Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Conflict and Marital Disruption: Do Children Benefit When High-Conflict Marriages Are Dissolved?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Conflict and Marital Disruption: Do Children Benefit When High-Conflict Marriages Are Dissolved?

Article excerpt

A million children experience divorce each year, and some policymakers argue for policies that would make it more difficult for parents to divorce. However, being exposed to a high degree of marital conflict has been shown to place children at risk for a variety of problems. Using mother-child data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) and a prospective design, this research explores two questions: Do the effects of marital disruption on child well-being vary for children whose parents leave high-conflict marriages versus low-conflict marriages? How do children fare when their high-conflict parents remain together? We find that separation and divorce are associated with increases in behavior problems in children, regardless of the level of conflict between parents. However, in marriages that do not break up, high levels of marital conflict are associated with even greater increases in children's behavior problems.

High rates of divorce have prompted many observers, largely out of concern for the children involved, to advocate measures to keep marriages together. The accumulated evidence suggests that children, particularly boys, not only have problems in the immediate aftermath of marital disruption, but have difficulties that persist into adulthood as well (e.g., Amato, 1994; Amato & Keith, 1991; Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998). Along with these findings, however, there is evidence that being exposed to a high degree of conflict between married parents also places children at risk for a variety of problems. Consequently, the difficulty for parents, legal professionals, and policymakers weighing what is best for the child lies in determining whether the effects of divorce will be less deleterious than the effects of remaining with two parents in a disharmonious relationship.

Another question is whether the effects of marital disruption on child well-being vary according to the level of marital conflict that children experience before the separation. If the break-up represents an exit from severe marital disharmony, children may make an easier adjustment than if the separation was unexpected. Moreover, children removed from intense parental conflict may fare better than those whose high-conflict parents remain together. In a recent study Amato, Loomis, and Booth (1995) used longitudinal data from a study of marital instability over the life course and documented that the well-being of young adults after a parental divorce was highest among those who experienced high levels of conflict before the disruption and lowest among those who experienced less conflict before the divorce. Amato and his colleagues argued that when young people are not aware of the level of their parents' unhappiness, divorce is likely to be unanticipated and unwelcomed by the youth.

We attempt to build on the findings of Amato et al. (1995) by examining children who were younger when their parents divorced and whose parents divorced more recently. Children in our sample ranged in age from 4 to 9 years in 1988 (the average child is 6 years old) when all of the children were in married, two-parent families. Controlling for children's preexisting levels of behavior problems, we examine their mother-rated behavior problems scores 6 years later. By then, some of the children's parents had separated or divorced. (The average time since disruption is 3.4 years.) Our analysis addresses two main questions: Do the consequences of marital disruption for children's behavior problems vary, depending on the level of marital conflict that preceded the disruption? That is, do children benefit when high-conflict marriages are dissolved, but do they show elevated problems when the couple was less conflictual before separation? And how do children fare when their high-conflict parents remain together?

BACKGROUND

Accumulated evidence suggests that children who experience divorce and the associated disruptions in parent-child relationships, living arrangements, and economic circumstances fare less well than children in two-parent families who do not divorce. …

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