MYTH: It's Best to Stay for the Kids, Even if the Home is Abusive or Toxic

TRUTH: Studies found that offspring raised in toxic homes that ended in divorce have higher wellbeing than offspring whose parents stayed married


This myth suggests that kids will be so destroyed by your divorce, that you should never leave, even if there is a pattern of abuse, sexual immorality, addictions, criminality, other destructive behaviors in your marriage. It also suggests that your kids will have substance abuse problems, or get suspended or expelled from school if you divorce. You've probably also heard the myth that your kids' own marriages will end in divorce if yours does.

None of these things are likely to happen if you divorce for serious reasons. If fact, if you needed a life-saving divorce, one to find a relief from a destructive marriage, your children are still likely to have a high commitment to marriage and still likely to go though life with no serious lifelong problems.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Some people will accuse me of blithely excusing any divorce just because there are a few ups and downs in the marriage. That is not true. I am a devout Christian and I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe God meant marriage to be loving, undefiled, and lifelong. I’m no proponent of the “I’m bored” divorce, or “I miss the party life” divorce, or “I feel unfulfilled” divorce. Nor do I think people should give up early in the face of normal marriage problems.

But we are not talking about normal marriages. We are talking about marriages that are unsafe. We’re talking about marriages with serious problems, such as a pattern of infidelity, sexual immorality, physical abuse, chronic emotional abuse, abandonment or severe addictions. These problems account for half of divorces in the U.S. These are relationships with “marriage-endangering” sins, not normal run-of-the-mill sins. We’re talking about the big sins that destroy marriages.

These are not the good or even so-so two-parent married homes. These are destructive homes where the beleaguered spouse feels betrayed, gets angry, and lashes out, but due to religious pressure they cover for their spouse, put on a brave face, pray harder, forgive over and over, and excuse the other spouse’s bad behavior because they’ve been taught to "not let the sun go down on your anger.” They may conceal it from outsiders, but they aren’t fooling the kids. The kids may be too young know the details; they may have been shielded from the truth; they may not have words for what’s happening. But they sense it.

 

For the past 25 years, researchers have known that growing up in a very high-tension married home is destructive to the kids—worse than being raised by a single parent.

These bad marriages have real, long-term negative effects on kids’ emotional well-being. Researchers compared the outcomes of two groups of adults who were brought up in destructive homes: those whose parents divorced versus those whose parents who stayed. They discovered that the kids whose parents divorced had much better well-being on average.

These marriages are destructive for kids. Yet our pastors, Christian marriage authors, and Christian radio programs never told us.

These marriages have negative effects on kids’ emotional wellbeing. And on average, rescuing kids from these bad situations is better for them. About 8 in 10 children from divorced homes have no serious emotional, social, or psychological problems [1]

A peaceful, single-parent home or stepparent home is a good choice over a high-conflict two-parent home. Below you will see the studies on kids of divorce. You'll be surprised at how well they turn out. They aren't likely to be "seriously troubled." They aren't likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. They aren't likely to get suspended or expelled from school, and they aren't likely to get divorced themselves.

Dr. E. Mavis Heatherington (3)

Do You Need Support?  I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it. Allies and people helpers are also welcome. Just click the link and ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS.


What happens to the kids if you stay in a highly toxic home?

1. Health problems in adulthood. Since 1998, doctors and researchers have known since that children who have experienced or been exposed to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or violence against a parent, or to substance abuse, mental illness, or criminal behavior, are more likely to have health problems as adults, according to the massive ACE Study through Kaiser Permanente. As adults, they were found to be more likely to major health problems such as ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease.[2]

 

2. Binge Drinking, Marijuana Use, Marriage Problems. Since 2009, researchers have known that children in high-conflict married homes are more likely to have the following problems than kids in single-parent homes:[3]

        • binge drinking
        • using marijuana
        • marrying too early
        • divorcing 

And it makes sense: If a marriage is full of chaos, and problems don’t get resolved, the children find ways to escape the misery somehow. They may numb themselves with alcohol or drugs or run off to marry the first person who will get them away. If the victimized parent stays in the nightmare, instead of setting boundaries and saying “no” to the abuse and leaving, the children may even develop serious problems such as personality disorders themselves. Kids need to have at least one safe parent who can model good boundaries.

3. Lower Well-being. From 1995 to 2003, researchers analyzed adults who had been brought up in very high-conflict homes. They discovered that offspring whose parents divorced had 10 times better wellbeing than those whose parents stayed together in a very high-discord marriage. (See more about this in the section below: “When Is Divorce Good for Kids?”)

