When divorce is best for children

We need to learn how to make up families as well as how to tear them apart

EVERYONE KNOWS what is bad for children these days. Artificial additives, Teletubby overload and, of course, divorce. The children of divorcing parents will be aggressive, withdrawn and anxious. They may suffer low self-esteem, wet the bed, take drugs and many years later end up reproducing such misery by failing to sustain long-term relationships. Fathers lose contact with children, mothers become poorer, and boys especially suffer.

If all of this, or indeed any of it, is true, then we need to worry, as already one in five children experiences the separation of their parents. To judge by recent rates of divorce, four in ten new marriages will not be till death us do part. Are we therefore producing generations of socially distressed misfits who pay the price for their parents' selfishness? It all depends on where you stand - both personally and politically. Those with direct experience of divorce understand that this is an immensely fraught and complex issue with no easy answers. Those with a political axe to grind cite various surveys to show that divorce inevitably damages children.

In a right-wing scenario, divorce is the product of a quest for individual gratification at the expense of the well-being of children. It is part of modern society's inability to compromise personal happiness for the sake of the social good. I have always rather liked Auberon Waugh's comment that the children of divorced parents should be put to death, as it seems the logical conclusion of much Conservative huffing and puffing. Those who want to find fuel for this argument need only read Hanif Kureishi's recent novella, Intimacy. Here they can find almost a parody of a self- obsessed and immature man who leaves his partner and children because he really is an existentialist, and really has a younger girlfriend.

The "liberal" view on divorce, which obviously I share, though divorce is not a personal favourite of mine, is one I would categorise as pro- choice. Divorce is a fact of life and clearly related to female economic independence. People get out of marriages in greater numbers than ever before because they can afford to. I do not see how couples who loathe each other can be persuaded to stay together for the sake of the children although, of course, I know of arrangements in which this supposedly works. One of my best friends was brought up by parents who never spoke to each other directly. I would not describe her as the best adjusted of people. In fact some of the maddest characters I have ever encountered were once the very children that their parents stayed together "for the sake of".

Over the years, though, everyone has latched on to certain pieces of research to shore up their own feelings about divorce. A new study produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation serves a useful purpose in reviewing 200 studies from the last three decades. Some of them contradict each other, some have no control groups or are based on tiny samples, some are inconclusive. Overwhelmingly, however, I would suggest that they tell us what we already know. First, it's impossible to isolate the one factor in a child's life that serves as a sole cause of disadvantage. Do the children of divorce suffer more because they are likely to be living with their mothers on less money and in poorer housing, or because they are emotionally traumatised by their parents' separation? Where the report is useful, is in dispelling certain myths about divorce. It does not appear to be true, for instance, that boys are more severely affected and therefore more inclined to be delinquent than girls; it's just that in the general population boys are more inclined to be delinquent than girls. When children do appear to suffer it is more to do with material deprivation than with divorce. The Rowntree report finds, when it compares educational attainment of the children of "intact families" to the children of divorced families, that there is no real difference when socio-economic factors have been taken into account. In the words of the report, there is "no simple or direct relationship between parental separation and children's adjustment".

The glaring subtext of this study is that what is bad for children is not divorce but poverty. I think it is important that we understand this. Instead of having government increasingly trying to regulate our private lives and various moralists trying to turn the clock back, we need to realise that the impoverishment of women and children has to be addressed if we really do care about the future of our children.

We more or less know already what a "good" divorce is. Those who view divorce as a process rather than a single event are more likely to be able to support their children. Conflict, rather than separation itself, is bad for children. Parental death does not carry the same risks for children as divorce. Most children wish that their parents could stay together but if they can't, they want to maintain contact with both parents. The quality of that contact is as important as the quantity. Younger children tend to fare better than older ones, but those who fare best are those who are told what is going on. The development of non-adversarial techniques for parents is extremely important if divorcing couples are not to end up divorcing their children,

It is also easier for children today in that they are less stigmatised by their parent's separation. When I fell over at school my PE teacher was so shocked that I had a different surname to my mother's, as she had remarried, that instead of taking me to hospital she quizzed me about what it was like to come from a "broken home". Was it painful? Yes, I eventually screamed, for I was less concerned about my broken home than my broken wrist.

What this study inadvertently highlights is not just the effect of divorce but the reality of Nineties Britain, where increasing numbers of children live in step-families. Adults may create step-families in the hope that they will simply replicate and replace nuclear families. This is not the case, and step-families may not always be good for children. Indeed, many studies find that children are likely to do better in lone-parent families than they are in step-families. Inevitably, as serial monogamy takes over, the step-family will be increasingly common. In the US, which has a lower divorce rate than ours, it is estimated that one third of all children will be stepchildren.

It is this, I suggest, that we should concentrate on when we look seriously at the consequences of divorce. The restructuring of families, as well as their breakdown, can be damaging. Though this may be the way we live now, there is still little acknowledgement of the real diversity of family life.

Pundits and politicians still talk of the undermining of family life and marriage as though family life meant exactly the same thing to everyone. Yet who are these people who split up and reconstitute themselves, if not families? We need to learn how to make up families as well as how to tear them apart, for divorce is no longer the final curtain, just the end of the first act.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker