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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 The children of divorcing parents will be aggressive, withdrawn and anxious.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.