Can divorce be good for children? And why is this question so rarely asked? In the UK alone, 42% of marriages end in divorce and yet we think only in terms of the damage this wreaks on children, fetishizing marriage as a utopia of sorts when it comes to raising a happy, well-adjusted family.
Even Adele admitted to being obsessed with the idea of raising her son in a nuclear family, in her recent interview with Oprah. The singer opened up, during the Adele One Night Only TV special, saying she felt embarrassed and disappointed when her marriage to Simon Konecki failed.
"From a very young age I promised myself that, when I had kids, we'd stay together. And I tried for a really, really long time," she said, clearly holding to the well-worn view that marriage is good for children while divorce is not.
Sadly, most of the studies on the children of divorce paint a similarly bleak picture—after a family split, your kids are more likely to be on drugs, fail their exams, and self-harm. It feels like a harsh price to pay.
But it’s not always like that.
Why divorce was good for my kids
My ex and I split in December 2015 when my oldest son was 10 and his brother had just turned eight. As the youngest of five from a stable family home, I had no lived experience of divorce and, like Adele, I felt a crippling disappointment we couldn’t make the marriage work and was petrified it would damage the boys.
For the first few weeks after the split, I was on hyper-alert, looking for signs. If my oldest skipped breakfast, it was the first sign of an eating disorder. If the school called in the day, someone had misbehaved and was being sent home. But weeks turned into months and the expected downward slide in behavior didn’t transpire and I started to relax and breathe a little easier.
I noticed some positive changes, too.
The changes in my kids were all positive
With just 18 months between them, the boys had always been close, but my oldest suddenly seemed far more protective, offering to run back home if his brother forgot his PE bag and often walking to school with his arms weaved around his brother’s waist. It baffled me at first, this newfound closeness, but then it made sense.
When we were married, it was often a case of divide and conquer—two parents, one per child, with a fair bit of sibling sniping thrown in. But now, as they moved as one from Mum’s house to Dad’s house, they came to see each other as firm allies, sharing this unique split-family experience together.
The moving between houses, so often leveled as unsettling and disruptive for children, also seemed to teach them resilience and new skills. How many children do you know under 10 who can pack their own weekend bag? Or work out two routes to and from school? Or feel comfortable when introduced to new adults?
Through the divorce and their dad and I subsequently meeting new partners, they have learned how to navigate change and cope with it well, skills which left them unfazed during the pandemic when so many less-resilient children floundered, and which still come into use today when the school bus breaks down or there are shifts in friendship groups.
Having to accept stepparents and other children into the mix has made them adaptable and less self-absorbed, too. In Miranda Cowley Heller’s bestselling debut The Paper Palace one of her characters sums it up well. “If your father and I had stayed married, who knows what you might have been. You might have become some namby-pamby twit...Divorce is good for children.”
Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace is a masterful novel that brilliantly illuminates the tensions between desire and safety; the legacy of tragedy, and the crimes and misdemeanors of families.
Perhaps I’m naïve and the ‘damage’ is yet to unfold, but currently, there’s no sign. At 15, my oldest son seems to have a better understanding of life than many of his peers who come from a ‘stable, family home’ and haven’t experienced parent separation.
He’s often the troubleshooter in his social circle, able to see all sides to an argument and always keen to find a practical solution. Ironically, having been through the worst and come through it, he feels no problem is insurmountable. You could call it the happy by-product of an unhappy marriage.
What truly matters to a child's wellbeing
But there’s one important caveat to all this. Divorce can only be good for children if it’s a good divorce. My ex and I have always put the needs of the boys above our own and have done our best to remain peaceful, and this makes all the difference.
A 2012 meta-survey conducted by child development expert and Cambridge University Professor Michael Lamb showed that 80% of children of divorce adapt well and have no lasting negative effects on their grades, social adjustment, or mental health provided they have a supportive childhood.
This means having good relationships with both parents (whether living in the same house or not), emotional stability, fair discipline, love, and adequate resources such as food and safe housing.
Marriage isn’t what matters to a child’s wellbeing. What truly matters is a loving relationship with parents, who aren’t embroiled in conflict, and a decent home life.
So, in answer to the original question, can divorce be good for children?
Yes, it most definitely can.
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