by Harry on August 10, 2005

I’ve been meaning to write a long and irritating piece on divorce for ages. You’ll have to wait. In the mean time, Laura at 11D has a good post on it, followed by fascinating, if sometimes slightly intemperate, comments. Well worth a read. (And not irritating, unlike my unactualised piece).



Laura 08.10.05 at 7:05 pm

Thanks, harry. My post isn’t earth shattering. It was just a quick note to myself to read a book I had heard about. Thanks to Megan McArdle and you, all sorts of people have shown up to tell their stories about divorce. The comments are incredibly moving and definitely worth a read.

BTW, I need a new book to read. Send me suggestions.


Ian 08.10.05 at 8:30 pm

Thanks for the warning about the “sometimes slightly intemperate comments.” I know most CT readers would be pretty upset by that sort of stuff.


Maynard Handley 08.10.05 at 9:53 pm

She says “As adults, the children of divorce are far more likely that others to say they never want to have children. Or if they get married and have kids, they are far more likely to fear uncertain disaster and to painstakingly care for their relationship.”

I get the impression these are supposed to be points against divorce but excuse me for pointing out that they sound like GOOD things to me. People thinking a lot more carefully about whether they want children or not, people planning for a future based on more than just wishes that everything will work out perfectly, people trying hard to maintain the love in their relationship — aren’t these all *good* things? If they were brought up as talking points outside of this context of kids of divorced parents, wouldn’t we all be saying “hell yeah, that’s what we should be encouraging in our kids”?

If this is the worst that divorce supposedly imparts to the children, it’s not something I’m going to worry much about.


dsquared 08.11.05 at 1:18 am

Amazon “search inside” feature sez:

No reference to regression in this book:


harry b 08.11.05 at 7:12 am

Intemperate is the wrong word. Unguarded? Personal? Something like that. Anyway, glad you appreciate my concern for our timid readers, ian.

Right, no regressions. I gather it is an ethnography with a very small population, and in Marin County at that (which must have close to the highest per capita income, and highest divorce rate, in the US). One of Laura’s commenters gives the history of it pretty well. The comments section persuaded me to get Paul Amato’s book instead.


John Emerson 08.11.05 at 9:30 am

The virtual unanimity of that thread was off-putting. I’ve always tended to the opinion that divorce is bad for kids, but I didn’t want to join the pile-on. In the end I wanted to say “Yes, but…”


Matt 08.11.05 at 11:03 am

I’d read an article on this book some time ago, though I don’t recall where. It was a popular or semi-popular press thing- maybe the NY Times magazine or something. One point made by the critics of the book, rightfully, it seemed, was that the people studied seemed to be awfully neurotic and self-obsessed in a lot of ways that could not reasonably be attributed to the divorce. For example, many of the other people in the neigborhood who were not divorced had similar serious problems. The critics suggested that while their parents’ divorce might have shaped the direction of these people being screwed up (such as they were) it was only the direction and not the being screwed up that was pushed by the divorce. I’m pretty deeply skeptical of it. And, of course, much of the “badness” of divorce surely comes from thinking that divorce is bad. Surely it’s not inherently bad, though, so some of this sort of thing seems more like an argument for critical thinking and therapy than anything else.


John Emerson 08.11.05 at 11:32 am

D-squared made the point I wanted to make, that it’s almost impossible to get matching pairs of divorced and not-divorced couples, such that the pairs are the same except that one couple chose to remain unhappily married and one didn’t. But his post was too short and got lost.

As the thread grew longer it became less univocal.


