Can divorce be good?

Not for the children - ever - according to almost all current research. Hester Lacey finds otherwise

"Divorce wrecks life down the years," thundered the Daily Mail last week, under the headline "How the misery of divorce lasts for generations", as another report on the effects of parental separation on children was published. Since researchers first began to investigate the effects of divorce, the theory that, under any circumstances, it is damaging to children has been rapidly gaining ground.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation was among the first to challenge the idea that a "good divorce" is better for the family than a bad marriage, in a 1994 survey which was also one of the first to concentrate on the effects of divorce from the child's viewpoint. This report found that constant fighting between parents had less adverse effects than parental separation. Since then, the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University and the Institute of Economic Affairs have weighed in with similar findings. When, earlier this year, the National Family Mediation group dared to suggest that if divorce is handled sensitively, children can deal with it well, they were condemned in the press as "contemptible" by other groups who did not agree.

The latest survey follows more than 11,400 children born in 1958, and finds that children of divorced parents do less well economically and socially. This would seem to prove conclusively that "good divorces" are rare. But the survey does not ask for the opinions of the "divorce children" who took part. The statistics point in one direction, but once you start talking to people about their parents' divorces, the picture becomes much less clear. Situations that bald statistical evidence interprets as "disadvantage" may be seen differently by those who experience them.

Against the current flow of expert opinion, many grown-up children of divorce say that they were well aware of their parents' unhappiness, and were relieved when the tension at home was eased."The stuff about long-term damage is garbage," says Susanne Parker, now 31, in a long-term relationship and mother of a two-year-old son. "My parents split up when I was 13 and my brother was eight. We knew very well that my dad was unhappy because he wouldn't communicate with us, which was very unlike him. There's no point in staying in a relationship that's not working. It was quite hard, but I think they did completely the right thing." Susanne's parents both went on to successful new relationships. "It was a confusing time," she says. "My brother and I still talk about it, but I think that's healthy. Once we'd got past the immediate aftermath, we didn't blame our parents."

John, 40, who works in publishing, is married with two small children. He went through an "awful" period when his parents split up just after he went away to university. "But afterwards, when my parents virtually never saw each other, they were much happier, and my relationship with both of them was better." Despite the prolonged trauma of the experience, he still says, "I think children of divorce bear more scars from the tension between their parents than from the separation itself. Everyone inherits a great bundle of complexes, assets and problems from their parents - I know I have - and a percentage of those will be related to the divorce. It's certainly part of my background, but not an overwhelming part."

All parents, he says, are likely to damage their children in some way. "A psychologist would say that your parents mark you for good, in some ways that are positive and some that are negative, whether they split up or not. There are plenty of couples who would never dream of divorcing, who are passing on problems every bit as bad as those connected with divorce. All kinds of flawed relationships can be communicated to children. What about people who never talk, who are dooming their children to problems with their own children?"

Adult hindsight is one thing, but younger children can also

be resilient. Claire Kaprow, 12, is one of the children featured in a new video, You're Both Still My Parents, which aims to help children cope with their parents' divorce. "I was seven when my parents split up, and my younger sister was four," says Claire. "I first realised things were going wrong when I heard my parents arguing. My friends' parents would argue, too, but not as much as mine. They told me when I came home from school one day, and at first I didn't believe it, I was really upset. They explained why it was happening and that they both still loved me. Now I live with my mum during the week and my dad at weekends." At first, she says, she would be upset when she was out with her mother and they saw families together. "But I think we are happier now and things are a lot easier. You still get as much love. It doesn't trouble me at all now."

Sue Behrman, a doctor with 10 years experience of counselling divorcing couples and the children of divorce, is the presenter of You're Both Still My Parents. She says, "All my research shows that kids are much happier when their parents are not rowing, when there is no friction or bad atmosphere at home." She believes it is impossible for parents to grit their teeth, stay together "for the sake of the children" - and not be seen through by their offspring. "Children are tremendously sensitive to atmosphere. I would go so far as to say it is very bad for children to grow up with the notion of marriage as either a battlefield or a cold relationship. For the kids I see, divorce is hard, but it is a relief. The video does not say that divorce is easy, it says that divorce is a terrible thing, but that terrible things happen throughout life and you have to rise above them."

In any case, research on the subject is not as cut and dried as the headlines suggest. Although last week's study shows that divorce children tend to be disadvantaged, its author, Dr Kathleen Kiernan, observes that financial hardship and other factors pre-dating divorce also play an important part. Her findings do not automatically mean that divorce is always bad. "There are many factors: the sex of the child, the age of separation, the financial and social positions of the family - and how the parents engage with the children, which is something my research didn't touch on." She points out that after a divorce "some children do very well and some do very badly, the same as for two-parent families".

One phenomenon that does not seem to be affected by external factors is that the children of divorced parents are more likely to cohabit at an early age and that the child's own relationship is more likely to break up by their early thirties (40 per cent will have this experience). Dr Kiernan has also, for the first time, looked at the effects of divorce on children over 20, and found that these children are equally likely to experience relationship break-up by the age of 33 as younger children involved in divorce.

One could speculate that, having seen divorce as an ultimately positive experience for their parents, the next generation are less likely to tie themselves permanently into an unhappy relationship. This remains guesswork, however, since little attempt has been made to interview children on the subject at all. In a MORI poll in 1995, children aged ten to 17 were asked whether they agreed with the statement "Children's parents should stay together even if they are unhappy". Among those children whose parents were divorced or separated, only 18 per cent agreed.

For information about stockists of 'You're Both Still My Parents', call 0870 151 1000.

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