Scared Straight About Traditional Divorce

A traditional divorce (think Kramer vs Kramer) generally takes place in the adversarial legal system, and it is not a pretty picture. So why is America turning to divorce at a rate of nearly 50 percent? Have we become so used to living the good life, the easy life, that the moment things get tough, we head for the exit? Are we convincing ourselves that by ending an unhappy marriage, we will find bliss with someone else?

Maybe the problem begins with marriage itself: do we need to be better educated on understanding what true commitment and love is? As a nation have we bought into Hollywood’s version of it? Look at the business of marriage, the billion dollar industry based on the big day; the white dress, walking down the aisle, and running off on the idealistic honeymoon. It paints a beautiful picture, but is it realistic? How do we live up to such standards?

As long as there is marriage, there will always be divorce. It’s an emotionally charged, complex problem and there is no easy answer. But could it be that a change in how we divorce is a start in the right direction? Here’s a hard, if not surprising, look at some facts of divorce (the not-so-pretty traditional kind) and how it plays out in court and in our lives. Facts that reveal an ugly truth about divorce and our ongoing search for happiness and finding Mr. or Ms. Right. So hang on, it’s bound to be a bumpy and disheartening ride.

It’s true, none of us say I do with the idea that it will most likely end in I don’t. But when it comes to deciding whether or not to divorce, we should look at the pros and cons with calm perspective. Emotional and psychological turmoil tends to make this difficult, and for many, impossible. But before you make your final exit from a marriage, you should have a reasonable expectation about what lies ahead in your post-divorce life. If you have the facts, it will help you make an informed decision, rather than an emotional one.

Everyone knows someone who is divorced. It’s become acceptable and easier than ever to get divorced. This makes it tempting to quit marriage when things aren’t what we expected or dreamed of. And it’s not just broken relationships that are abusive and troubled; the majority of divorces are filed by those couples who are average in their level of happiness and conflict. Are we just not trying hard enough to fix our unhappy marriages and seeking an out instead of a cure?

A sobering fact is that post-divorce families usually suffer financially. In general, many women face a decline in their standard of living while men’s tends to improve. The economic cost of divorce is rarely considered, either during the process or after. Getting a divorce can be expensive — attorney’s fees run anywhere from $10,000 per spouse and up, and some contentious divorces that drag on for years cost downright astronomical sums.

Still, money isn’t everything. What about happiness? A better life? A study by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Healthier, Happier and Better Off Financially, shows couples who were unhappy but stick it out, are more likely to be happy five years later than those who divorced. Health consequences for the divorced are more serious and life expectancies for divorced men and women are significantly lower. Married people diagnosed with cancer are more likely to recover. Bottom line, the long-term effects of divorce impact the body dramatically, both mentally and physically.

Second marriages have an even higher rate of divorce. Many of the same problems that drove people to divorce in the first round continue to pop up in the second. Second relationships aren’t any more likely to be the “happily ever after” scenario we are looking for and we are predisposed to think about running away from second marriages as well.

Parents of ugly divorces can find their relationships with their children have suffered. Non-custodial parents, in many cases, are unable to remain as actively involved in their children’s lives as they did when a single family unit. And, unfortunately, this damage isn’t always resolved when the children become adults.

One of the saddest substantiated facts is that conflictive divorce harms kids. Period. The negative consequences of divorce show up as increased risk factors. Whether or not your child will be affected isn’t definite, but the odds are increased against them. They may suffer academically with poor grades, or experience behavioral problems, and are less likely to graduate from high school[1]. Children of divorce have a higher risk they will commit a crime as juveniles[2], and because the level of income drops for many custodial parents, it is five times more likely children of divorce live in poverty[3] or engage in drug or alcohol use[4]. More often than not, the psychological distress caused by divorce leaves emotional scars that can last into adulthood and change how they view the world and their own relationships as long as 25 years later[5].

With such dismal statistics, is there hope? Absolutely. There are numerous options out there today for couples willing to work on their marriages and strengthen their couple relationships. If divorce is still your choice, an amicable one can dramatically improve the chances of happy and healthy lives after the dust settles — for both yourself and your children.

[1] Nan Marie Astone and Sara S. McLanahan, “Family Structure, Parental Practices and High School Completion,” American Sociological Review 56 (1991): 309-320.
[2] Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Working Paper #99-03,
[3] Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 82.
[4] Robert L. Flewelling and Karl E. Bauman, “Family Structure as a Predictor of Initial Substance Use and Sexual Intercourse in Early Adolescence,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (1990): 171-181.
[5] Wallerstein, et al., 2000, Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky. “Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 1034-1035.