Connecticut slaughter and the myth of a “good divorce”

From: ChristianGovernance eletter, January 1, 2013
In response to the recent Connecticut school slaughter, the Family In America published the following note:

The Family in America – December 20, 2012 The Topic: “For Children, Divorce is Always Bitter”

The News Story: “In divorce, mom had authority over Conn. shooter”

The Associated Press and others report that there was no indication in court files of any particular ill will in the divorce of Peter and Nancy Lanza, parents of Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 26 people in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school last Friday. The divorce papers were released Monday, and according to the AP, “There is no evidence of bitterness in the court file, no exchange of accusations or drawn out custody disputes.” The Lanzas shared custody of Adam, though the boy lived primarily with his mother. The divorce provided a substantial alimony for Mrs. Lanza, and she did not have to work outside the home. The AP story also reports that Dan Holmes, a landscaper and friend of Nancy Lanza, gives a different account. Nancy, he said, “was still bitter about the divorce and spoke vocally about her ex-husband.”

The media’s attention to the Lanzas’ divorce indicates the public’s understanding that divorce is, as a general rule, problematic for children. What few understand, however, is that the supposed amicability of a split says little about how the children fare.

(Source: Associated Press, “In divorce, mom had authority over Conn. shooter,” 17 December 2012.)

The New Research: “The Myth of the ‘Good Divorce’”

Since the no-fault regime was established in the 1970s, the so-called helping professions have performed verbal gymnastics to soothe the consciences of divorcing parents, claiming that if they work hard and maintain a “good divorce,” the effects upon their children will be minimal. Yet a groundbreaking study by Paul Amato suggests that the very concept of a divorce that can accommodate children is pure fiction; the noted sociologist establishes that children of parents who claim to have achieved a good divorce fare not much better than peers whose parents make no such claim.

Amato and his research team at Penn State conducted a cluster analysis of 944 post-divorce families using data from Waves 2 (1992-94) and 3 (2001-03) of the National Survey of Families and Households. Within their sample, they identified three types of divorcing families: those with high-contact or “cooperating coparenting,” meaning parents with a “good divorce,” who report the highest scores in terms of their children talking to them, visiting with them, and staying overnight with the nonresident parent; “parallel parenting with some conflict” where nonresident parents have only moderate levels of contact with children; and “single parenting” in which the nonresident parent, in most cases the father, rarely sees his children and has little communication with the mother.

The Penn State researchers then measured the differences between the three divorce-parenting clusters and six indicators of children’s adjustment and well-being when the children were between ages 7 and 19 (Wave 2), and another six indicators when the children were between the ages of 19 and 33 (Wave 3). In only two of the twelve measures (behavior problems in childhood, reported by parents, and having close ties to their fathers in adulthood, reported by children) did the children of the cooperating-coparenting cluster have significantly more desirable scores than their peers from the other two family types. Yet in every other measure (school grades, satisfaction with school, self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance abuse, number of sexual partners, losing one’s virginity before age 16, entering a marital or cohabiting relationship before age 20, and closeness to mother), the children of a “good divorce” did not differ significantly from the other children of divorce, whether in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

In essence, the children of “good divorces” ended up a lot more like the children of bad divorces and very little like peers whose parents did not divorce at all. Indeed, Amato’s preliminary analysis established that children of continuously married parents had significantly higher levels of well-being on all twelve indicators (p < 0.05 for each) than children of divorced parents.

As his findings counter much research that appears to show positive child outcomes of the good divorce, Amato suggests the possibility not only that many earlier studies “cherry picked” the data, but that also “many researchers and observers wanted [the good-divorce myth] to be true.” What an indictment of those who should know better. While not entirely dismissive of efforts to temper the downsides of divorce for children by parents, the sociologist nonetheless warns, “These interventions may be insufficient to counter the full range of problems associated with divorce.”

Given how Amato quantifies that reality, perhaps it’s time for American parents-and their enablers in the helping professions-to redirect their efforts into building a good marriage, and work hard at subordinating the abstract desires of adults to the concrete needs of children.

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