Blakeslee 1988). A clinical sample involves people who want help. They are people who are, by definition, troubled. A clinical sample can teach us much about the natural course of mental disturbances or adjustment problems and about what kind of interventions can help troubled people improve. A clinical sample, however, cannot inform us about the prevalence or origins of a problem in the population, or reveal how some people end up doing well in the face of adversity, while others do not. Wallerstein provided cases full of rich detail, but they were not representative. Her study has the strength of being longitudinal (meaning she tracked her subjects over time), but her evidence couldn't tell us whether these problems occur consistently in the population. Above all, without a comparison group, her evidence could not tell us if the troubles these children of divorce had were a consequence of divorce or not. Informed readers were left to suspect that results might be due to selection bias.

By contrast, Hetherington's methods built in two sets of comparison groups. Her research design allowed children of divorce to be compared to other children whose parents remained together; as well as to compare the same children before and after divorce. For Hetherington's study, researchers began with a population-based sample of stably married families with a 4-year-old and followed them over time. Using a series of observations, parental reports, and teacher reports, Hetherington tracked these children in their everyday lives. Some children's parents went on to divorce; others remained together. Obviously, we cannot do experiments where we randomly assign some children to divorced parents and others to married parents, but Hetherington's research design gives us a quasi-experiment that helps us evaluate the impact of divorce compared to no divorce. In the comparison, all the children started off the same: they were not showing up in the study because they already had problems. Not only did this design allow researchers to compare divorce versus staying together; also, the researchers could see how children fared before the divorce versus how they were doing after the divorce.

As research progressed, Hetherington learned more about divorce and children (Hetherington & Kelly 2002). Because she had detailed information about both kinds of families, she was able to compare married with divorced families. Sometimes, the married families were extremely distressed; sometimes, they were civil. Hetherington was able to analyze the well-being of children in extremely distressed married families versus children of divorce and children in harmonious, married families. By adding comparisons about the level of distress in all the families, she observed that children in harmonious, married families fared better than children in divorced families, and in distressed married families. By making comparisons based on the quality of the in-tact marriages in her study, she was able to make an important distinction: The worst kind of family for a child to be raised in, in terms of mental health and behavior, was a distressed, married family (Hetherington 1999).

Several key pieces of research extended Hetherington's results by using comparison groups and a prospective design. In 1991, demographer Andrew Cherlin and colleagues wrote about longitudinal studies in Great Britain and the United States in the journal Science. The studies included data from parents, children, and teachers over time. At the first time point, age 7, all the children's parents were married. Over the study period, some went on to divorce, and some did not. Cherlin confirmed Hetherington's findings: while about 10 percent of children overall were at risk for adjustment and mental health problems, children of divorce were at 20–25 percent at risk for problems.

Cherlin also found that the difference between the children of divorce versus stable marriages existed prior to the divorce. These were predisruption effects, a term that highlights that parents who end up divorcing (but are not yet divorced) are different from parents who don't end up divorcing. They relate to each other differently, they relate to their children differently, and their children relate to them differently. Cherlin had identified selection bias, or a case of selection into divorce.

In 1998, Cherlin and colleagues offered an update on their continuing research, which modified his conclusions. Respondents analyzed in the 1991 study had gotten older, so he had more information. While the 1991 paper highlighted predisruption effects, this one reported that in addition, there were postdisruption effects (negative effects after the divorce) that accumulated and made life more difficult for children of divorce. Financial hardship and the loss of paternal involvement were key culprits. He called this phenomenon the ‘cascade of negative life events’, and emphasized, as he had back in 1991, the importance of social and institutional supports for children in disrupted and remarried families.

Starting with Hetherington in the 1980s, and following through Cherlin's parallel work in the 1990s, research designs that included comparison groups helped bring to light three points: first, using a population-based rather than a clinical sample provided a rate of distress among children of divorce that exemplified their resilience: approximately 80 percent were doing well, versus 90 percent of children in the general population. Second, difficulties –pre-disruption effects – found in longitudinal, prospective studies, meant that children in families where their parents were headed for divorce were having troubles prior to the break-up. Postdisruption effects – and the cascade of negative life events – also played a role and suggested that institutions and communities can do more to support these families. Third, severely distressed marriages were more damaging to children than divorces. This last point foreshadowed the results in the studies of adults that I describe in the next section.

At the same time, the ‘adult child of divorce’ research remained popular in mainstream reporting. This trope showed the robustness of uncertainty about the impact of divorce and the extensiveness of anxiety about changes to family life, of which divorce was a part. (It also helped to create it.) Above all, such discourse represented a missed opportunity for people to know in greater detail where the hazards of divorce actually lie.

Does divorce make you happy?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

The question of well-being among adults who divorce provides additional evidence for the case for divorce – and the case for research methods.

