Stay together for the kids? Maybe not

A new study is an academic loogie in the face of parental self-sacrifice.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published June 9, 2009 5:10PM (EDT)

Marital breakups are rarely easy, but for couples with children, they often come with the added nagging fear that you're forever ruining your kids' lives. But a new study (PDF) affirms what anyone whose own childhood resembled a Richard Yates novel suspects -- that sticking together for the sake of the kids can backfire.

The study, provocatively titled "Are Both Parents Always Better Than One? Parental Conflict and Young Adult Well-Being" (from the California Center for Population Research at the University of California, Los Angeles), charts the progress of 1,963 households from teens to early 30s. While citing that "children tend to do better living with two biological married parents," the study is a reassuring academic loogie in the face of self-sacrifice, an acknowledgement of the role of "poor quality marriage" in drinking and dropout rates.

Speaking about the study to Science Daily, the paper's co-author, Cornell associate professor Kelly Musick, said, "the advantages of living with two continuously married parents are not shared equally by all children ... Children from high-conflict families are more likely to drop out of school, have poor grades, smoke, binge drink, use marijuana, have early sex, be young and unmarried when they have a child and then experience the breakup of that relationship."

 An intact marriage isn't automatically a successful one -- for anybody. (The study also helpfully cites previous findings that "although marriage confers benefits to adults on average, those in poor quality marriages are no better off than the single and, indeed, may fare worse on some measures.") Despite our continued cultural insistence upon equating divorce with failure, for parents whose relationships have become unbearable, the best way to save the family may be to dissolve it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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