Divorce, with all its stresses and strains, comes with a horde of fabrications and falsehoods. A couple eager to present his or her own side in the best light can be known to stretch the truth. There are many myths about divorce, but David Popenoe, who is co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, whittled the number down to the top 10.
In Popenoe’s 40 years at Rutgers he racked up enough credibility to be considered the top in his field. As the leader in things related to marriage and divorce, Popenoe made the rounds on talk shows like Good Morning America, and was often quoted in newspapers such as USA Today. His leaning to the religious right and the fact that he raised his children in his local Quaker meeting might make some a little queasy, but a 47-year marriage to wife Katherine redeems him in that capacity. Add to that careful documentation of all his pronouncements and a number of big-selling books that established him, once and for all, as the expert. Popenoe no doubt got his inspiration from his father, Paul, who was even a more dominant figure than his son.
Papa Popenoe was a product of his times, when women were taught to walk three steps behind their husbands. In one of his regular columns in Ladies Home Journal in the 1950s and ’60s, Paul advised the wife to lose at cards to restore her husband’s sense of superiority. How quaint.
Son David, while respecting his father’s take on marriage, nevertheless debunked his ideals, and moved ahead into the 21st century, where men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. There is one thorn in his side, however. In today’s technological climate, Popenoe’s pet peeve is computer dating sites that promise a perfect match. “They tend to throw people off what’s important, which is, rather than choosing a good partner, being a good partner.”
Here are David Popenoe’s Top 10 Myths of Divorce, reprinted from the Rutgers National Marriage Project Web site.
1. Because people learn from their bad experiences, second marriages tend to be more successful than first marriages. Although many people who divorce have successful subsequent marriages, the divorce rate of remarriages is in fact higher than that of first marriages. By one estimate, 37 percent of remarriages end in a separation or divorce within 10 years, compared to 30 percent of first marriages.
2. Living together before marriage is a good way to reduce the chances of eventually divorcing. Actually, the opposite is true, and the reasons for this are not well understood. The type of people who are willing to cohabit may also be those who are more willing to divorce. There is some evidence that cohabiting generates attitudes in people that are more conducive to divorce; for example, that relationships are temporary and easily can be ended.
3. Divorce may cause problems for the children who are affected by it, but by and large these problems are not long-lasting and the children recover relatively quickly. Actually, divorce increases the risk of interpersonal problems in children. There is evidence, both from small qualitative studies and from large-scale, long-term empirical studies, that many of these problems are long-lasting. In fact, they may even become worse in adulthood.
4. Having a child will improve marital satisfaction and prevent divorce. Many studies have shown that the most stressful time in a marriage is after the first child is born. Couples who have a child together have a slightly decreased risk of divorce compared to couples without children, but the decreased risk is far less than it used to be when parents with marital problems were more likely to stay together “for the sake of the children.”
5. Following divorce, the woman’s standard of living plummets by 73 percent while that of the man improves by 42 percent. The perceived inequity, one of the most widely publicized from the social sciences, was later found to be based on a faulty calculation. A re-analysis of the data determined that the woman’s loss was 72 percent, while the man’s gain was 10 percent.
6. Children are better off if their parents divorce than if they stay together. A recent large-scale, long-term study suggests otherwise. While it found that parents’ marital unhappiness and discord have a broad negative impact on virtually every dimension of their children’s well-being, so does going through a divorce. In examining the negative effects on children more closely, the study discovered that it was only the children in very high conflict homes who benefitted from the conflict removal that divorce may bring. In lower-conflict marriages that end in divorce—and the study found that perhaps as many as two-thirds of divorces are of this type—the situation of the children was made much worse following a divorce. Based on the findings of this study, therefore, except in the minority of high-conflict marriages it is better for the children if their parents stay together and work out their problems than if they divorce.
7. Because they are more cautious in entering marital relationships and also have a strong determination to avoid the possibility of divorce, children of divorce tend to have as much success in their own marriages as those from intact homes. The opposite is true. A major reason for this, according to a recent study, is that children learn about marital commitment or permanence by observing their parents. In the children of divorce, the sense of commitment to a lifelong marriage has been undermined.
8. Following divorce, the children involved are better off in step-families than in a single-parent families. The evidence suggests that step-families are no improvement over single-parent families, even though typically income levels are higher and there is a father figure in the home. (Presuming the father is the non-custodial parent, which is rarer these days.) Step-families tend to have their own set of problems, including interpersonal conflicts with new parental figures and a very high risk of family breakups.
9. Being very unhappy at certain points in a marriage is a good sign that the marriage will eventually end in divorce. All marriages have their ups and downs. Recent research using a large national sample found that 86 percent of people who were unhappily married in the late 1980s, and stayed with the marriage, indicated when interviewed five years later that they were happier. Indeed, three-fifths of the formerly unhappily married couples rated their marriages as either “very happy” or “quite happy.”
10. It is usually men who initiate divorce proceedings. Two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. One recent study found that many of the reasons for this have to do with the nature of our divorce laws. For example, in most states, women have a good chance of receiving custody of their children. Because women more strongly want to keep their children with them, in states where there is a presumption of shared custody the percentage of women who initiate divorces is much lower.