In 2002, the Institute for American Values released a paper by Linda Waite, a demographer at the University of Chicago, and several of her colleagues. The paper was titled, ‘Does Divorce Make You Happy?’ Around that time, other, similar research, ‘The Case for Divorce: Under What Conditions Is Divorce Beneficial and for Whom?’ (Rutter 2004), also sought to examine emotional consequences of divorcing versus staying married.

Both researchers asked: how do people's level of well-being change when they divorce (versus when they stay married)? Both projects relied on the same data set; they both used a longitudinal design where all subjects were married at the first time point, and some of them went on to divorce by the second time point. The results, however, were divergent. According to Rutter, adults who exited unhappy marriages were less depressed than those who stayed. According to Waite, there were no differences in happiness between those who stayed married and those who divorced.

In order to understand the divergence of these results, we can examine the research methods. The overarching research question is: ‘divorce, compared to what?’ (Or: is there a selection bias?) Were divorced individuals compared to people staying in a happy marriage? Were the divorced compared to those staying in a stressed-out marriage? One difference between Rutter's and Waite's studies was that Rutter used a more stringent measure of marital distress that was more likely to identify which couples were more likely candidates for divorce. Rutter also took severe domestic violence into account and measured depression rather than ‘happiness’.

These distinctions – whether the marriage is in serious distress, whether respondents have debilitating emotional problems – made a difference.1 When comparing how people in a truly distressed marriage fare compared to divorced people, the divorced were better off (less depressed). Rutter's additional statistical tests (which accounted for ‘fixed effects’, discussed below) confirmed that marital distress, not other factors, accounted for the differences in depression between the married and divorced groups.

More recent research has examined how the accumulation of marital transitions – a divorce, a cohabitation, a break up, perhaps a remarriage – may be an additional important way to examine the impact of divorce on adults. The approach is to examine ‘relationship trajectories’. Meadows and colleagues (2008) examined the consequence of such transitions for women who started as single mothers, and found that women who face continuous instability – rather than a single transition – have worse health. Such research allows for even more complexity, and requires that we compare higher levels of disruption with lower levels of disruption, including divorce, in parents’ and children's life stories.

Why marital quality matters

Why does marital quality make a difference? The benefits of marriage accrue only to people in happy and well-functioning marriages. For example, studies on the ‘psychophysiology of marriage’ show that when men and women are in distressed marriages – with, for example, contempt, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling – their immune systems decline over time (Gottman 1994; Kiekolt-Glaser et al. 1988; Robles & Kiekolt-Glaser 2003). These people are less healthy and less happy. Troubled marriages have immediate costs; they also have downstream health costs.

When researchers measure marital distress in terms of level of conflict, or they use multiple measures of distress, they find that divorce is a relief to those couples. This parallels what Hetherington found for children: that divorce is better than living in a high-conflict family. It is easy enough to ask, ‘how was marital distress measured?’ in order to learn whether a measure of general sentiment that captures more transient feelings of satisfaction was used, or whether a measure of serious distress or conflict, which tends to tell us which couples would be ‘candidates’ for divorce if they considered divorce an option, was used.

On happiness

The Waite and Rutter studies had in common looking at the personal costs of divorcing. While Waite measured ‘happiness’, Rutter's outcome measure was ‘depression’. Does it matter how we specify ‘personal well-being’? In brief, the answer is yes. While happiness and depression are correlated (van Hemert et al. 2002), there is a difference. Out of hundreds of correlational studies catalogued in the World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven 2004), there are scarcely any gender differences in happiness. Nor does happiness have the major correlates to race or poverty that have been well established for depression.

All these differences suggest that ‘happiness’ is measuring something psychologically different from ‘distress’ or ‘depression’. The societal implications are quite different between these two measures: unhappy people are not usually functionally impaired; depression, however, involves costs in terms of lost wages, productivity, and negative impact on children (Greenberg et al. 1993a, b).

For media, Waite's study had sufficient scientific authority. Reporters, such as those at USA Today and the Today Show, covered the results. The news coverage ‘punchline’: divorce isn't going to make you any happier, so stay married! But other studies showed that the case for divorce is more complex. Such coverage helps sustain public ‘uncertainty’ related to any case for divorce.

Where's the comparison group? Redux

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

In April 2008, the questions about the impact of divorce and its costs continued to be alive and well: Two studies were released the very same week on the topic. What, these studies asked, is the impact of divorce? A research brief from the researchers’ think-tank Council on Contemporary Families (2008)2 was based on demographer Allen Li's Rand Corporation working paper (Li 2007). The other paper by economist Ben Scafidi was released by the Institute for American Values (Scafidi 2008). Li's paper pertained to the emotional impact of divorce on children, while Scafidi's paper addressed the economic impact of divorce across America. Comparing these papers, we can examine the sponsors, the media coverage, and the research content of the work.

