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It's Not The Divorce, It's Parental Behavior

Divorce is hard on children.  Judges make custody and visitation decisions based on the best interest of the child. Judges and psychologists alike have little patience for parental alienation. Parental behavior during divorce is a key to better outcomes for children. 

It's a common assumption that children of divorce are more likely to get divorced themselves. For the most part, that's what psychologists have found when they've studied this phenomenon. But perhaps divorce per se isn't exactly what's to blame.

A recent study in Marriage & Family Review looked at whether it was experiencing divorce itself as a child that played a role in later breakups, or whether it was merely conflict that might be at play.

Researchers analyzed a data set of American families stretching from 1987 to 2003 to track how children of divorce and unhappy marriages turned out. The researchers found that children who experienced high levels of family conflict (not divorce) - parents fighting, worrying about money, abuse, etc. - were likelier to get divorced as adults.

But children in high conflict families whose parents got divorced fared the same as children in low conflict families whose parents stayed together.

In other words: High levels of conflict are a big problem. But a divorce can actually be part of the solution.

Children in high conflict families whose parents didn't get divorced were the ones who were actually most likely to get divorced as adults. The researchers think this is because by staying together, the family actually had to endure more conflict than if the parents had split up.

"We suggest that ... children's exposure to daily conflict is diminished after union dissolution, thus reducing children's opportunities to model their parents' conflictual style, which may be associated with an inability to resolve relationship conflict," the researchers concluded. "This lack of ability to make resolutions or compromise may lead to their inability to have successful cohabiting or marital unions."

While this study shows an association between high-conflict childhoods and divorces in adulthood, children who grow up in families with a lot of conflict may well grow up to have happy marriages themselves. The research shows a higher likelihood of divorce, not some kind of predetermined fate. And this finding of course isn't applicable to every family situation.

There is other scientific evidence supporting the researchers' conclusion. Studies have found, for example, that children's wellbeing often increases when their parents divorce after a lot of conflict.

The lesson here may be that if the parents are happy - even if that's attained by getting divorced - the kids could be happier, too. 

Source: Rebecca Harrington, Business Insider;, Constance T. Gager, Scott T. Yabiku & Miriam R. Linver

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