Staying Married for the Kids or Getting Divorced

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Which is the lesser of two evils: staying married for the kids or getting divorced?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies showing that kids from divorced families do worse on scores of outcomes. The problem with all of those research papers is that we can never know the counterfactual: What if those particular parents who divorced had actually stayed together? This would be an entirely different sample of folks from the parents who did in fact stay together — harkening back to Tolstoy’s famous dictum. No, we must confine our inquiry to the ones who did divorce in our sliver of the quantum universe. Would their kids really be better off if they had stayed together in some other quantum state — fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?

The best study I know of that deals with this apples/oranges issue was by the cool hand of Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who examined changing divorce laws across the United States. He found that when states made divorce easier by instituting no-fault, just as New York did in the midst of my own marital split, divorce rates did in fact increase. More importantly, he showed that these kids — whose parents would have stayed together if divorce had still been more difficult — were worse off forty years later in terms of their educational attainment, their earnings, and the fate of their own marriages. Since he estimated these effects based on changes at the state level that had nothing to do with the characteristics of particular happy or unhappy couples, his study was the next best thing to a double-blind medical study that randomly dispensed divorce pills and placebos.

In fact, the way that divorce tended to disadvantage offspring(s) in Gruber’s study jibed with my own more qualitative research: In a 2003 book The Pecking Order, I deployed the term “Cinderella Effect” to argue that divorce didn’t have a universally good, neutral, or bad effect on offspring, but rather, its impact depended on the unique circumstances of the child. Namely, I found that the eldest female child was the most disadvantaged kid in the aftermath of a divorce because of the added, adult roles she tended to take on. While having to care for younger siblings in light of an absent parent and serving as the substitute partner of sorts to the remaining parent may be a maturing experience, it more often resulted in a child becoming resentful about having to grow up too fast and sacrifice his or her childhood autonomy for the sake of younger siblings and the family in general. Often these kids tried to escape the burdens of their family quickly — the same way Cinderella did — through marriage to Prince Charming. Indeed, Gruber found that the effect of divorce on lowering offspring education and earning levels, and raising their divorce rates worked through those offsprings’ own marital history. They tended to marry earlier than they would have had their parents stayed together. Earlier marriages tend to pull individuals away from additional education they might have otherwise pursued. That, in turn, depresses earnings in the long run. What’s more, as we all know, marrying younger means a higher risk of divorce.


  1. Mysterian says:

    And yet… my wife’s parents stayed together for the children but the effects on my wife seem somewhat less than positive.

  2. ASDF says:

    My mom said she would have left my dad when he got sick if she had a career. They stayed together because she didn’t, which worked out a lot better for both of them (and obviously my dad, who would have basically been left to die).

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