Harry Benson: If you must divorce first row in front of the kids

Family breakdown. It's all around. Britain's couples have the highest levels of break-up in the entire developed world. Half of all our teens are no longer living with both natural parents.

But does this really matter? After all, ever since divorce rates soared in the 1960s and 1970s, the nasty stigma surrounding divorce gradually dissipated. That has to be a good thing, right?

Among parents who do split up - half of whom are now unmarried couples - the latest research acknowledges that personal well-being tends to take a bit of a dive on average. That's hardly surprising. For some the nightmare is over. But for many more, so is the dream.

Yet when divorce is all around, it doesn't seem to feel so bad. In countries where there is more divorce, the dive is shallower. To that extent, a high level of family breakdown may even seem like a good thing. Family breakdown has become normalised. All very Guardian-friendly so far.

But what about the effect on children? A new European study asked 93,000 people born from the 1940s through to the 1970s (a) whether or not their parents had split up before they were aged eighteen, and (b) whether or not they had completed university. If family breakdown did have a big effect on children, argued the researchers, then it ought to have hampered their subsequent chances educationally. Yet as breakdown has become more normalised, that effect ought to diminish among the younger group born in the 1970s.

Remarkably, they found the reverse was true. Higher levels of family breakdown has meant children who had seen their parents split up become even less likely to get to university. Even if the stigma may have gone for the parents, the effect on children has got worse.

The Mail reported this slightly surprising finding as a perfect example about why making divorce easier would be bad news. Actually the study says nothing of the sort. In any case, no fault divorce would only affect about 30 per cent of couples who split, once you've excluded the half who weren't married anyway and those who didn't claim fault. Divorce isn't the problem here.

The real problem is whether the reasons are obvious to the child. If the parents had been fighting, then the split makes sense. At the end of a high conflict marriage, the stress and tension lift. Everyone is better off out. This would have been true for most of the older group, born in the 1940s, for whom breakdown was relatively rare. But for the younger group, born in the 1970s, most of the break-ups were anything but high conflict.

In a piece of research we did two years ago at Marriage Foundation, we found that two thirds of the people who split up - married and unmarried - had reported they were happy a year earlier and not quarrelling especially. These are not horrible marriages that everyone wants to end. These are the 'growing apart' group, indistinguishable from couples who stay together, definitely low conflict in nature.

Low conflict splits and 'conscious uncoupling' - 'mummy and daddy don't love each other anymore' - may seem all very nice and civilised to the parents. Yet to the children, the split comes out of the blue and makes no sense. They don't see it coming. No wonder their ambitions and education suffer.

There is a growing mismatch between how adults and children see family breakdown. And it is because what happens before parents split up matters as much, if not more, than how its handled afterwards.

Your children are watching.


Harry Benson

  • Colkitto03

    I think the biggest factor in divorce is the impossible dreams that our paper and on screen media relentlessly promote to people, (especially women).
    Often life is dull, boring, frustrating, and passionless. It is that way for everyone, and always will be. We seem to have forgotten how to enjoy small pleasures and take most of life’s best things for granted. We place little value on a good meal, or a good book or a nice walk in the park.
    Many people have developed wholly unrealistic expectations of marriage, and relationships.
    Society has become very selfish.
    But as this article portrays, many gullible (or deluded) people have bought into the myth that a divorce is better than ‘kids living in a house full of rows’ A convenient lie that allows men and women to pursue their own self interest and happiness before anyone or anything else.

    • Phil R

      “Many people have developed wholly unrealistic expectations of marriage, and relationships.”

      Well said. I would go further. They have placed expectations that they used to put on God onto marriage.

      For many, they have simply replaced God with marriage.

      • Groan

        I could not agree more. No one on the “left” ever seems to query the notion of ” romantic love” in a way that would make perfect sense for folk supposedly into evidence and social science.

    • John Birch

      Well said ,

  • Busy Mum

    ‘mummy and daddy don’t love each other anymore’

    Marriage is about more than ‘love’.

    The SSM Act has made it only about ‘love’.

    • Phil R

      It has turned marriage into a version of the high street.

      Don’t like Tescos? then lets try Morrison instead.

      Maybe Morrisons if not LIDL or ALDi etc will make ME happy….

      Marriage is not all about my needs and my wants.

      Remember commitment?

