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Feature Article

 

Misconceptions About Divorce

Reviewed and adapted by Arthur J. Schneider, Human Development Regional Specialist, Cooper County, University of Missouri Extension

 
More than 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce. In 2003, 46 percent of people getting married in Missouri had previously been divorced. According to researcher Constance Ahrons, these statistics demonstrate a cultural lag between the idealized nuclear family and reality for many families.
 

Ahrons studied the impact of divorce on 173 children of divorced parents over a 20-year period. In her recently published book, We’re Still Family, Ahrons writes that the children she studied did well when their parents had good divorces, meaning both parents cooperated and supported their children.
 

Among Ahrons’ concerns is that negative messages about divorce make divorce more difficult for children and make children of divorced parents feel different than their peers. In her book, she suggests seven common misconceptions about divorce:
 

1. Parents should stay married for the good of the children.
This myth assumes marriage is good for children, divorce is always bad and that parents who divorce are immature, putting personal needs ahead of the needs of their children. The reality is that divorce commonly occurs after years of struggle.
 

Where parental conflict pervades family life, it harms children. The impact of unsatisfying marriages that do not involve significant conflict is less clear. Professional clinicians disagree whether divorcing or staying married is best in that situation.
 

Ahrons suggests parents ask the following questions when considering divorce:
 

  • Are you so unhappy that you are angry and depressed and your children’s needs go unmet because you can’t parent effectively?
  • Do you and your spouse have a cold relationship that makes the home unhealthy for children?
  • Do you and your spouse lack mutual respect, caring or interest so that you are setting a poor model for your children?
  • Would the financial consequences of divorce be so severe they would reduce your children’s standard of living?

 
2. Adult children of divorce are “doomed” to lifelong problems.
With the stereotypes attached to divorce, parents may worry that whatever problems their children have are due to the divorce. Children are encouraged to blame divorce for their unhappiness. Teachers are quick to consider divorce the reason for a child’s school behavior. Instead, Ahrons found that most of the children she studied do not consider parental divorce a defining factor in their lives.
 

3. Divorce means that you are no longer a family.
The assumption is that staying married and living together in a household means the family is normal. The reality is that unmarried parents raise an increasing number of children and fewer than 25 percent of households are two-parent first marriages. Though divorce can be painful, children can continue to see divorced parents as part of the family. Divorce does not necessarily alter the way children think about significant relationships in the family. Ahrons suggests the use of the term “tribe” to note a broader range of relationships.
 

4. Divorce leaves children without fathers.
The stereotypical message is that divorced fathers are deadbeat dads, unwilling or unable to make continuing commitments to their children. In reality, only a minority of fathers fit this stereotype.
 

A majority of fathers continue to have loving relationships with their children and contribute to their upbringing. Being a non-residential father is challenging. Most fathers say they are pained that they do not see their children very frequently. Most research overlooks involved fathers. In some cases, the father-child relationship improves after divorce.
 

5. Ex-spouses are incapable of getting along.
In the 1970s, divorced parents who got along were viewed as pathological. Ahrons notes that the question is not whether divorced parents should share parenting, but how they will share parenting. Parents need some form of relationship with each other to raise their children.
 

6. Divorce turns everyone into ex-family.
In-laws don’t have to become outlaws. While kinship is legally terminated, meaningful relationships can continue. Language is a barrier because we lack terms for relationships after divorce.
 

7. Stepparents aren’t real parents.
Stepfamilies are complex families with new relationships. Stepmothers are characterized in literature as wicked or evil and stepfathers are sensationalized as mean, nasty and abusive. Following most divorces, families recover and add new relationships over time.
 

 

Sources:
Ahrons, Constance. We’re Still Family. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
 

Annual Report, table 32. Jefferson City: Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, 2003.

 

 

Last Updated 05/12/2009

 


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