QuestionIs divorce really that bad?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. We asked economists, sociologists and marriage and family experts whether divorce's bad rap is warranted.
With half a million married users signed up on the infidelity website Ashley Madison—or 31 million, depending on whom you ask—it looks like wedlock is still not the sacred bond we imagine it to be. After many of those accounts were exposed in a hack, some couples may be finding themselves asking what’s better: A bad marriage or a good divorce?
Judging by the number of tabloids advertising the most salacious bits of celebrity divorces, the dissolution of a marriage is an ugly thing. Many of the 1.5 million children whose parents part ways every year in the U.S. are hit with the adverse effects of coming from a broken home. Of course, there are couples who split amicably, if Gwyneth Paltrow is to be believed about her "conscious uncoupling" with Chris Martin, but many experts think collaborative divorce is all just a myth.
We looked to sociologists, economists, and other experts who study marriage and family to find out if breaking up, legally, is as bad as it sounds, morally and financially.
Jennifer Glass, Ph.D.
Barbara Bush Regents Professor of Liberal Arts, Executive Director, Council on Contemporary Families, Department of Sociology & Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin
The answer to the question depends on who you’re talking about. The consensus among social scientists is that divorce is bad for kids, especially when there was little overt conflict in the household. But under conditions of high conflict between parents (including physical and emotional abuse between parents or parents and kids), the kids are better off with parents who live in separate households.
For heterosexual partners, divorce seems to bring targeted misery. Women usually rebound emotionally more quickly than men following divorce, but suffer more financially. This is slowly changing as women’s own earnings improve, but is still devastating for women who took time out of the labor force to raise kids and remain primary custodial parents to those children.
Men seem to report more negative emotional reactions to divorce and usually remarry more quickly than women. This makes sense given the long line of academic research showing that, while marriage is positive for mental health for both genders, its effect is significantly larger for men than women.
True or false: half of all American marriages end in divorce?
That 50% statistic thrown around by politicians and pundits is a myth. "The demographics of divorce are routinely reported wrong, calculated wrong or misinterpreted," says Robert Hughes, Jr., a professor of human development and family studies. According to Census Bureau data, 72% of married people in the United States are still with their first spouse, claims author and social researcher Shaunti Feldhan. That widely-quoted number probably came from “a best-guess prediction that has yet to come true,” write Daniel Teller, a physician, and Astro Teller, head of Google[x].
Director of Research and Public Education, Council on Contemporary Families, University of Illinois at Chicago; Author, The Way We Never Were (forthcoming)
Divorce is a difficult and painful process that should not be resorted to lightly. But it is not a sentence of doom for either adults or children, and it often rescues people from situations that can inflict much worse long-term damage.
Many problems attributed to divorce actually lie in problems with the marital and parenting relationships that were evident 8-12 years before the divorce, while others arise when parents increase their conflict after a divorce, especially when they involve the children, asking them to keep secrets or bad-mouthing the other parent.
Amicable co-parenting is possible and pays off big time, although it does take discipline, and parents should consider the importance of maintaining stability in children’s lives. For example, moving a child, especially a teenager, to a new school halfway through the year is more predictive of that youngster developing antisocial behavior than divorce per se.
Here are other things people need to know: Divorce rates are actually falling, especially for college-educated couples. 70% of people who married for the first time in the early 1990s were still together at their 15th anniversary, up from 65 percent of those who wed in the 1970s and 1980s, and those who wed in the early 2000s seem to be doing even better.
For those who do divorce, no-fault laws are not the problem. A study of what happened as various states adopted no-fault divorce in the 1970s and 1980s found that in the first five years following adoption, wives’ suicide rates fell by 8-13%, and domestic violence rates within marriage dropped by 30%. Since then, despite the spread of such laws, divorce rates have leveled off or fallen.
Averages mask substantial variations. Since most people recover well after divorce, even a small number who do poorly can create a false sense of risk for everyone else. For example, one recent study found that while aggressiveness increased among 18% of children following their parents’ divorce, it declined for 14%, with no change for the other 68 percent.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but if parents can recognize the benefits of cooperating for the sake of their children, not only will their children recover more quickly from the pain, but so will they. And it’s worth remembering this: When a parent succeeds in turning a child against his or her ex, that usually backfires in the long run, with the adult child feeling less close to both parents.
Divorce in the U.S.