The results were completely divergent. Li asked, what is the impact of divorce on children? He found that divorce itself does not explain the difference we see between children with divorced versus married parents. Yes, he found differences between the two groups (on average) – just as researchers had been finding since the 1980s. With increasingly refined research techniques, however, Li was able to show that selection bias accounts for the difference.

The technique included testing for ‘fixed effects’. ‘Fixed effects’ refers to time-invariant characteristics of individuals that may be correlated with both the outcomes of interest (psychological-well-being, for example) and explanatory variables in the statistical model (divorce, for example) producing biased results. Longitudinal data – multiple observations on the same individual over time – can allow researchers to control for these effects. Fixed-effects models test whether there are aspects of the individuals that are not measured explicitly but that can account for results. This method helped to reveal that the children in Li's study whose parents ended up divorcing were getting a different kind of parenting all along the way than the children whose parents stayed married.

Meanwhile, Scafidi asked, what does divorce cost the general public? By his calculations, divorce – plus single parenthood – cost taxpayers 112 billion dollars. To calculate this, he assumed that divorce and single parenthood cause poverty. In other words, he neglected the notion that selection bias could play a role in who ends up as a single parent or divorced. But, in a 2002 report, economist Nancy Folbre and historian Stephanie Coontz were among many who examined the problems with making this assumption (Folbre and Coontz 2002). While there is a correlation between single parenthood and poverty, they explained, the correlation does not imply that single parenthood causes poverty. Causation is complex and challenging to establish, but the evidence for causality going in the other direction – that poverty causes or precedes single parenthood is to many minds a lot stronger. As Stevenson and Wolfers (in Li 2008) point out, Scafidi neglected comparisons in another way as well: while some women end up losing financially following divorce, others actually gain. According to Ananat and Michael 2008 (cited by Stevenson & Wolfers), the gains actually exceed the losses. Scafidi did not include these economic gains in his calculations.

Li's and Scafidi's results were divergent because of their fundamental differences in thinking about ‘what causes what?’ While Li's article asks, divorce, compared to what?, Scafidi did not assess the costs of divorce relative to, for example, remaining in a distressed, tumultuous, or violent family situation. Scafidi didn't test the assumption that divorce (and single parenthood) cause economic problems. He assumed that.

Li's results were not isolated. Like Li, other researchers continue to find selection bias accounts for some if not all of the differences between children whose parents divorce and those who don't. For example, Fomby and Cherlin (2007) found that selection effects – the characteristics of the mother that precede the divorce – helped explain the reduced cognitive outcomes for children of divorce. They also found that the divorce itself, rather than just selection bias or pre-disruption effects, was associated with behavioral problems sometimes seen in children of divorce. Just as research on relationship trajectories may help us understand in finer detail how and when divorce is difficult on adults, this same promising line of research can further examine the postdisruption effects of divorce on children: children exposed to multiple transitions – a divorce, then a cohabitation and break up, then perhaps another marriage – may be at elevated risk relative to children exposed only to one transition. In a study that focuses on single parents, Osborne and McLanahan (2007) found that the accumulation of mother's relationship transitions adds to children's troubles.3

How were the Li and Scafidi articles covered? Both studies were reported in USA Today. While Scafidi received more coverage (such as the Associated Press, Newsweek, the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal) than Li did, still a review of the coverage shows us that news coverage may be turning a bit.

Another change over the past 20 years of discussing results of divorce research also looks promising: when searching the blogosphere on the most recent divorce research, many researchers, scientists, and citizens commented on the problematic research methods of Scafidi and the case of ‘advocacy science’ (or ‘moral entrepreneurship’). Granted, the blogosphere also included many discussions applauding Scafidi, and others castigating Li. Thus, the Internet offers much opportunity for people to speak out and have a dialogue about moral entrepreneurship and science on the one hand, and research methods on the other. While popular dialogue on the Internet is promising for telling a more complicated story of the case for divorce, now more than ever we need citizens who can ask whether they are reading a case of moral entrepreneurship and who have a good understanding of the basics of research design – including selection bias.

Lessons learned

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

Students of sociology have learned that knowledge is socially constructed – social forces such as our modern interest in individual psychology (Illouz 2008), technological breakthroughs in data collection that ease longitudinal and prospective studies, and policy interest in family structure that has followed the increases in divorces between 1960 and 1980, all play a role in what we learn about families.

Sociologists, like good contextualists (Pepper 1942), recognize that just because knowledge is socially constructed, this does not pre-empt our capacity to judge science on its merits. We can still evaluate research in terms of best practices. What the story of divorce research shows is that the tools of science can help us to read the research and assess where we really stand on the impact of divorce.

