The Fallout of "No-Fault" Divorce

Data Show the Bad Effects on Children

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NEW YORK, FEB. 24, 2001 ( Recent studies confirm the adverse effects of divorce on children. A study released this month by a private center in the United States, the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines the situation of children who grew up in states where divorce is easiest to obtain.

In «Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long-Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce,» Jonathan Gruber observes that most U.S. states now allow for unilateral no-fault divorce, whereby one spouse can obtain a divorce without the consent of his or her partner, solely on the grounds of spousal incompatibility.

In the past, laws allowed divorce only in limited cases, such as infidelity and physical abuse, and when it was mutually agreed upon by both partners. These older laws often were viewed as a financial and emotional burden on divorcing couples, thereby leading to the introduction of «no-fault» divorce in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The NBER research found that no-fault regulations have increased, by 11.6%, the odds of an adult being divorced. Moreover, children were 14.5% more likely than under the old laws to be living with a divorced mother and 11.1% more likely to be living with a divorced father.

Gruber assessed the impact of easier divorce on the well-being of children. He found that children who grew up in states with no-fault divorce are worse off in a number of ways. They are less educated, more likely to drop out of high school, and generally live in families with lower incomes.

The effects on marriage are particularly interesting. Children who grow up in states where divorce is easier are more likely to marry early — and more likely to separate from their spouses.

Gruber concluded that two main factors in no-fault divorce affect children: an increase in the odds that a child grows up in a divorced household; and a change in the bargaining power between spouses, even the ones who don´t split up. With «no-fault,» a partner who wishes to end the marriage can take actions which are more beneficial to himself or herself and less advantageous to the spouse and the children.

1 million children affected each year

The Washington Times, citing data from the National Center for Health Statistics, reported Feb. 20 that in the United States 1 million young people join the ranks of children of divorce every year.

The paper quoted Dr. Michael Katz, a clinical psychologist in Southfield, Michigan, who has worked with children of divorce for 30 years. Katz commented that these children regularly exhibit four classic negative behaviors: excessive lying, low achievement, denial of responsibility for their own behavior, and difficulty in concentrating.

While many children, regardless of background, can exhibit those behaviors, Katz says children of divorce are resistant to many traditional forms of family therapy and discipline.

Some observers, however, contend that it is better for children if their parents divorce, because they can escape from a home environment full of tension and conflict. But another recent study goes against this argument.

In the January issue of the Population Research Bureau´s publication «Population Today,» Paul R. Amato, in an article titled «What Children Learn From Divorce,» observed that researchers had previously failed to explain why those who experience parental divorce are more likely to end up divorced themselves.

To examine this matter, Amato and others started a study in 1980, based on a sample of 2,034 married individuals. A recent analysis was made of 335 of their children who eventually married.

Among the 335, researchers found that 68 had experienced a parental divorce as they grew up. Another 75 had been exposed to high levels of marital discord while growing up, but did not experience a parental divorce. The remaining 192 had experienced neither a parental divorce nor high levels of parental discord.

Of the 335 studied — the children who grew up and married — 66 had divorced before 1997.

The results show that thoughts of divorce among the subjects were elevated when their parents had either a discordant marriage or a marriage that ended in divorce. Actual divorce among the now-grown-up children, however, was heightened only when parents had divorced.

The article said research suggests that it is the actual termination of the marriage — rather than the disturbed family relations that precede marital dissolution — that affects children´s later marital stability, and that this transmission occurs mainly by undermining children´s commitment to marital permanence.

Declaration on marriage

In the face of the mounting evidence showing the harmful effects of divorce, religious leaders issued a joint statement on marriage in November. The document, «A Christian Declaration on Marriage,» was signed by Bishop Anthony O´Connell, chairman of the U.S. bishops´ Committee on Marriage and Family Life; Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; and Bishop Kevin Mannoia, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The declaration states, «We believe that marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God´s help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithful relationship that will last for a lifetime.» It also affirms, «Couples, churches and the whole of society have a stake in the well being of marriages. Each, therefore, has its own obligations to prepare, strengthen, support and restore marriages.»

The leaders pointed out that three-quarters of marriages in the United States are presided over by clergy. Therefore the churches are in a strong position to call for a stronger commitment to marital union, and also are able to provide «practical ministries and influence for reversing the course of our culture.»

This ecumenical effort to promote marriage was marred, however, when Edgar, of the National Council of Churches, shortly afterward announced he was withdrawing his signature. He said he thought the document could be interpreted as an attack on homosexual couples, the Associated Press reported Nov. 17.

NCC member churches are divided on the issue of same-sex «marriages» and homosexuality, and the council has no official position on it, AP reported. But the council supports civil rights for homosexual, bisexual and transgendered persons.

Secular society´s hostility to the traditional family should not come as a surprise in an age when even Christian churches fail to unite in defense of marriage. But if academic research continues to discover evidence of the ill effects of divorce, then public opinion, and no-fault laws, may yet one day change.

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