The common opinion I have heard is that parental divorce has negative effects on children. Wikipedia has a section on "Effect of divorce on children" with all effects listed being negative, and several references. There is also a notable study on the subject - a book detailing the results has been featured on the Time magazine cover.

From this information, people automatically conclude that divorce should be avoided, for the benefit of the children. I don't have peer reviewed evidence for this, but I know several couples still living together for that reason only.

But I remember reading somewhere - I don't remember where exactly - that the observation of negative effects may be correct, but the conclusion to "stay together" is not. Specifically, the argument was that it's the conflict between the parents which harms the children, and the harm is not diminished if a dysfunctional couple continues to live together instead of divorcing. Sadly, I don't remember where I read this counter-argument, or whether it was based on good evidence.

So, let's assume a couple which already has a very bad relationship. If they divorce, their children have higher odds of experiencing negative effects later in life. But the question is, do you know of any evidence which will show that the negative effects correlate better with another variable present in conflicted couples (e.g. witnessing parenting conflict, or maybe abrasive parents' personality which causes both the divorce and the children's harm) than with the divorce itself? Is there reason to believe that, once the marriage has deteriorated to the point that the partners would prefer to end it, a decision to divorce will not change the children's odds of long-term negative effects?

You can consider the typical long-term negative effects found in the literature on children suffering from the parents' divorce, such as life satisfaction or the instability of personal relationships. Information on the short-term effects (e.g. falling grades in the divorce period) is also interesting, but I think most parents would accept such effects if they know that they will go away.

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    Can you link to the research? – March Ho Dec 26 '14 at 16:26
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    Doesn't seem answerable on the basis that it's not clear what you should compare divorced couples to. Harmonious couples can be together or divorced, fighting couples can be together or divorced. They are related but quite independent concepts. – Sklivvz Dec 26 '14 at 18:20
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    Basically, I'm asking if there is a study which finds that the negative results attributed to divorce disappear after the children are controlled for another variable, for example for familial harmony. This type of research question is common in social sciences, so it's quite possible someone has done it, and gotten a result, whether it is that the effect disappears or stays. – rumtscho Dec 26 '14 at 18:40
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    harmonious vs not harmonious is not a binary variable, and the degree of how harmonious a marriage is seems to me like it would be an incredibly difficult variable to properly control for. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '14 at 20:25
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    Same as @SamIam. You can constitute groups of people according to their marital status (married, single, divorced). But how do you create distinct groups based on the "harmony in the family"? How can you measure harmony? So rumtscho I think your intuition is interesting (divorce would not be the primary cause of harm) but I guess it is really hard to test. If someone thinks about a nice study protocol, I'd love to hear it though. – Einenlum Jan 2 '15 at 15:57

It's times like this, on issues like this, that I'm most saddened by the restriction of access to academic literature. Being privileged with access to such material, I'll provide at least some citations and quotes from this restricted pool of research.

I will draw liberally from an excellent review that was accepted for publication in 1998, The Adjustment of Children with Divorced Parents: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective.

The linked article specifically addresses the question at hand: is it better to stay together or get a divorce?

Here I shall quote directly (less than 1 page of 13 with snippits noted and emphasis added, though the entire article is so very applicable):

Should Parents Stay Together for the Sake of the Children?

One of the most frequently asked questions about divorce is whether it is better for parents to remain in an unsatisfying, conflict-ridden marriage for the sake of the children or to divorce. Research in two areas has been used to address this question: the first involves research on the adjustment of children whose parents will later divorce; the second involves research on the impact of marital conflict on the adjustment of children.

Children whose parents will later divorce are already showing problems in adjustment many years before the divorce (Amato & Keith, 1991a; Block et al., 1989; Cherlin et al., 1991; Hetherington, in press b). This has been attributed to the deleterious effects of marital dissatisfaction and conflict on children’s adjustment, to the fact that a difficult, maladjusted child may erode marital happiness, and to possible underlying genetic links between divorce proneness and problem behavior in parents and children. Personality problems in a parent, such as emotionality and lack of self-regulation that lead both to divorce and inept parenting, may also be genetically linked to behavior problems in children (Jocklin, McGue, & Lykken, 1996; McGue & Lykken, 1992).

Children in families with high marital conflict exhibit many of the same problems in adjustment as those in divorced families, with externalizing disorders being most commonly reported. However, all conflict is not the same in its consequences for child development. Conflicts about the child and to which the child is directly exposed, or conflicts that involves physical violence or in which the child feels caught in the middle, are the most harmful (see Davies & Cummings, 1994, for a review). [...]