In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

What is the impact of divorce on children? There is no arguing that the lives of children of divorce are different from the lives of children whose parents remain married. But in order to understand what happens to children (and adults), one must consider their situation relative to the alternatives available to them. This article details the process of discovery by social scientists over time – through the application of new research methods – that has given us an increasingly fine-grained understanding of divorce. The plot culminates in current research that examines how parents’ relationship careers may help us understand the details of when, where, and under what conditions divorce is stressful to children.

This case for divorce involves a review of research over time and a recognition of its complexity. While researchers who use comparisons, and control for selection bias, who measure marital adjustment carefully, and who take domestic violence into account, will disagree about exactly how children of divorce differ from children of married parents (are 20 percent affected? are 25 percent affected?), there is agreement about the resilience of children of divorce. Researchers may disagree about whether the impact of divorce is neutral, as Allen Li contends, or whether some of the impact of divorce is due to pre-existing factors, but that some of the impact of divorce can still be attributed to post-disruption factors, as Andrew Cherlin argues; or that relationship trajectory research will yield more finely grained knowledge. Still, scientists agree that comparing married families to divorced families without taking selection bias into account is a case of comparing apples to oranges, and will get us nowhere in terms of helping families. As Rutter, Hawkins and Booth, and Hetherington show, failing to take the quality of the marriages seriously limits our capacity to understand the linkages between the experience of marriage and the experience of divorce. The distressed marriage is where most people considering divorce start.

Finally, why a ‘case’ for divorce? The phrase itself refers back to Waite and Gallagher's The Case for Marriage (2000); this in turn is reminiscent of William Eskridge's The Case for Same-Sex Marriage (1996). In one sense, only The Case for Same-Sex Marriage had a ‘case’ to make, given the status of same-sex marriage in the United States at the time of its publication. Yet, as these three examples from 1988 to 2008 highlight, popular understanding of divorce's impact remains contested and uncertain. In another sense, both The Case for Marriage and ‘The Case for Divorce’ draw upon this trope to conduct a literature review for the purposes of focusing attention on social institutions that are currently in flux both demographically and symbolically.

The Case for Marriage was not written because the legal rights of heterosexual people to access marriage or the fondness of Americans for marriage was under threat (though it had been declining). The book was an effort to re-organize common understanding of marriage as beneficial for men, women, children, and communities by drawing our attention to the wealth of social scientific research on the health and economic benefits associated with marriage. In a time of perceived uncertainty, The Case for Marriage was associated with drawing policy makers’ attention to their opportunity to use the authors’ data-based understanding of marriage in order to create policies shaped by the compassionate insight that marriage is associated with a good life for many. The Case for Marriage was also associated with a related cultural mission of compassion, to help refocus attention on the benefits of marriage that can make lives better. Similarly ‘The Case for Divorce’ seeks to re-focus common understanding of divorce by reporting on and drawing parallels across diverse times and types of divorce research, and to guide readers through the uncertainty that persists simultaneously in the understanding of the data and in the culture. This too is a mission of compassion.

Short Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References

Virginia E. Rutter's work focuses on research questions that are responsive to public concerns about social problems. As a survey researcher, she studies family, gender, and sexuality. At the same time, she has worked translating social science work in these areas to general audiences via the media. She is an assistant professor of sociology at the Framingham State College in Framingham, MA. Previously, she was a research scientist at the Battelle Centers for Public Health Research and Evaluation in Seattle and Arlington, VA, where she was a co-investigator in the NIH-funded National Couples Survey. Her most recent work is titled ‘The Case for Divorce: Under What Conditions Is Divorce Beneficial and for Whom?’ She is co-author of two books, The Gender of Sexuality and The Love Test, several academic book chapters, and numerous articles for general audiences. She is a board member of the Council on Contemporary Families and a columnist for Girl w/Pen.

Notes
  • *

    Correspondence address: Department of Sociology, Framingham State College, 100 State Street, Framingham, MA 01701, USA. Email: vrutter@framingham.edu.

  • 1

    Other longitudinal studies, including Hawkins and Booth (2005), found similar results: the more carefully marital distress is measured, the more pronounced are the psychological advantages of leaving over staying.

  • 2

    The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-partisan, non-profit organization of family scholars and clinicians whose mission is to disseminate the latest research and best-practice findings on the changing experiences and needs of today's diverse families. Authors of briefing reports receive no funding, in-kind support, or reimbursement for contributions.

  • 3

    A July 2008 briefing report (D’Onofrio 2008) at the website for the Institute for American Values offers a discussion of research on the impact of divorce on children.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Divorce research: Two themes
  4. 1988–2008: Dueling divorce coverage
  5. Adult children of divorce vs. resilient children of divorce
  6. Does divorce make you happy?
  7. Where's the comparison group? Redux
  8. Lessons learned
  9. In sum: what is a case for divorce, and why make it?
  10. Short Biography
  11. References
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