 

“Our results show that if conflict between parents is relatively high,

offspring are better off in early adulthood if their parents divorced

than if they remained married.”[4]

 

Note to Moms and Dads: If you've read this far, and you're starting to feel queasy because you stayed in a toxic marriage too long, I want you to be gentle on yourself. You did what you thought was best. No one told us about this! We had no idea. Although the academic world has known this since the mid-1990s, our pastors didn’t know, our Christian radio programs didn’t tell us, and many Christian marriage authors never included this in their books. So if you stayed a long time in a miserable situation "for the sake of the kids," cut yourself some slack.

 

If I Divorce, Will My Children Likely Have Long-Lasting Damage?

About 8 in 10 kids from divorced homes have no serious lifelong problems. While researchers acknowledge that the first two years of the divorce are stressful, most kids bounce back after a few years. Moving, going to a new school, observing legal and personal conflict between parents, and going back and forth between homes does cause real pain for children during the transition, but in the long run, the kids turn out a lot like their friends from two-parent homes.

The chart below shows that in non-divorced homes, 1 in 10 children are likely to have serious life-long emotional, psychological, or social problems. In divorced homes, about 2 in 10 children are likely to have serious life-long problems. As you can see from the graph, the vast majority of youths—whether their parents are divorced or not—go through life without any serious problems at all.

Dr. E. Mavis Heatherington (1)

Landmark researcher Dr. Mavis Hetherington (University of Virginia) wrote[6]:

“In the short run, divorce is brutally painful to a child. But its negative long-term effects have been exaggerated…

“Twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems. But most of the young men and women from [the study] looked a lot like their contemporaries from non-divorced homes. Although they looked back on their parents’ breakup as a painful experience, most were successfully going about the chief tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives for themselves.”

 

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin (Johns Hopkins University) confirmed Hetherington’s findings but added two bits of information:

  • The mental health risk for children of divorce was lower than 25%, ranging between 20% to 25%[7] and later researchers using larger samples, verified the 20% figure.
  • Part of the children’s mental health problems existed before the divorce, rather than being caused by the divorce itself.[8] In other words, the toxic environment was already damaging the children many years before the divorce took place.

For people who need a life-saving divorce, this gives hope. And this is why we can say,

About 8 in 10 kids of divorce have no serious long term social, emotional or psychological problems.

 

 

If I Divorce, Will My Kids Likely Have Drug and Alcohol Problems?

Your kids are not likely to have alcohol or drug problems. The vast majority of kids in single-parent and stepparent families do not have any substance abuse problems. In fact, the majority of all adolescents don’t have any drug or alcohol abuse problems, no matter what their parents’ marriage was like.

  • Only 6 in 100 adolescents in single-mother families had substance abuse problems. 94 in 100 have no substance abuse problems.
  • Only 5 in 100 adolescents in two-parent families had substance abuse problems. 95 in 100 have no substance abuse problems.[9]

Likelihood of have (2)
Substance Abuse Problems Among Twelve- to Seventeen-Year-Olds[9]
Number of kids with abuse problems Family Type
3.4 in 100 Mother + father + other relative (Example: grandmother, aunt, etc.)
4.5 in 100 Mother + father
5.3 in 100 Mother + stepfather
5.7 in 100 Mother only
6.0 in 100 Mother + other relative
7.2 in 100 Other relative only
8.1 in 100 Other family type
11 in 100 Father only
11.8 in 100 Father + stepmother

 

 

If I Divorce, Will My Kid Likely Have Behavior Problems and Get Expelled From School?

No, your child is not likely to have behavior problems or get suspended or expelled. In fact, hardly any kids from any kind of family have such bad behavior at school that they get suspended or expelled. And single parents have only a slightly higher likelihood of having a kid who gets suspended or expelled than married parents do.[10]

Evangelicals Shooting their Own Divorcees (2)

 If I Divorce, Will My Kid’s Marriage End in Divorce, Too?

Most adults whose parents divorced do not divorce. The majority of people whose parents divorced have lifelong marriages. However, children from divorced homes are a bit more likely to get divorced than children of married parents.

According to 2018 figures[11]

    • Most people who marry never divorce.
    • Those people whose parents did divorce have a 47% divorce rate.
    • Those people whose parents did not divorce have a 40% divorce rate.

