Is New York Ready for No-Fault Divorce? The Voiceless Third Parties

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, New York Times Room for Debate (blog), 6/15/2010

Because New York is the last state to come to this debate, it has a responsibility to heed the lessons of the past four decades. Chief among them is to keep in mind what we know about the effects of divorce on children. On this score, a consensus among social scientists has emerged. It distinguishes between children in families where parents are engaged in unremittingly high levels of conflict and children in families where parents are unhappy but have low conflict. In high-conflict families, children are better off if their parents divorce. In low-conflict families, however, children are better off if their parents stay together and repair the marriage. Sadly for children, the majority of parental divorces today occur in low-conflict situations.

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Subjects: Marriage, Divorce, Children of divorce, Marriage law

More by: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

The first no-fault divorce law was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1969. At the time, no one could have anticipated how this legislation would sweep the nation, how it would work in practice and most importantly, how it would affect the lives of children, the voiceless third parties in divorce.

Today, 40 years later, the situation is different. Millions of families have gone through divorce. Scores of studies have been conducted. Hundreds of books, memoirs and articles have been written. The children of the no-fault divorce revolution have grown up. Simply put, a lot of social learning has occurred.

Because New York is the last state to come to this debate, it has a responsibility to heed the lessons of the past four decades. Chief among them is to keep in mind what we know about the effects of divorce on children.

On this score, a consensus among social scientists has emerged. It distinguishes between children in families where parents are engaged in unremittingly high levels of conflict and children in families where parents are unhappy but have low conflict. In high-conflict families, children are better off if their parents divorce. In low-conflict families, however, children are better off if their parents stay together and repair the marriage. Sadly for children, the majority of parental divorces today occur in low-conflict situations.

In light of this consensus, New York legislators should place their highest priority on devising ways to brake the decision to divorce among parents in low-conflict situations – perhaps through a combination of pre-divorce education, mediation and waiting periods. At the same time, legislators should also recognize that such reforms are likely to have a positive but modest effect. Sparing children some of the pain and trauma of divorce is a good thing. But the best thing for children would be less divorce.

This article originally appeared here.

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