Offspring from happily married harmonious parents show fewer problems and greater well-being than those in divorced families or in families with high marital discord or distress (Amato & Booth, 1991; Amato et al., 1995; Hetherington, in press b; Simons & Associates, 1996). Immediately after divorce, children in divorced families exhibit more problems in adjustment than those in highconflict nondivorced families (Hetherington, in press b). The stress and changes accompanying the divorce transition take their toll. However, as children adapt to their new situation in a single-parent household, the pattern of differences changes. When divorce is associated with increased stress, conflict, and adversity, children, adolescents, and young adult offspring show more problems in divorced families than in high-conflict nondivorced families (Amato et al., 1995; Hetherington, in press b). When divorce is associated with a move to a more harmonious, less stressful situation, children in divorced families are similar in adjustment to those in intact families with nondistressed marital relations and are higher in social responsibility and cognitive agency and lower in externalizing and internalizing than those in high-conflict distressed marriages (Amato et al., 1995; Hetherington, in press b). High levels of conflict have more adverse effects on the adjustment of children in divorced than in nondivorced families, perhaps because a second residential parent is not available to serve as a protective buffer and because of fewer resources and higher rates of stressful life events in divorced motherheaded families (Hetherington, in press b). In addition, although by 2 years after divorce girls do equally well in low-conflict divorced mother-headed families and in lowconflict nondivorced families, there is some evidence that boys do less well in the former (Hetherington, in press b), perhaps because of the lack of a male role model or because of the coercive interactions in which divorced mothers and sons frequently become involved and the lack of effective control exhibited by many divorced mothers with their sons.

The evidence in response to the controversy about staying together for the sake of the children suggests that if conflict is going to continue it is better for children to remain in an acrimonious two-parent household than to suffer divorce. If there is a shift to a more harmonious household a divorce is advantageous to both boys and girls. However, even with low acrimony between the divorced parents, boys in low-conflict divorced families are disadvantaged over those in low-conflict nondivorced families.

In short, if I may crudely summarize dozens of studies: less fighting, more harmony, less conflict, less stress = better lives (for children and adults)

The problem, as it relates to divorce or staying together, is neither staying together nor divorcing brings any requirement for attaining any of the above beneficial outcomes. Some people get divorced and bitterly fight just as much (or even more) than when they were married, even though they were in terrible conflict during the marriage. In such a situation the children will be harmed regardless, and whatever reduces their exposure to violence, conflict, and stress is best - however that can be obtained.

If parents provide a stable, harmonious, low-stress environment for the children, the research seems to indicate getting a divorce is not necessarily helpful to the children and may be more harmful. This however assumes that the situation is actually all these positive things - fighting behind closed doors that the children still hear and experience, especially when the fighting is about the child themselves, is not such a positive environment at all. Strong self-regulation and absolute rule-following by both parents is required, and this sort of discipline and consciousness is not something all that commonly encountered - but it is absolutely possible. Some people claim great surprise as adults when their parents get a divorce and learn that their parents weren't really all that interested in being married for years - but I do not find research that addresses this in a satisfying way.

Furthermore, it is noted that the adjustment level of the children prior to divorce is greatly predictive of how well a child will adjust post-divorce. To quote again:

Stresses associated with their parents’ marital transitions tend to exacerbate problems in already troubled and poorly adjusted children (Block et al., 1989; Elder, Caspi, & Nguyen, 1992; Hetherington, 1989, 1991). In contrast, children who are intelligent, competent, and who have an easy temperament, high self-esteem, an internal locus of control, and a good sense of humor are more likely to evoke positive responses and support from others and to be able to adapt to new challenges and stressful life experiences (Hetherington, 1989, 1991). In fact, children with these characteristics may be enhanced in future social problem solving and adaptability by having encountered and coped with moderate levels of stress under supportive conditions (Hetherington, 1989, 1991). The psychologically rich may get richer and the poor get poorer in dealing with the challenges of divorce.

In summary, I leave it to the words of Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan:

Despite some inconsistent findings regarding divorce, answers to many of the most frequently asked questions about divorce raised at the beginning of this article have emerged in the past decade. Although children in divorced families, in comparison to those in nondivorced families, are at risk for developing more social, emotional, behavioral, and academic problems, most eventually emerge as reasonably competent, well-functioning individuals. The great diversity in response to divorce is related to the interaction of risk and protective factors associated with individual characteristics of the child and the family and extrafamilial environment. Parents can do a great deal to moderate the effects of stress on children by maintaining authoritative parenting and minimizing conflict. Interparental conflict undermines both the quality of parenting and the adjustment of the child and leads to diminished contact and child support by noncustodial fathers. Contact with authoritative noncustodial fathers under conditions of low conflict can have beneficial effects for children, especially for boys.

The family environment with the fewest risks for unsuccessful child socialization is a happy, intact, twoparent family. Children are at risk for developing problems in adjustment when they grow up in either a conflicted two-parent home or in a single-parent home. However, children adjust better in a harmonious singleparent household than in an acrimonious two-parent household. There is little support for the position that children benefit from remaining in a conflictual intact household if divorce will diminish conflict and if authoritative parenting can be maintained. In the absence of conflict and with a custodial parent who is able to provide a positive parenting environment despite the stresses inherent in single-parent roles, children in divorced families are likely to be competent and well adjusted.

These conditions may be difficult to attain. The stresses encountered during and following divorce should not be minimized and for some parents and children they are pervasive and persistent. Moreover, the few systematic studies of interventions for divorced parents and their children suggest that when adverse outcomes occur they may be difficult to modify through educational or short-term therapeutic interventions.

There is much more to know and to research, but we appear to have some answers from the combined research. As we might have suspected, divorce is a difficult decision with a great deal of certain costs and uncertain potential benefits. It can be beneficial to children and adults in some situations, but it cannot be hoped to be a panacea or that absolves anyone of responsibility to provide a positive, stable, low-stress, low-conflict environment for their children.

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