The annual divorce rate for same-sex couples in 2014
The annual divorce rate for opposite-sex couples in 2014
Of women “strongly agree” that divorce is the best solution when a marriage isn’t working
Of men feel the same
Of women “strongly agree” that it’s better to get married than to go through life being single
Of men feel the same
The divorce rate among couples who began cohabitation or marriage at 18
The divorce rate among couples who waited until they were at least 23
Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Ph.D.
William Fairfield Warren Professor of Economics, Boston University
Divorce is one of the worst things any couple can do from a financial perspective. In ESPlanner, personal financial planning software I’ve developed, we assume that two can live as cheaply as 1.6. Hence, divorce implies a 60 percent living standard decline for both spouses, other things equal and assuming that each spouse experiences the same percentage living standard reduction. And this is just the loss associated with discretionary spending, like food and clothing and entertainment. Divorce also requires having two, rather than one homes, two rather than one electric bills, the list goes on.
It’s critical that people understand the economic consequences of getting divorced and that they also understand how each spouse will fare in the settlement. This is why we have introduced a service called Analyze My Divorce Settlement. This service tells each party exactly how they will fare after they get divorced, not just for a year or two, but over the longer term.
Arielle Kuperberg, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
It depends on what type of marriage they were in and what type of circumstances they face after divorce. Obviously, being in a happy marriage is better than being divorced, but that’s not the alternative that divorced couples are facing; they are divorcing because they have a distressed marriage, and in that case, divorcing can bring them significant benefits.
The financial situation depends on how many children couples have, who has custody, if people have been working continuously before they divorced, and what type of job prospects they have. Since women are more likely to earn less than men, and more likely to have primary custody of children, they can face a reduction in their standard of living after a divorce, while men who are not custodial parents may have an increase in their standard of living. Of course, this is only on average, and how people will fare financially will depend on their individual situation.
Susan D. Stewart, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology, Iowa State University
Yes, it’s as bad as its made out to be, it’s as bad as it sounds, and, yes, it sets people back financially.
However, the vast majority of men and women (and children) “recover” from divorce in the sense that it doesn’t break them. If that weren’t the case, then we’d have an awful lot of messed-up people around. I’m not trying to make light of divorce, though.
Divorce remains one of the most stressful life events there are, and it does negatively affect the well-being of adults and children, financially, academically, professionally, and emotionally. Divorce is a process, and people tend to recover relatively quickly (not that there aren’t long-term effects—like the pain of divorce for kids extending into adulthood).
The majority of men and women remarry within five years of divorce, and the majority of children with divorced parents go on to have happy and productive lives. That doesn’t mean there aren’t complications and pain, but divorce, on it’s own, is generally not enough to ruin a person’s life.
There are other factors, financial ones in particular. Both men and women suffer financially, but women experience greater financial losses and are slower to recover (and many do not). They usually have custody of the children and about half of custodial mothers get no child support. Education matters, as does age, level of education, and other factors.
Mel Gibson's 2011 split from his wife of 31 years, Robyn, is widely reported as the most expensive celebrity divorce settlement ever, with the Aussie actor paying his ex to the tune of $425 million.
Richard D. Wolff, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Visiting Professor, Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School
Divorce is almost always a financially costly and often draining burden, usually more on women than men. The divorce process is usually expensive. One person’s living expenses are always more than half of a couple’s. The upsets around the causes and effects of the divorce often interfere with or undermine work activities and thereby threaten career paths. If children are involved, all the above are made worse. In short, our economic system is poorly organized for the massive divorce problem it actually has. It thus makes an already difficult personal problem worse by its lack of suppor and disrespect for the economic dimensions.
Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, University of Southern California; Former director, Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Program, University of Southern California; Author, The Good Divorce and We’re Still Family
While divorce is a painful and stressful process, divorce is neither good nor bad. Most people experience major losses during their divorce—loss of future dreams, loss of family life as they knew it, loss of the familiar and financial loss. In spite of these losses, most people say that they do not regret their divorce and go on to lead fulfilling lives post-divorce, with the great majority recoupling within three years.
There are, however, good and bad divorces. Good divorces allow for continuing family relationships, minimizing the emotional and financial losses, and ensuring that children suffer no long-term consequences. In bad divorces, anger escalates and post-divorce family relationships are destroyed. Children are often the damaged as a result.