Q&A: Sociologist Assesses Harmful Effects of Divorce on Children

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A growing number of educators and social theorists from divergent political backgrounds have been sounding alarms about the adverse effects of divorce on children. Besides advocating stricter child-support policies to protect children's economic interests, some have proposed making divorce more difficult.

Such steps were urged in a platform issued recently by the "communitarians,"a group calling for restoring the nation's "moral order" by strengthening families. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

The platform's principal drafter was Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology at George Washington University and editor of the journal The Responsive Community. He discussed the topic of divorce with Assistant Editor Deborah L. Cohen.

Q. Your group believes the proliferalion of divorce is indicative of a serious social problem. Can you elaborate?

A. It's both indicative and a cause. It ]is a] cause for the real issue: the parenting deficit. [Studies also show that it does tend to lead to abandonment by the father.

But from a social-science standpoint, divorce is not only damaging to children--it is damaging to most adults. So we are seeing a lot of damaged people. People in satisfying relationships are better off, and the most stable form of relationship is marriage.

Q. What toll is widespread divorce taking on our society, and particularly, on children?

A. They all have scar tissue. Some become depressed, some become more cynical, some become more aggressive. Next to death, [divorce is the] second most stressful experience people go through. I have never known a couple who had a divorce where people weren't hurt.

Q. What bearing does this trend have on children's success in school and their future as productive citizens?

A. There's a correlation between divorce and performance in all these departments, but it is complicated. Children who live with a divorced parent tend to suffer economically. So you cannot attribute [all the signs of distress] to the divorce-in part it is because of having a less secure income and less income. Nevertheless, divorce is a contributing factor.

Q. What educational steps can be taken to reverse the trend?

A. Evidence suggests that successful marriages and unsuccessful marriages have the same amount of conflicts, but successful marriages have much more successful mechanisms for resolving conflicts. That's something we can teach. I think all high schools should have courses in human relations that teach how to resolve conflicts with potential spouses, friends, employers, etc.

How you teach that is largely through role-playing in which you take two people in front of a classroom. You also teach people to set aside a time for cooling off, to attack the issue and not the person, not to bring up everything that ever happened.

Q. How could divorce laws be modified to address your concerns?

A. We don't have [the] final answer to that. It brings up some serious problems, because if you simply roll the time clock back, you get back to a situation where women who want {custody of] children have to make concessions to husbands who just want the money, so they end up with the shorter end of the assets. So we don't want to simply make it more difficult without worrying about fairness to children. But I would like to revoke no-fault divorce and replace it with something else.

I would also like some cooling-off period, and if practical, [to have the couple] sent into counseling before they get a divorce. We'd like to see expanding opportunities for that and maybe one day make it mandatory. But much more important is a preventive approach-- teaching people to have better relationships to begin with.

Neither my colleagues nor I would like to go back to {the] period in the U.S. where divorce was illegal. We would just like to send a signal that it shouldn't be made too easy. The main issue is not a technical issue of the law the main issue is a lack of moral commitment and responsibility. Both partners need to make more of a commitment to one another and to children before they get married. The value of marriage needs to be restored.

I feel good about some programs churches have which try to make people slow down when they are getting married by going through some kind of instruction or counseling period so they know what they need to know to get married.

Q. How do you toughen divorce laws without mandating morality?

A. By emphasizing preventive education and changes in attitudes and being very reluctant to make legal changes and very careful in their reach. At the same time, we recognize that the law is one way of expressing our moral concerns. We're not talking about jailing anyone or even fining them... but signaling the community's moral concerns and providing [couples] opportunities for reconciliation.

Q. Under what circumstances do you think divorce is unavoidable?

A. There are some situations, in a really rotten, abusive marriage, where divorce is to be preferred. But it will still cost the children.

Vol. 11, Issue 15, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: December 11, 1991, as Q&A: Sociologist Assesses Harmful Effects of Divorce on Children
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