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Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

On The Cusp Of Divorce?
Fatherly Advice From Dr. Wade Horn


Q: A friend of mine is having marital problems. He and his wife have three children, all under the age of 10.

My friend's wife suspected him of having an affair. A detective she hired confirmed her suspicion, and she subsequently filed for divorce. I know, bad boy. But she is not exactly a perfect wife or mother, either.

My friend does not want to leave because he desperately wants to be with his children. On the other hand, he can not stand being around his wife any longer. As a result, he is in a grumpy mood every night and is short-tempered with his children.

I think he needs to leave the house and move on. That way, he would be on his own and in a better mood when he is around his kids. After all, quality time is better than quantity time, isn't it?

One catch, though: After the divorce, his wife plans to move almost a thousand miles away. Not exactly close. What do you think he should do?

A: To adults in a troubled marriage, divorce frequently is seen as the solution to a bad situation. They believe that with divorce comes the opportunity for something better. And when they are in a better situation, they will be better parents. Hence, they reason, while divorce may be difficult initially, ultimately divorce will be good for the kids.

Children tend to have a different perspective. While children undoubtedly perceive marital problems as frustrating and annoying, it is the rare child who wants his or her parents to divorce. Indeed, most children greet the news of parental divorce with anger, depression and emotional upset, not relief.

And for good reason. Numerous studies document that children who experience parental divorce exhibit more conduct problems, more symptoms of psychological maladjustment, lower academic achievement, more social difficulties and poorer self-concepts compared with children living in intact, two-parent families.

But, you say, those problems are not the result of divorce per se, but of pre-divorce marital conflict. Things would be even worse if the parents stayed together, wouldn't they?

Well, not exactly. According to a 15-year study conducted by University of Nebraska researcher Paul Amato using a nationally representative sample of families, only 30 percent of children whose parents divorced had improved outcomes, whereas 70 percent were actually worse off following the divorce.

Moreover, in a longitudinal study of adolescents undertaken by psychologist Rex Forehand and his colleagues at the University of Georgia, no support was found for the idea that the negative effects of divorce existed before the divorce. Instead, it was divorce itself, and its accompanying disruption of family processes, that was associated with an increase in adolescent adjustment difficulties.

Similarly, a longitudinal study of 400 families in Iowa found the negative effects of divorce on child well-being were greater and more consistent than those associated with marital discord, suggesting that child adjustment problems following divorce are not simply a continuation of problems fostered by pre-divorce conflict, but are the consequence of the divorce itself.

In other words, and contrary to conventional wisdom, many children would be better off if their parents stayed together for the sake of their kids instead of getting divorced. But that is not the message most couples in troubled marriages hear from the popular culture. Instead they hear, "Get divorced, and move on."

Staying together and miserable, however, is not the answer for a troubled marriage. The answer for a troubled marriage is making the marriage better.

The good news is we know how to repair troubled marriages. Programs such as Marriage Savers and Retrouvaille have been shown to save up to 80 percent of even deeply troubled marriages, including those racked by adultery, alcoholism and constant bickering. Indeed, through such programs, couples who literally can't stand the sight of one another, frequently fall back in love -- sometimes even more deeply than ever before. Unfortunately, few couples in troubled marriages are told about such programs.

If a couple does divorce, several things are likely to happen. First, the economic circumstances of both parents are likely to decline. Declining economic circumstances means more stress. More stress means less effective parenting.

Second, even in cases of amicable divorce, life frequently gets in the way of good parenting. People move, for example, or marry someone else. When either of these things happen, time spent with the children by the non-custodial parent often decreases precipitously, leaving the children with neither quantity nor quality time with that parent.

So, should your friend move out and get on with his life? If he does, the odds are he will get divorced, spend a lot of money on lawyers, and eventually become an occasional visitor in his children's lives. I know that's not happy news, but it is the truth.

Alternatively, he can stay in the home and fight for his marriage. That requires taking responsibility for his failings, seeking forgiveness and, along with his wife, entering into marital counseling.

Of course, some marriages can't be repaired, especially when domestic violence or child abuse are part of the picture. But most divorces are the product of incompatibility, adultery or simply boredom, not family violence. In such cases, children would be better off if the parents stayed together and entered marital counseling to make their marriages better.

Doing so, however, is hard work. It is far easier to move out and move on, and hope for a little quality time with the kids along the way.

Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and on the Board of Advisers of He is a clinical child psychologist and co-author of several books on parenting including the Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book (Meredith, 1998) and the Better Homes and Gardens New Teen Book (Meredith, 1999).

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