National Post

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Experts say parting hard on children

But it usually works out in the long run

Julie Smyth
National Post

Despite mounting research on the negative impact of divorce, few parents seem inclined to stay in a bad relationship for the sake of their children.

Although some people resort to sleeping in different beds and endure unsatisfying relationships in order to provide a stable family life, they are still in the minority, experts say.

A growing body of research shows divorce is traumatic and can increase children's chances of dropping out of school and lessen their likelihood of attending a leading university -- or any university at all. Many children of divorce also suffer from depression and anxiety, are more prone to fighting and violence and can have serious relationship problems.

But Robert Glossop, executive director of programs at the Vanier Institute of the Family, points out the research shows in most cases things work out fine for the children in the long run, despite the increased risk of academic and social problems.

In prior decades "there was a more prevalent belief in days gone by that you stay together for the sake of the family," said Barrie Evans, a psychologist at Madame Vanier Children's Services in London, Ont., who counsels children who have been through divorce.

He and others feel that belief may no longer prevail.

"We expect marriages to be all-satisfying and we enter with naive assumptions about what marriage entails," Mr. Glossop said. His institute monitors family trends.

"They are expectations that are sometimes dashed in the course of day-to-day marital life. I think, increasingly, we live in a culture of expressive individualism, in which our own choices and desires drive us and our decisions. It is all about me. People are less likely to subordinate individual interests for a larger good."

He says many parents rationalize their decision to end a marriage, something that has become easier as divorce has gained wider acceptance.

"They say, 'Look, I am not happy in this relationship; certainly it is not doing my kids any good at all to see me or my spouse unhappy so it is better to just split up and get on with our lives.' "

Close to four out of every 10 marriages will end in divorce, according to the latest Statistics Canada research. The rates have stabilized over the past several years but grew five-fold between 1968 and 1995, largely because divorces have become easier to obtain under legislative reform. In 2000, there were more than 70,000 divorces across the country.

"Given the dramatic increase in divorce since the 1960s, the obvious answer is that there is no evidence that parents are more likely to stay together for the sake of children than in the past," Mr. Glossop said.

"There has been research that asked if people should stay together for their children and, somewhat surprisingly, younger married Canadians said they thought they should. But we have to remember those are younger Canadians who had not yet gotten to the point in the marriage where [things can break down.]"

Recent studies have shown the negative impact on children can be minimized with post-divorce counselling. In some provinces, including Alberta, and in various states in the United States parents are required to attend classes to help ease the transition for children. As well, children who maintain a close relationship with their parents tend to be better adjusted, research shows.

"Most will survive the experience. However, we know from a fairly broad body of knowledge that many children will experience long-term negative consequences," Mr. Glossop said. "Yes, in the end it might be better for children to be out of a conflict-ridden relationship or home. At the same time, it is probably true that if kids could vote, divorce would probably be illegal.

"Tragically they still love both of their parents -- it is just that their parents do not love each other. It is a pretty dramatic life experience for these kids to go through. The research has dispelled the naiveté that we had perhaps 25 years ago that kids are simply adaptable and can get over everything."

Anthony Lucifero, a marriage counsellor in Toronto, said he believes there is some change in attitudes. "I think there is a movement going on, even with the courts, where they are promoting the best interests of the children. I notice in my own practice that more and more of the parents do stay together. Women in particular are more likely to put up with things like infidelity, gambling, addiction for the sake of the children."

However, Anne-Marie Ambert, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto who specializes in family affairs, estimates as few as 10% of parents may stay together for the sake of children. She said there has not been a dramatic shift over the past 50 years.

In her latest study, titled Divorce: Facts, Causes and Consequences, she outlines the data showing adult children of divorce are more likely to have a child out of wedlock, have lower test scores in school and be unemployed.

One U.S. study of about 10,000 young people, published last year, found the psychological damage from divorce faded after about three years but the children continued to suffer academically.

Another U.S. report, published in 1996, found children from one-parent families are only half as likely to go to leading universities as those in two-parent families, even after researchers factored in income and the parents' education.

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