Most Marriages and Divorces Are Low Conflict

Most marriages that end in divorce are low conflict, although the estimates vary depending upon the source. Some researchers estimate that 15 to 30 percent of the marriages that end are high conflict, and the rest end in low-conflict divorce. Of course, some marriages may have varying degrees of conflict; that is, they may tend toward being high conflict or tend toward being low conflict.

Low-conflict marriages that end in divorce are very damaging to children, according to Dr. Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn State University, because "the surprised children have not been aware of the discord."

"About 55 percent to 60 percent of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages," marriages that Dr. Amato terms "good enough marriages" that might be salvaged. Dr. Amato, who has studied family structure for 20 years, suggests that parents weigh their decision to divorce against the amount of conflict in their marriage. He argues that divorce that ends a high-conflict marriage "often results in beneficial effects for the children, while the dissolution of a low-conflict marriage is more likely to have a negative effect."

Dr. Amato and Alan Booth, also of Penn State, studied 2,000 married persons and 700 children. The longitudinal study of marital conflict and stability concluded that children ending up with the highest levels of anxiety and depression either had low-conflict parents who divorced or high-conflict parents who remained together. The termination of high-conflict marriages can be relatively inconsequential or even beneficial to children as it moves them from an antagonistic and stressful environment. Children of high-conflict marriages tend to see their parents’ divorce as a welcomed escape from a dysfunction home life. As adults, they are better off in terms of the quality of intimate relationships, social support from friends and relatives, and general psychological well being. On the other hand, children from low-conflict marriages tend to see their parents’ divorce as a personal tragedy and appear to experience inordinate adversity, both psychologically and socially, including their own ability to form quality intimate relationships. "From the child’s perspective, there is no evidence that anything is drastically wrong," says Dr. Booth. "It is an unexpected, uncontrollable and unwelcome event where one parent leaves the home and the other is overwhelmed with the demands of single parenthood and a lowered standard of living."

Robert Emery, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Virginia, argues, "The truth is in the middle, not at the extremes." Emery suggests "[a] marriage can be ’good enough’ for the children without being good for the parents." The children, in this regime of thinking, see family as "a safe and nurturing place, even as the parents suffer in silence."

Divorcing parents should realize that they will raise the children together for years to come, and an effective co-parenting relationship from the moment the decision is made to divorce is one of the greatest gifts they can make their children, who "love both parents and see themselves as part mom and part dad." To a child, family structure remains vital. "It is critical for the well being of the children that both parents continue to play important roles in the their lives. Parents should work together as much as possible for the well being of the children to limit the damage divorce can have on children."

The choice, Dr. Amato says, is not between staying in a marriage and being miserable or bailing out. "The choice is often being moderately happy in the marriage and getting a divorce. For 55 percent to 60 percent of couples, these are not bad marriages. They are just not ecstatic marriages."

Dr. Amato finds two categories of children who are most at risk for future psychological problems: those who grow up with parents who stay married but remain conflicted and hostile, and those whose parents are in low-conflict marriages and divorce anyway. "These low-conflict divorces are very disturbing for children. The first time they discover something is wrong is when they come home to find Dad has moved out." Dr. Amato says the irony is that these divorces "occur in marriages where there is some kind of reconciliation, some kind of positive outcome possible if there were appropriate intervention."

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