For those who are married with children, and whose marriages are not marked by serious conflict (domestic violence, chronic hostility or chronic infidelity), there are at least three reasons to push the pause button before heading for divorce court.
#1. Consider the Kids.
Though it’s true that most children of divorce turn out “okay,” psychologist Mavis Hetherington observed in her book For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, a large minority do not.
Here is some inspiration for renewing your marriage.
Divorce typically doubles or triples the odds that children will experience depression, delinquency, school failure, or future relationship difficulties. For instance, one study found that 33 percent of girls whose parents divorced had a teen birth, compared to 11 percent of girls whose parents were continuously married. A Pew study found that only 15 percent of children from intact, middle-class families experienced downward economic mobility in adulthood (having less family income than their parents), compared to 23 percent of children from middle-class families whose parents divorced. Downward economic mobility was also more common for children from rich families whose parents divorced. Today, young adults (25–40) from divorced families are significantly less likely to be married (39 percent) than young adults from intact, married families (50 percent), according to the 2010–14 General Social Survey.
What’s particularly important for parents who are contemplating divorce to know is that the effect of a breakup on children generally varies by the level of conflict in one’s marriage. If the marriage is marked by violence, regular screaming bouts, or other forms of chronic conflict, parting ways can be best for the kids. Indeed, research by scholars like sociologist Paul Amato indicates that children in such high-conflict families do better when their parents divorce, compared to staying together.
Children living in families marked by low-conflict marriages are more likely to be harmed by parental divorce. But children living in families marked by low-conflict marriages are more likely to be harmed by parental divorce. That’s because, in Amato’s estimation, their parents’ divorce is “unexpected, inexplicable, and unwelcome.” These low-conflict divorces seem to be particularly damaging emotionally and socially, insofar as they are surprising to children and undercut their faith in the possibility of lifelong love.
Low-conflict divorces are not rare. The research suggests that the majority of divorces involving children take place in such low-conflict marriages. This led Amato, a recent chair of the American Sociological Association section on family, to conclude: “When parents exhibit relatively little overt conflict, children appear to be better off if their parents stay together.” This is why married mothers and fathers in a low-conflict marriage should rethink divorce. It may look like an appealing option for them, but it’s likely to be unappealing to their children.
But does sticking it out mean that married men and women are destined to live a life of marital unhappiness? Not necessarily.
#2 Marital Satisfaction Can Change for the Better
One study by sociologist Linda Waite and her colleagues tracked husbands and wives who were unhappy in the late 1980s over the next five years. It found that, among those who remained married, 64 percent reported they were happily married five years later. What’s more, those who remained married were just as likely to report they were happy with life, compared to those who divorced within that five-year window. A more recent study found that most married men and women who had entertained serious thoughts about divorce were happy they had not divorced. This study found that 28 percent of married individuals (ages 25–50) reported that they have had serious thoughts about divorce in the past but are still married, and 88 percent of this group reported that they are “glad” they are still married. In other words, for the average husband and wife who are unhappily married, this research suggests that divorce will not increase their odds of being happy in life and might cause them to miss the chance of seeing their marriage take a turn for the better.
#3 The Long-Term Finances
Husbands and wives who are thinking about divorce should also think about their long-term financial welfare. That’s because men and especially women are more likely to avoid poverty and have a decent retirement in their Golden Years if they don’t get divorced.
The economist Timothy Smeeding found that the proportion of elderly women living in poverty was highest among those who were divorced/separated (37 percent); by contrast, rates were much lower among married women (10 percent). Men and women who remain stably married are in better shape financially in retirement compared to those who divorce. Likewise, research indicates that men and women who remain stably married are in better shape financially in retirement compared to those who divorce.
One study found that stably married men had about $350,000 in average household and financial wealth (measured in 2004 dollars) heading into retirement, compared to less than $274,000 for men who were divorced and remarried, and less than $168,000 for divorced men who were single. It also found that stably married women had about $340,000 in average household and financial wealth (measured in 2004 dollars) moving into retirement, compared to less than $285,000 for women who were divorced and remarried, and less than $102,000 for divorced women who were single.
Overall, marital stability delivers substantial retirement returns for men and women, according to aRAND study, which found that each “additional year spent married is associated with a 4 percent increase in total wealth for both men and women.”
Unhappily married parents in low-conflict marriages who are thinking about divorce in the new year, then, have multiple reasons to think long and hard before divorcing.