The objective of this study is to answer the question of whether the popular argument that children are better off when divorce makes one or both of the child's parents happier is true as argued by Barbara Defoe Whitehead.
The work of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead gained attention when she wrote the book 'The Divorce Culture'. Whitehead speaks of 'expressive divorce' or the notion that "divorce is an instrument for self-development, self-actualization, self-expression -- that is a way to be a new and better me. That is, one is obligated to pursue divorce if it seems to promise greater personal happiness and that obligation comes before other obligations in the marital commitment." (Miller, 1997) However, Dafoe additionally states divorce has "…hurt children…has created economic insecurity and disadvantage for many children who would not otherwise be economically vulnerable. It has led to more fragile and unstable family households. It has caused mass exodus of fathers from children's households, and, all too often from their lives. It has reduced the levels of parental time and money invested in children. In sum, it has changed the very nature of American childhood." (nd)
Statement of Thesis
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes that individuals in the United States feel that there is an entitlement or an inherent 'right' to a divorce but that this has caused great harm rather than contributing to the self-actualization of individuals. It is held that divorce results in happier children when the parents cannot get along however, it is the contention of this writer that children suffer greatly when parents divorce and that there is not really a possibility of a 'good' divorce.
Robert Hughes, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University states that the divorce rate in the United States "has been generally been going up throughout the 20th century until its peak in the late 1970s. The rate of divorce has been slowly declining since that peak. In the most recent data, there were about 20 divorces for every 1,000 women over the age of 15. This number is down from about 23 divorces per 1,000 women in 1978, but it is still significantly greater than the rate of divorce during the 1950s. At that time, the rate of divorce was about 5 per 1,000 women." (Hughes, 2004, p.1) Factors that affect the climbing divorce rate include: (1) men and women are less in need of each other for economic survival, and (2) gains made in birth control allow men and women to separate sexual activity from having children. (Hughes, 2004, p.1)
Hughes (2004) specifically states "It is important to note that while divorce increases children's risk for a variety of problems, not all children who experience divorce have problems. Children of divorce are twice as likely as children living in nondivorced families to experience difficulties. Roughly, 20% to 25% of these children will have problems. Another way of saying this is that 75% to 80% will not experience these difficulties. In other words, while children of divorce are at greater risk, most will not have major problems." (p.1)
In addition, Hughes relates that children from divorce parents have more academic problems, are more aggressive in school, and are more likely to get into trouble with authorities at the school or to be in trouble with the police. Furthermore, these children are reported to be more likely to "…have low self-esteem and feel depressed. Children who grow up in divorced families often have more difficulties getting along with siblings, peers, and their parents. Also, in adolescence, they are more likely to engage in delinquent activities, to get involved in early sexual activity, and to experiment with illegal drugs. In adolescence and young adulthood, they are more likely to have some difficulty forming intimate relationships and establishing independence from their families." (Hughes, 2004, p.1)
Research findings are stated to indicate that boys tend to experience more difficulties than girls following divorce. Boys are reported to be more likely to get into fights while girls are more likely to have depression. (Hughes, 2004, paraphrased) It is noted additionally that adolescent girls are more likely to be sexually promiscuous and more likely to be teen parents. Adolescent boys are reported to be more likely to "spend time with deviant peers and engage in delinquent behavior, including substance abuse." (Hughes, 2004, p.1)
Stephen Baskersville writes in the work entitled "Strengthening Marriage Through Divorce and Custody Reform" that the divorce revolution "has always been driven by politics. Without addressing the political dynamic, measure to bring divorce under control -- and by extension, efforts to strengthen marriage generally -- are likely to have limited efficacy." (2004) The introduction of the no-fault divorce took place in the 1970s in the United States and is expanding in use in other countries. The campaign was, according to Baskersville "…based on misleading information from the start. Laws advertised as allowing couples to divorce without legal grounds by mutual consent actually created involuntary or unilateral divorce, permitting one spouse to dissolve a marriage for any reason or no reason without incurring any liability for the consequences." (2004, p.1)
Baskersville holds that thirty years of "unrestrained divorce have created extensive interests, including many public officials, with a stake in encouraging it…" citing the "legal and psychotherapeutic interest who thrive on divorce. But even more than an industry, divorce has become a regime -- a vast bureaucratic empire spanning all three branches of federal, state, and local government. Comprising some 35% of civil litigation, divorce and custody are the cash cow of the judiciary and bring earnings to a host of executive and legislative officials as well, plus semi-public hangers-on. Divorce is now both big business and big government, often with no clear delineation between the two." (2004, p.1)
While feminism touts divorce as a demonstration of independence the work of Gallagher (1997) states of the no-fault divorce that it is "…not a positive or liberating experience for everyone involved, many therapists now acknowledge. It may improve the well-being of the spouse who seeks it, but it does damage to others: the spouse who does not want to divorce, parents, grandparents and other relatives, and especially dependent children." (p.1)
A different view is expressed by Jane Smiley, in her article published by the Huffington Post, which states that her daughter feels that her life following her parent's divorce became better and less 'dull'. Smiley specifically states "falling in love is an expression of freedom and so is divorce. Freedom is, as they are always telling us, a responsibility. If we have the freedom to divorce, then we have to use it wisely." (2010, p.1)
Summary and Conclusion
The research reviewed in this study has indicated that divorce does not enable children to have a better life but rather that divorce results in many negative impacts in the life of the child whose parents have divorced. Negative impacts include resulting behavioral problems, worsening of economic conditions for the child, and less parental attention and involvement in the child's life than prior to the parents having divorced.
(1) Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe (nd) The Making of a Divorce Culture.
Barbara Dafoe states that divorce has hurt children, it has "…created economic insecurity and disadvantage for many children who would not otherwise be economically vulnerable. It has led to more fragile and unstable family households. It has caused mass exodus of fathers from children's households, and, all too often from their lives. It has reduced the levels of parental time and money invested in children. In sum, it has changed the very nature of American childhood."
(2) Baskersville, Stephen, Ph.D. (2004) Strengthening Marriage Through Divorce and Custody Reform. The Family in America. The Howard Center for Family, Religion…