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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.


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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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