Rob Rickner 08.11.05 at 11:35 am

The comments on the link cited seem to be a classic example of placing personal experiences over any kind of scientific data. To be frank, what do a few blog commenters add up to on this point. What does the data actually show and how is it derived? Very few people are pro-divorce. It’s always considered a failure of some kind. What does it add up to?


harry b 08.11.05 at 11:55 am

Despite the near unanimity of the thread, I found the stories all interesting, as Laura says. I guess it would be remarkable if all divorces were worse for the kids than the parents staying together, and equally remarkable if all divorces were better for the kids than the parents staying together. This makes it very hard for any given couple to know what’s best for the ids. The subject of my irritating non-actuallised post is how frequently people seem to make one of these two assumptions, even though both seem incredible prior to examining the difficult-to-get evidence. But also about some of the costs which studies of divorce simply don’t look at.


harry b 08.11.05 at 12:02 pm

BTW, the near-unanimity comes from Laura’s massive traffic attack coming from Instapundit. The dissenters (JennyD and dsquared) are regular readers of hers.


Steve LaBonne 08.11.05 at 12:30 pm

Another element oddly missing in the more self-righteous comments on that thread is any recognition of the fact that “working on the marriage” requires that BOTH spouses be sincerely willing to do so. I suppose such subtleties tend to get lost in the midst of the “moral revival” we’re allegedly experiencing in the US.


modestproposal 08.11.05 at 12:40 pm

I’ve always tended to the opinion that divorce is bad for kids, but I didn’t want to join the pile-on. In the end I wanted to say “Yes, but…”

well to be devil’s advocate, divorce does create more liberals. single mothers with children are MUCH more likely to vote for the left. so are unmarried women in general (and men though not as much). so if one were interested in having the left regain political power, one would want more divorce.

so sure, it’s worse for the kids…but think about the greater good, people!


Sacha Sokoloski 08.11.05 at 12:43 pm

I guess, besides my personal anecdotal evidence that the most miserable years of my childhood were the times prior to the two diverces I “suffered” through (the first I had no idea what was going on, the second I could hardly wait for it to happen), besides the very strange notion (maybe just to me) that two people should be made miserable for the hyperbolic sensitivity of children (I’ve seen children undramatically suffer through trauma that would tip most adults over the edge), what really gets me is…

Why people are still so commited to marriage and divorce? I’m probably just going to come off as a cliched academic elitest here, but cultural and anthropological evidence seems to suggest that one of the most varied parameters in human society are the norms concerning family. Sometimes the male would be equal partner to the female, and sometimes he wouldn’t even be present. Sometimes the child was exclusively the domain of the particular family, and other times it was the equal responsibilty of the whole community.

And more topically, the life long monogomous thread that has weaved its way through many societies still loses its unversality when compared to the tribes/cultures/whatever for whom sexual reproduction was simply a rather normal occurence, which demanded no extreme reorganization of the lives of the parents.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I simply don’t buy into the idea that children being made aware that their parents love for each other is not, in fact, as eternal as the rising sun, need not be a life shattering experience. Certainly, it’ll probably be surprising, but unless the parents have been indoctrinating the kid into buying into their relationship as much as they did, I expect the child in question could take it with a good cry, and some well meaning TLC.


abb1 08.11.05 at 12:51 pm

Formal marriage being an obsolete and basically irrational idea in the first place, how bad can divorce be?


joe o 08.11.05 at 1:18 pm

This new york times article talks about the decline of the divorce rate:

>Researchers say that the small drop in the overall divorce rate is caused by a steep decline in the rate among college graduates. As a result,a “divorce divide” has opened up between those with and without college degrees, said Dr. Steven P. Martin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.

>”Families with highly educated mothers and families with less educated mothers are clearly moving in opposite directions,” Dr. Martin wrote in a paper that has not yet been published but has been presented and widely discussed at scientific meetings.

>As the overall divorce rates shot up from the early 1960’s through the late 1970’s, Dr. Martin found, the divorce rate for women with college degrees and those without moved in lockstep, with graduates consistently having about one-third to one-fourth the divorce rate of nongraduates.

>But since 1980, the two groups have taken diverging paths. Women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent. But for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979.