In other words: There’s very little difference between these two groups, only 7%. (7 in 100). The gap, which once was much larger, has narrowed in the past 25 years.

Likelihood of kids being divorce if parents divorce

More Good News!  If you divorced for a serious reason, chances are that your kids will still have a high view of marital commitment.

“… parental divorce may not undermine offspring's commitment to marriage

if it ends an especially discordant and aversive parental marriage.”

— Amato and DeBoer (1995)[11]

If I Divorce, Will It Hurt My Kids to Be Poorer?

Some people think they should stay in a destructive marriage for financial reasons. They say it is better to be in a home with two incomes than one.

But research shows that income makes only a small difference in your children’s outcome. Kids raised in single-parent families with less income have about the same outcome as they would in a deeply troubled two-parent home.[12] In fact, single-parent households have less money for drugs and alcohol, so children are less likely to abuse them.

In other words, household income is not a big factor. If you are staying in an abusive marriage only because you’re worried about money, researchers say lifestyle is not as big a factor as having a safe environment with a nurturing parent.

You and your children may be better off on your own,
even if your home is smaller and there’s less money.

5 Tips for Single Parents That Cost Nothing! (And really work)

  1. Be loving, warm and close to your children.
  2. Spend leisure time outside of the home with the kids. (The park, window shopping, sports.)
  3. Do projects together inside the home.[13]
  4. Be a fair and consistent disciplinarian.
  5. Inform children about upcoming changes well in advance.

Yes, single parents can do a good job, especially when they needed a life-saving divorce, a divorce to rescue the kids from trauma.

 

When is Divorce Good for Kids?

This graph [14] shows five types of marriages that end in divorce. It is a very complex graph, it was done for people with PhD’s, and it shows a lot of information in one diagram. So (below) I’m going to show you my own simple diagram using the same information.

Amato Graph divorce effect children

Here’s my simplified diagram—and the big takeaway:

  • If the marriage is good or even “okay,” divorce is bad for kids.
  • If the marriage is bad or very bad, divorce is good for kids.
modified amato graph
  • Very low distress marriages— The couple is able to resolve marital problems. And even though the children sense the stress, they observe genuine apologies, their parents making up, and behavior leading to a better relationship. There’s usually peace and calm in these homes.
  • Low distress— Couple resolves most of their problems.
  • Medium distress— Couple has some ongoing problems that aren’t resolved.
  • High distress— Couple has serious and ongoing problems that don’t get resolved.
  • Very high distress— Couple has recurring serious problems that do not get resolved. Family members may feel tense and anxious, trying to keep the next incident from happening. Often they control everything they can, keeping the house perfect or the children quiet, or a million other things to prevent the other spouse from doing something harmful. Sometimes the problems are masked under an air of calm: hidden and covert, with no fighting, screaming, or violence that would be noticed by an outsider. For example, many spouses in these marriages know their marriage isn’t happy, but they cannot put their finger on it. They may feel controlled by the spouse. They may worry about their spouse’s secret behavior. They may walk on eggshells around their mate, even if they’ve never been hit. They sense the marriage is not safe and loving, or even respectful. There may be no fighting, screaming, or overt conflict, but the anxiety and agitation are palpable.

 

What Does This Graph Show?
It shows that the worse the marriage, the better off the kids will be if you divorce, on average. (And it demonstrates that the reverse is true too: if the marriage is very low conflict and both people are decent and fair-minded and conflicts are actually resolved rather than being swept under the carpet, divorce is really bad for kids.)

 

What about Kids in Very High-Discord Marriages?

In a very high distress marriage, children were found to be damaged 10 times more if the parents stayed together than if they divorced. (This is my simplified diagram enlarged from the original graph above.)

very high conflict marriage graph

According to this study, even in a high distress marriage (one that is not quite as severe as the very high-discord marriages) the kids were damaged one-and-a-half times more when the parents stayed together rather than divorcing.

high conflict divorces marriages

Do You Need Support?  I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it. Allies and people helpers are also welcome. Just click the link and ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS.


 

 Summary

1. Single parents can do a good job raising kids.

 

2. Kids from divorced homes do almost as well as kids from two-parent married homes. From a practical standpoint, it may be worth the stress of divorcing to find relief from a highly toxic home.

 

3. Researchers have known for more than 25 years that divorce is likely best for kids in high distress and very high-distress marriages. (But no one told us that. Why didn't our pastors, or Christian marriage book authors, or premarital workbooks, or Focus on the Family say something?)