      • Busy Mum

        …and loyalty and duty, self-sacrifice and putting yourself last instead of first!

        “…in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” (Philippians 2 vv 3&4)

        • Under-the-weather

          Children are part of yourself – should still come first.

          • Busy Mum

            Who should come first – children or me?

          • Under-the-weather

            Who’s still going to be alive after we are gone?, the whole reproduction cycle is that we ‘reproduce ourselves’ again genetically. If you deny that children are a component part of yourself/oneself you can’t put them first, if you agree they are, what is the argument of who should come first? , who is it that you are denying?

          • Busy Mum

            But I never said anything about all of this. Of course I should put my children’s needs before my own. What did I say that made you think I would put myself first?

          • Under-the-weather

            You asked the question of whose needs come first, I answered it. The point I’m trying to make is that as children are basically us..in putting their needs first we’re not really sacrificing ourselves.

          • Busy Mum

            Oh, I see, I understand your first comment now.

            Yes, it is human nature to put one’s children’s needs first; my perception is that the state has jumped on that and used it for its own ends. What many people now see as the child’s needs are not actually needs.

        • Colkitto03

          ‘…and loyalty and duty, self-sacrifice and putting yourself last instead of first!’
          That’s my mum!

  • outer_rl

    There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a relationship where the husband and wife argue and shout at each other a lot. It’s when they stop arguing and start completely ignoring each other when you know things are seriously wrong.

  • Sargv

    I’m positive that “think about the kids” is not working anymore.

    Let people burn their lives. Let them face the onset of old age without a stable partner. And then – laugh at them. Go “yeah, right” on every pathetic attempt of a spinster/bachelor to back-rationalise their choice to destroy their marriage. Make sure they know it that you note their envy every single time.

    It is definitely the onslaught of a “go for it, you deserve this”/Eat-Pray-Love messages that makes any form of commitment look like prison, while pushing standards of “what should you expect from marriage” extremely high. I agree with Colkitto03 on that.

    Actually, I speak from the personal experience. I must confess that a couple of years after moving to UK, I had thoughts about divorcing my wife – not because of something she does (she’s brilliant, devoted and beautiful), but solely due to the sentiment that I’m wasting the one-time opportunity of living the life of young, handsome, rich, white-yet-exotic playboy in London. I’m missing building something big from scratch – without the ballast of a family. I’m passing on achieving and traveling – impulsively, when I want to, not when school schedule allows, and without the consideration for her “judgemental” opinion. We talked a lot. There were lots of tears, and lots of suffering she did not deserve. I was an egoistic àsshole (although there is a very solid argument I can say in my defence).

    Back in Russia, the thought of it never crossed my mind: there, you marry young, have kids and then muddle through, together, in pull-push mode. People only divorce if she loses her marbles and turns into crazy controlling hag (which, in truth, often have a lot to do with him), or he switches into uninterested/abusive alcoholic. At 55, you look back at your life, and you wonder that it, actually, went quite good, and you was mostly happy all that time. It’s the default path, everybody bar marginals/outcasts does that, – and it feels right. It feels good. It certainly feels different here.

    What stopped me (beside some good advice) were the actual examples of the lifestyle I mentioned. I witness (still) two men in their mid-30s: both bitter and unhappy, desultory, slowly being ruined by drinking and drugs, rotating random girls on Tinder (no emotional bonds, and sex is mostly bad) – or going straight to prostitutes to same time on courting, – constantly complaining about women being too shallow, yet both having unachievable standards for LTR partner. All they have are their jobs, the only place where they feel alive. Their massive salaries, that they can’t even waste properly – one can only drink that much, – were turned into abstract self-validation points long ago: “I have to get that raise, so there’d be at least one objective metrics that shows me that I’m growing”.

    Watching this, I came to realisation that man without a family, without a woman and the kids to care for, is just a slowly drifting wreck. All that free time he have never converts to anything meaningful, like building business, or pushing his personal standards up. He just turns into a pleasure hound, fast-forwarding “boring life” from one dopamine hit (alcohol, drugs, casual sex encounter) to the other.

    I can only hope that my beloved wife will is wiser than me, and I’ll avoid going same way I sent her through ten years down the road, once the youngest will be old enough for Uni and kids will leave the nest.

