Good News for the Children of Divorce? -Glenn & Blankenhorn
Mon Nov 15 18:04:23 EST 1999
from: Smart Marriages
L. A. Times, November 15, 1999
Good News for the Children of Divorce?
By Norval Glenn and David Blankenhorn
"Good News for the Children of Divorce," announced the recent headline in
the New York Times. The "Cycle of divorce is abating" agreed USA Today.
Similar headlines appeared in newspapers across the nation. The "good
is that, for children, divorce is becoming less harmful. In particular,
USA Today put it: "Adults raised by divorced mothers are far less likely
get divorced themselves than they were 20 years ago."
What is the source of this good news? In a paper presented at this year's
meeting of the American Sociological Association, Nicholas Wolfinger from
the University of Utah compares the divorce rates of two groups: adults
whose own parents had divorced, and adults whose own parents had remained
married. In the early 1970s, demonstrating what scholars call the
intergenerational transmission of divorce, the former were about twice as
divorce-prone as the latter. But by the early 1990s, the divorce-rate gap
separating the two groups, while still substantial, had narrowed
significantly. This single fact constitutes the entire basis of the
And what makes this news so good? The University of Utah press release for
Wolfinger's study is titled "Divorce rates declining for children of
divorce." Most of the media coverage centered on this point. Here is how
the Associated Press put it: "The divorce rate for adult children of
divorced parents has declined over the past two decades, a new study has
found." But of course, the divorce rate for this group has not declined.
It has increased significantly. In the early 1970s, about 35 percent of
ever-married adult children of divorce were themselves divorced. By the
early 1990s, the number had increased to 45 percent. Yet during this same
period, the divorce rate for everyone else increased even more. In the
early 1970s, about 18 percent of ever-married adults raised in intact
had themselves divorced. Twenty years later, the number had jumped to 35
Wolfinger shows that the gap separating the two groups has narrowed. But
this development has nothing to do with declining divorce rates. On the
contrary, the convergence described by Wolfinger is entirely the result
remarkable increase in divorce-proneness in recent decades of U.S. adults
who were raised in intact families. This is good news?
Unfortunately, there is more. Wolfinger also identifies what he believes
be the underlying social causes of this "good news." First, divorce has
become more socially acceptable. As he told the Salt Lake Tribune: "Fifty
years ago, Mom might tell her children, 'Don't play with Jane's children
because she's divorced.' Divorcees were often outcast and morally
Today's more tolerant environment, says Wolfinger, means that children
suffer less when their parents divorce. Moreover, because today's unhappy
couples divorce more quickly, their children are less exposed to spousal
conflict. As a result, children of divorce today "don't suffer as much
growing up. They don't emerge with so much psychological baggage."
The kindest thing to say about these explanations is that they are
unwarranted. Wolfinger presents no evidence to support these opinions and
the data from his paper shed no light on them one way or another.
Particularly irresponsible, in our view, is his claim that divorce is
"better" for children today (they "suffer less") because adult society as
whole is more accepting of divorce. We are aware of no clinical evidence,
any other kind of evidence, to support this assertion. And how could there
be? For the child, the pain of divorce obviously stems primarily from
is going on inside the home, between the parents. Whether or what the
neighbors think about the problem is a factor of much less significance.
adult society suddenly became more accepting, for example, of parents who
abuse drugs, would that change by itself make things substantially better
for those children whose parents abuse drugs?
We have our own theory as to why the divorce-rate gap between the children
of divorce and the children of intact marriage seems to have narrowed in
recent decades. In a high-divorce society, everyone's marriage is made
weaker. Today, even if I was raised in an intact family, I see divorce and
its consequences all around me. One result is likely to be a general,
across-the-board weakening of the ideal of marital permanence. Under such
conditions, it would be sad, but hardly surprising, to notice a gradual
convergence of divorce rates, at increasingly higher levels, among various
Nearly three decades into the modern divorce revolution, it would be good
news indeed if researchers were to discover that the divorce rate for
children of divorce is declining. Or if they were to discover that,
insofar as society embraces divorce, and as couples divorce more quickly,
things get better for the children of divorce. But scholars have
nothing of the sort, any more than they have discovered that eating lots
cake and ice cream lowers your cholesterol and makes you thinner.
Norval Glenn is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at
Austin. David Blankenhorn is president of the New York-based Institute
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