Look Closely at 'Good News' on Divorce

Norval Glenn and David Blankenhorn, Los Angeles Times, 11/5/1999

Today, even if I was raised in an intact family, I see divorce and its consequences all around me. One result is a weakening of the ideal of marital permanence. Nearly three decades into the modern divorce revolution, it would be good news indeed if researchers were to discover that the divorce rate for adult children of divorce is declining. Or if they were to discover that things were getting better for the children of divorce. But scholars have discovered nothing of the sort.

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Subjects: Divorce, Marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn and Norval Glenn

"Good News for the Children of Divorce," announced a headline not so long ago in the New York Times. "Cycle of divorce is abating" agreed USA Today. Similar headlines appeared in newspapers across the nation. The "good news" is that for children, divorce is becoming less harmful. In particular, as USA Today put it: "Adults raised by divorced mothers are far less likely to 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 Assn., Nicholas Wolfinger of the University of Utah compares the divorce rates of adults whose parents had divorced and adults whose 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 gap separating the two groups, while still substantial, had narrowed significantly. This constitutes the entire basis of the study's "good news."

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. Yet the divorce rate for this group has not declined; it has increased significantly. In the early 1970s, about 35% of ever-married adult children of divorce were themselves divorced. By the early 1990s, the number had increased to 45%. Yet during this same period, the divorce rate for everyone else increased even more. In the early 1970s, about 18% of ever-married adults raised in intact homes 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 of a 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 to be the underlying social causes of this "good news." First, divorce has become more socially acceptable, says Wolfinger, which 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.

The kindest thing to say about these explanations is that they are unwarranted. Wolfinger presents no evidence to support these opinions. Particularly irresponsible is his claim that divorce is "better" for children today because adult society as a whole is more accepting of divorce. We are aware of no evidence to support this assertion. And how could there be? For the child, the pain of divorce obviously stems primarily from what 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. If adult society suddenly became more accepting, for example, of parents who abuse drugs, would that make things substantially better for children of drug abusers?

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 a weakening of the ideal of marital permanence. Nearly three decades into the modern divorce revolution, it would be good news indeed if researchers were to discover that the divorce rate for adult children of divorce is declining. Or if they were to discover that things were getting better for the children of divorce. But scholars have discovered nothing of the sort.

This article originally appeared here.

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