    • Phil R

      “Back in Russia, the thought of it never crossed my mind”

      I have noticed the same in many other countries outside of the UK.

      Marriage is taken far more seriously.

      What is their glue that hold marriages together that we lack?

      I blame the anti family/marriage messages from our media and the BBC in particular, but I would be intersted to know if you have any opinion as to why Russia is different.

      • Sargv

        I wouldn’t idealise Russia, there are lot of divorces happening as well, although “out of love” is rarely a reason (but cheating is, especially by men, although it’s often being ignored in long-term marriages).

        As I mentioned, there’s no UK-like omnipresent media translating the message that commitments, especially marriage, drag you down, and should be avoided, or only accepted when they provide some extreme benefits. Another reason is that Russians marry much younger (or, rather, West European marrying much later, and were doing so for ages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_European_marriage_pattern ).

        We have an offices in Moscow and London (with a good chunk of Slavic people in the latter). Both are populated by late 20s/early 30s mixed sex demographics, and both run regular Friday parties. Now, in London, party means lots of extremely drunk single Brits doing silly stuff and leaving in pairs at 2AM (we have relaxed HR policies). Slavic – Russian and Poles – mostly have a few beers after 5PM, and depart early to their families and kids (which most of them have by that age). In Moscow, the company had to turn parties to family-friendly events, inviting kids and spouses to the office – due to popular demand.

        I’m not sure why is that. It’s not that Russian women are prudes, or Russian men are family-minded conservative gents (although if you go full slàg, you’d probably hear “stop marring the gals” from your male friends and older men). But somehow family is just a normal course of action for 20-somethings: a mix of social pressure and traditions.

        It’s also lack of state support, alimonies not being a widespread practice, child support payments being minuscule and hardly enforceable – for Russian women, there’s certainly no financial incentives to terminate the marriage. She’d basically have to rely on her ex-husband’s decency and good will – something he’ll surely have if it’s he who decided to cut the knot, but not the other way around.

        There are lot of interesting cultural side effects to that, like newly-married Russian women cutting ties to their single female friends so there’d be no risk of them snatching their man and the like.

        • Phil R

          “In Moscow, the company had to turn parties to family-friendly events,
          inviting kids and spouses to the office – due to popular demand”

          That seems to be the key. Families are valued by the culture.

          We have had 7 kids and my wife says that there are huge differences greeting the statement that we have a large family. Outside Western Europe, it is regarded as wonderful. In the UK and N Europe, distaste almost. Certainly not affirmation.

    • Mazrick

      Thanks for the hat tip, Sargv. Glad to hear you got past it. I don’t think you’re in any danger of getting traded in. Ask any guy the world over who make the best wives and Russians always win hands down. Besides who’s she going to trade you in for? Some weak-willed Euro-fop tripping all over himself to not offend anyone? If you distilled the entire male population of any major western European city into a single elixir. You’d end up with about 3ml of testosterone and enough estrogen to give every woman in the western hemisphere a ‘D’ cup bust line. Guys like you and I don’t have trouble keeping women, it’s finding quality women that’s the problem.
      On another note. I just took the plunge myself. The new wife and I just got back from a three week Jamaican honeymoon.

      • Sargv

        Well, good luck with your marriage! And thank you again for your advice (and perspective on single life).

        I’m not anxious a bit about “being traded” for another man – that’s not going to happen: comparing like for like, I’m a clear winner 🙂 But in my case it was not another woman. It was different lifestyle – not an option, but a possibility of having options. How can you compare what you have now with what you don’t, and have no idea how it really looks like?

        • Mazrick

          Yeah, I hear you. The lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mostly, it consists of long stretches of semi-boredom interspersed with short periods of meaningless sex. Just you, a dog, and a nagging Guatemalan housekeeper who says things like:
          Her: ‘When are you going to find a good woman? All you ever do is bring trash around! Your mother must roll in her grave!’
          Me: ‘What do you mean trash? They’re professional educated women.’
          Her: ‘ Don’t talk to me about trash. I know trash when I see it! Get your feet off the coffee table I just put polish on that!’

  • UKCitizen

    Hey, don’t worry at the current rate none of them are having kids anyway.

  • Timmy

    In the US 70% of divorces are started by the female. Why stay mattied when she can just walk away and get the cash and prizes just because she isn’t happy anymore?