 

4. Those first two years of the divorce process are tough on kids because of all the changes. For example, moving to a new home, legal conflict between parents, switching schools, worries about the future, and possibly losing friendships. During those early years, kids may blame the divorce on themselves unless the parents help them see they did nothing to cause it. If your child was fine before the divorce, within two years they are likely to go back to normal.

 


FOOTNOTES

[1] Virginia Rutter, “Divorce in Research vs. Divorce in Media,” Sociology Compass 3, no. 4 (2009): 707-720.

 

[2] Felitti, VJ, Anda, RF, Nordenburg, D, et al. "Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” May 1998, retrieved 4-27-2020,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9635069

 

[3] Musick and Meier, “Are both parents always better than one? Parental conflict and young adult well-being. 5 March 2009, page 826.

 

[4] Paul R. Amato, “Reconciling Divergent Perspectives: Judith Wallerstein, Quantitative Family Research, and Children of Divorce,” Family Relations 52, no. 4 (10/03): 332-339, accessed 03/09/19, https://www. jstor.org/stable/3700314.

 

[5] Paul Amato, Laura Spencer Loomis, Alan Booth, “Parental Divorce, Marital Conflict, and Offspring Well-being During Early Adulthood,” Social Forces, March 1995, 911.

 

[6] E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002), 7.

 

[7] A. J. Cherlin, P. L. Chase-Lansdale, and C. McRae, “Effects of Parental Divorce on Mental Health Throughout the Life Course,” American Sociological Review 63, no. 2 (1998): 239-249, accessed 12/28/19, https://doi.org/10.2307/2657325.

 

[8] Virginia Rutter, “Divorce in Research vs. Divorce in Media,” Sociology Compass 3, no. 4 (2009): 707-720.

 

[9] Chart and description by Dr. Bella DePaulo, using data in the Hoffman and Johnson “Adolescent Drug Use” study, which draws information from the principle source of data about drug use in the United States. Bella DePaulo, Singled Out (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006), 176-177.

 

[10] Nicholas Zill, “Family Still Matters for Key Indicators of Student Performance,” Institute for Family Studies, April 6, 2020, retrieved 9-22-2020 https://ifstudies.org/blog/family-still-matters-for-key-indicators-of-student-performance. See the bar chart at the bottom of the article. It uses the 2016 National Household Education Survey. I’ve just taken that graph and extended it to show 100% on the y-axis.

 

[11] Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Trends in the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce,” Demography (Sept. 1999): 415-420. Updated with 2018 data and published the Institute for Family Studies blog on May 15, 2019: https://ifstudies.org/blog/trends-in-the-intergenerational-transmission-of-divorce-1973-2018 Updated again using GSS 2016-2018 data in April 2020.

 

[12] Paul R. Amato, Danelle D DeBoer, “The Transmission of Marital Instability Across Generations: Relationship Skills or Commitment to Marriage?” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 63, No. 4 (November 2001), 1050

 

[13] Musick and Meier, “Are both parents always better than one? Parental conflict and young adult well-being. 5 March 2009, page 826.

 

[14] Paul R. Amato, “ Reconciling Divergent Perspectives: Judith Wallerstein, Quantitative Family Research, and Children of Divorce,” Family Relations 52, no. 4 (10/03): 332-339, accessed 03/09/19, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3700314.

 

 


50 MOST POPULAR BLOG POSTS

Start Here

Physical and Emotional Abuse & Infidelity

God Allows Divorce to Protect Victims


How to Find a Good Supportive Church

 

Divorce Saves Lives: The Surprising (Wonderful!) Truth About Divorce Nobody Told You

Will I Ever Find Love Again? Dating After Divorce: Good News

Finding Happiness and Health After Divorce

 

Thriving After Divorce: These Christians Tell their Stories


Self-Doubt, Second-Guessing Ourselves, and Gaslighting

Children and Divorce: Researchers Give Hope

 

High Conflict Divorce and Parenting

Recommended Reading List and Free Resources for Christians and Other People of Faith

 

Common Myths

 

FREE

 

FOLLOW

 

SIGN UP below for the email list for find out about helpful new blog posts, videos, and FREE Kindle book giveaways.

If you are a Christian (or devout person of faith) and you think you might need to divorce, even though you don't want to, buy the Life-Saving Divorce.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

PAPERBACK     KINDLE eBOOK


Sign up for the Life-Saving Divorce email list. (You can unsubscribe at any time.)