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Overview: This is Myth 22 of 27 Myths about divorce that aren't likely to be true committed Christians who love God and take their faith seriously. These messages make us worry if we're pleasing God. They make us second-guess ourselves when we try to get ourselves and our children to safety. Many of us have heard these messages all our lives and wanted to avoid doing wrong. So although these myths may be true for people who are selfish or immature, they aren't true for a person who invested their heart and soul into the relationship, and gave it all they had. See all the myths on one page. See the next myth

MYTH: It takes two parents to raise good kids.

TRUTH : Emotionally healthy single parents and stepparents can do as good a job of raising healthy kids as anyone else.


This myth says divorced dads and mom can’t raise healthy kids by themselves—that children need two married parents in order to turn out all right. (Often this myth is directed at wives, and takes the form of “Kids need a man in the house.”)

In reality, emotionally healthy single parents and stepparents can do a great job of raising healthy, well-adjusted kids, just like loving couples can. When homes are unsafe, filled with abuse, and children are exposed to a parent’s dangerous, harmful behavior during their developmental years, kids truly suffer.

This is a hot-button issue, and a lot of people may misunderstand what I am saying. Some will accuse me of being anti-men or pro-divorce. I am not.

I am saying research shows us that abusive people who scare their spouse and/or children are very destructive to the kids in the home.

These marriages have negative effects on kids’ emotional wellbeing. And on average, removing kids from these bad situations is better for them.

If your marriage has serious problems that cause agitation, fear, and stress in your home, your children are being affected. Sometimes you cannot put your finger on it; you are scared, but you can’t explain why you are, especially if you’ve never been hit. Even if there is no fighting, screaming, or overt conflict, the anxiety and agitation are palpable.

Research shows us that homes filled with tension, anxiety, and a pattern of bad behavior (infidelity, sexual immorality, physical abuse, chronic emotional abuse, or no support due to abandonment or addictions) are very destructive to the kids in the home. They are more destructive than our pastors or Christian marriage authors or Christian radio programs told us.

These marriages have negative effects on kids’ emotional wellbeing. And on average, removing 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.

 

Are Two Parents Always Better Than One?

A peaceful, single-parent home or stepparent home is a good choice over a high-conflict two-parent home. But if your marriage doesn’t have much conflict—let’s say your marriage is low conflict or medium conflict—it’s best for your child if you stay married.

A study from 2009 shows that kids in a single-parent household do no worse than they would in a two-parent home that has a lot of conflict.[2] Children on average are very resilient and bounce back. Even researchers were surprised. A Rutgers University study discovered that divorced parents suffer more short-term and long-term effects than their children.[3] In fact, after a divorce, the children on average perform at about the same level in school as they did before the divorce.

Despite all the conventional wisdom saying two-parent homes are always better for children, the truth is that children in high-conflict married homes are more likely to have the following problems than kids in single-parent homes:[4]

    • 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, 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.

(Note: I don't want you to feel bad if your marriage damaged your children. You did what you thought best. No one told us about this! We had no idea. So if you stayed a long time in a miserable situation for your kids, don't be hard on yourself. Just get to safety whenever you can. The healing starts when you get away.)

 

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

Your child is not likely to have long-lasting damage from a divorce. Most children do not have any serious problems psychologically, socially, or emotionally. In fact, 3 in 4 children from divorced homes have no serious problems at all.

While experts acknowledge that the first two years of the divorce are stressful, it doesn’t have long-lasting effects on most kids. Moving, going to a new school, observing 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. Read more on p. 262.

The chart below shows that in non-divorced homes, 10% of children are likely to have serious problems. In divorced homes, 25% of children are likely to have serious 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. Mavis Hetherington wrote:

“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.”[5]

Demographer Andrew Cherlin confirmed Hetherington’s findings but added two bits of information: (1) the mental health risk for children of divorce may be lower than 25%, ranging between 20% to 25%,[6] and (2) part of the children’s mental health problems existed before the divorce, rather than being caused by the divorce itself.[7] This gives hope to parents who wish to rescue their kids by reducing the exposure to harm. And this is why we say "about 8 in 10 kids have no serious mental health problems after divorce."

So what’s the truth?

To be completely honest, there are studies that show children do not adjust well after high-conflict divorce. At the same time, there are many that say they are resilient and do adjust well.

A team of researchers from the Netherlands worked to reconcile the disagreement between a number of studies. Their main finding in 2018 was that kids who had a lot of trauma while their parents were married recovered very well after the divorce.

But they also found that children whose parents had intense, bitter, high-conflict legal battles during the divorce process experienced slightly lower levels of adjustment, due to depression.[8] (In chapter 7, we discuss high-conflict legal battles where your ex has a personality disorder or other severe problem, and how to reduce the tension in the home. The section starts at p. 286-294.)

To summarize, children are resilient. Those whose parents escaped a traumatic marriage adjusted well after divorce, on average.

Let's be honest: those first two years of the divorce process are tough 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. Some children do better than others because they have high self-esteem and feel comfortable in new situations. And of course, each parent’s personality and resilience and capacity for change matters too.

If your child was fine before the divorce, they will have some additional stress, fear, and anxiety about all the changes; but on average, within two years, they are likely to go back to normal. An kind, nurturing parent can bring a lot of comfort during this time. (In chapter 7, starting at page 280, we’ll discuss ways to help your children cope through those first tough years, and what to do if your ex-spouse increases the conflict during and after the divorce.)

 

If I Divorce, Will My Kids 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.
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’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[10]

    • Most people who marry never divorce.
    • Those people whose parents did divorce have a 45% divorce rate.
    • Those people whose parents did not divorce have a 41% divorce rate.

In other words: There’s very little difference between these two groups, only 4%. The gap, which once was significant, has narrowed in the past 25 years.

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.[11] 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.

Other Studies

Although there are studies that show children do not adjust well after divorce, there are many that say they are resilient and do adjust well. I have listed only three of the many studies that suggest that kids turn out well, and tend to bounce back over time.

Why is there disagreement among research findings? Because certain factors make a difference: Moving to a new home, intense fighting between parents, switching schools, loss of stable friendships, and the mental health of each of the parents. If the custodial parent has a personality disorder or other serious behavioral problems, the damage maybe due to them, not the divorce itself.

 

5 Tips for 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.
  4. Be a fair and consistent disciplinarian.
  5. Inform children about upcoming changes well in advance.

Children need to be aware of the days and holidays they will spend with the other parent, and how they will transition from one home to the other. They need to be given choices in life, so they don’t feel they are helpless pawns. Among factors that are more fixed: boys tend to adjust a little faster than girls. And children with high self-esteem adjust faster than anxious children.

Stay or go? It’s your choice.

It is good to get your kids out of a chronically abusive or persistently high-conflict home. Your children’s healing starts when you get to safety. There may be a rough year or two, but by the time your kids become adults, they are likely to thank you for getting them out of harm’s way.

 


Footnotes:

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

[2] Musick and Meier, “Are Both Parents,” 826.

[3] Horwitz, “Marital Status.”

[4] Musick and Meier, “Are Two Parents,” 826.

[5] Hetherington and Kelly, For Better or For Worse, 7.

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

[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] Reine van der Wal, Catrin Finkenauer, and Margreet Visser, “Reconciling Mixed Findings on Children’s Adjustment Following High Conflict Divorce,” Journal of Child and Family Studies (11/6/18).

[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 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

[11] Musick and Meier, “Are Both Parents,” 826.

For more on the myths of divorce, buy the Life-Saving Divorce.

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