When we first started talking about splitting up, our child was the main reason I told myself I couldn’t do it. While I believed he'd be fine, I also suspected he’d be more fine if I were in a happy, intact marriage. Sure, research shows that the vast majority of kids of divorce show no lasting negative effects on their grades or social skills, life satisfaction or self-esteem. But what about those tiny, subtle shocks that don’t register on a study? Wasn’t a marginal marriage a better choice, really, than no marriage at all?
Well, no. For one thing, staying in my marriage was no longer an option. Secondly, the more I began talking to researchers, clinicians, divorced parents and adult children of divorce, the more it became apparent that I could raise a happy, healthy child in a variety of scenarios—including not being married to his dad.
It seems hard to believe. Intuitively, we just know that children should be raised by two married parents living together. Preferably with a floppy dog lounging by the fireplace, one or two siblings, and organic herbs springing from a kitchen window garden. But an avalanche of studies over the past 40 years shows that this isn’t what they need.
Research shows that about 80 percent of children of divorce adapt well and see no lasting negative effects on their grades, social adjustment, or mental health. These findings arrive from a variety of sources, including a 20-year study done by psychologist Constance Ahrons, published as the book We’re Still Family. Development psychologist Mavis Hetherington’s work following 2,500 children of divorce also showed about 80-percent of the kids doing well, as did a 2012 meta-survey analyzing about a thousand studies on childhood adjustment done over the last four decades, conducted by child development expert and Cambridge University professor Michael Lamb.
Michael Lamb’s meta-study, “Mothers, Fathers, Families, and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children's Adjustment,” sums up the features of a supportive childhood:
- Children do well when they have good relationships with both parents or primary caregivers, adults who basically get along. But those parents don’t need to be married or living in the same house.
- Children benefit from emotionally stable parents—adults who are recuperated enough, in the case of divorce, to focus on the basic job of parenting, including establishing stability, exercising fair discipline, providing love and being emotionally responsive. But those parents need not be married or living in the same house.
- Children need adequate resources such as food, safe housing, and social support. But they don’t need a mansion with every toy available, and those resources can be provided by parents who are not married or living in the same house.
What Lamb’s exhaustive overview and the work of dozens of other scholars shows is that marriage isn’t what matters so much to a child’s wellbeing, but rather a loving relationship with parents who aren’t embroiled in conflict, and a decent home life. All families have good times and bad, and children face any number of disappointments as they grow. Divorce is a subset of parenting, not some freakish, outlier experience.
“The mere fact that the majority of children raised in single-parent or divorced families are well-adjusted undercuts the argument that children 'need' to be raised in traditional families. These process factors, rather than family structure, affect adjustment in both traditional and non-traditional families,” said Lamb.
For my own divorce, I came up with these Five Principles for Positive Co-Parenting:
- Because we know that high conflict between the parents is one of the most damaging experiences for children, we can foster cooperation with our co-parent, and work to squash conflict.
- Because we know that children benefit from stability, we can focus on establishing new routines that work in our newly structured lives.
- Without a spouse around to blame for, well, everything, we can let divorce challenge us to be a better, more focused parent and to bring our personal strengths to our child-rearing. We also can look for ways that the very characteristics of our ex that annoyed us in marriage (“He’s such a neat freak!” or “All she cares about is hiking!”) may benefit our children; how great to have one parent who likes the outdoors.
- We can create positive moments for our children that have nothing to do with the state of their parents' love life. We can foster engagement in outside activities and with other supportive adults.
- Because we understand that being emotionally present for our children rests on our own recuperation, we can prioritize taking care of the care-givers, ourselves.
I often think about Elizabeth, a 20-something from a tiny Texas town whose parents divorced when she was two. As a child, she and her mother lived with her grandparents, while her dad moved to a cattle ranch nearby. Her mother worked hard to develop and maintain a wide circle of family friends, and her parents remain cordial to this day. Rather than feeling isolated, the divorce wound up broadening her sense of support. “I felt more loved than I think I would have had they stayed married,” Elizabeth told me.
Parenting while divorced may require some new education, some extra attention paid to your own mental and physical state, and to your children’s. But neither my child, nor yours, are lifelong victims because their parents didn't stay married. We have a great deal of control over the home life and the quality of the relationships we create.