Nov. 17-30, 2000
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For kids' sake, some marriages are worth saving
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IN THIS ISSUE

For kids' sake, some marriages are worth saving

By Dan Heuchert

There are some marriages that are worth salvaging for the sake of the children, and there could be public policy measures taken to promote that goal, according to a conference discussion on marriage held Nov. 9-10 at the Law School.

Paul Amato, a Penn State sociology professor, presented some of his long-term research on divorce and its effects on children at a session titled "'Good Enough' Marriages for Children," part of the Center for Children, Families and the Law's two-day conference, "Arranging Marriage: A Place for Policy?"

Amato is conducting a 20-year longitudinal study, begun by a colleague at the University of Nebraska, of more than 2,000 married people nationwide -- generally, one per couple. The project was expanded in 1992 to include nearly 700 young adult offspring of those people.

Some children are certainly better off if their parents divorce, Amato said. His research shows that the children of high-conflict marriages thrive after divorces, while those whose parents stay together suffer in the long-run.

However, about a quarter of divorcing marriage partners report little conflict in their relationships within 18 months before divorcing, Amato found. His research found that 57 percent said they were "very happy˛ with their marriages, 82 percent said they were very strongly in love with their spouses, and 77 percent reported no serious quarrels in the previous month.

Why do they divorce, then? "They are leaving their marriages because the barriers are weak and the alternatives look inviting," Amato said. Generally, they are less likely to own a home, move frequently, are not regular churchgoers, often have previously divorced, hold pro-divorce attitudes, have been married for only a short time, are often dual-career couples, and are high risk-takers.

The children of these "low-discord" parents who divorce display a much higher risk for long-term emotional problems -- scoring lower on measures of personal satisfaction, emotional distress, self-esteem and overall happiness with their lives.

Amato suggested that such couples might benefit from having their levels of discord measured and the effect of divorce upon their children predicted, as part of their decision-making process. "I think that those could be excellent candidates for some sort of intervention," he said.

In her response to Amato's presentation, U.Va. law professor Elizabeth Scott suggested the establishment of a new, voluntary -- but legally binding -- option for couples seeking to marry: should they later consider divorcing, they would agree to a two-year waiting period between when divorce papers are filed and when they would become final. Such an agreement might provide a more imposing barrier to exiting a low-conflict marriage, she said, while also providing more time for reflection and better assessment of options, and postponing the establishment of new families.

"The take-home message is that kids whose parents' marriage is not highly conflictual are better off if parents stay married," she said.

She rejected the idea of abolishing "no-fault" divorces, although she conceded that they have contributed to the high divorce rate. Requiring a determination of "fault," Scott argued, would only increase conflict within a breakup and further harm children.

Scott's proposed two-year waiting period would not require couples to continue living together, and either parent would still retain the option of seeking a protective order should they feel endangered, she said. The only legal consequence would be to delay remarriage with new partners, she said.

During the question-and-answer period, history chair Michael Holt questioned whether social science was reliable enough to use as a basis for public policy. He noted, for instance, that Amato's study included only 23 cases of "low-conflict" divorces.

Amato said that it was difficult to identify a large sample for a longitudinal study, noting that it took an initial sample of more than 2,000 people to yield 23 cases of low-conflict divorces. However, he said the results have been consistent with similar studies.


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