To a certain extent, for the upper middle class of certain age, the question “Is divorce bad?” is similar to the question “Are toy guns bad?”; it isn’t a matter of regression but of habitus.


ingrid 08.11.05 at 1:18 pm

Harry, if some of the costs are ignored by the studies of divorce, are these studies also not ignoring some of the benefits? Or does the domain of “unmeasurable and ignored things” only include costs, and not benefits?

I agree with the comment that personal stories are just bad “evidence” to draw any generalised conclusions. That doesn’t mean they can not provide some sort of insights. But given that there is so much morality and ideology involved in discussions about divorce, families, etc., people tend to interpret “case stories” so that it tends to fit with their own norms, values, and ideology.

I think it’s good to have a discussion about divorce, but perhaps we should first have a discussion about marriage and procreation. People should think twice before getting married, and think much longer/harder before getting children. There are too many people getting married in order to save a disfunctional relationship, and too many children being born in an attempt to “save” a marriage.


John Emerson 08.11.05 at 1:29 pm

My son is one of those who is reluctant to get married because his parents divorced, but I believe that when and if he marries he’ll do a good job of it. Part of his reluctance is due to the fact that I explained to him how much harm comes from getting married when you’re not ready for it.


paul 08.11.05 at 1:46 pm

That NYT article linked by joe is interesting for the way it tiptoes around the class-and-ideology elephant. It’s obviously too glib to say simply that the divorce rate started going down not that long after the population of married couples started including a large cohort of women for whom marriage wasn’t a compulsory (and terminal) career decision. Or that the drop among college-educated (and hence presumably at least somewhat-later-married) women indicates the value of having at least some clue about what you’re doing before ostensibly getting hitched for life. But recent reporting that divorce rates are indistinguishable between self-identified conservative christians and more liberal groups does suggest that some kind of divide is opening up. It would be interesting to see some kind of cross-tab of divorce results along similar lines.

(Of course, it’s also possible that current relationship styles simply aren’t being captured by the available statistics — if, instead of just marriages, there was a register available of all longterm romantic relationships involving cohabitation or commingling of property and assets, a rather different picture might emerge.)


J. Goard 08.11.05 at 5:17 pm

Excuse me, but how on earth hasn’t genetic inheritance been raised on either this post or the source post? It’s an obvious big conflating factor, although its difficulty to quantify might make it convenient to ignore. Moreover, even if one were to take an old-fashioned strong “nurture” position, it still might be the case that parents who are prone to divorce tend to be prone to child-rearing that is poor in other respects. Even with a large sample, we shouldn’t rely too much on the self-reports of grown children of divorce; they are likely to be heavily biassed toward reporting a major event as the locus of childhood trauma, rather than a diffuse pattern of parenting traits.


Peter 08.11.05 at 11:52 pm

Amazon “search inside” feature sez:

No reference to regression in this book

You must have loved Herrnstein and Murray’s ‘Bell Curve’.


Simstim 08.12.05 at 4:55 am

I’ve always been of the opinion that we shouldn’t be making it harder to divorce, rather, we should be making it harder to get married in the first place. A lot of marriages seem to be like timeshare contracts, they seem like a great idea when you’re on holiday, but in the cold light of day you’ve just made one hell of a commitment.


Sean McCann 08.12.05 at 7:31 am

Very few people are pro-divorce

And a lot of people get and have gotten divorced, with a lot of historical variation in theoretical and/or political encouragement.

Joe O points to an important factor. Divorce may not be psychologically damaging for the children of divorced parents in general (I think it is), but economically it sure is. How distressing to consider that it’s yet another source of the ever widening class divide in the U.S.


Harry 08.12.05 at 9:56 am

sorry, I meant something like costs of whatever decision the parents make. Should have said that. (I think that covers everything, because the costs of one decision are the benefits of the other). More later


Fabian Delecto 08.12.05 at 11:47 pm

None of you has mentioned the most important form of divorce: Divorce from reality, or, more important still, divorce from the binary reality-fiction that would enable one to be “divorced from reality” to begin with. The same goes for marriage. One is always-already divorced.

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