On Psychology

Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2000 / 16 Kislev, 5761


Abusive parents and unhappy marriages

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: When is a father so bad it outweighs the importance of fathering? How much abuse is OK? What is worse for children, an unhappy family life or a happier life separated from dad?

A:. Let's take these two issues one at a time. First, no amount of abuse is OK. Whenever a parent -- whether a mother or a father -- abuses his or her children, the first concern is the children's safety. As such, the abusive parent must be out of the home.

Indeed, parents who physically or sexually abuse their children belong in jail. Violence against others is against the law; the fact that you are related to the victim shouldn't mean you are immune from criminal charges. When it comes to child abuse, we ought to have a zero-tolerance policy.

So, the answer to your first question is relatively easy. No amount of abuse is OK, whether perpetrated by a mother or a father. The answer to the second question, however, is a bit more complicated.

The best research on this second question comes from Pennsylvania State University researcher Paul Amato. According to his research, children are better off following divorce in cases where the parents were in a high-conflict marriage. That is, when parents are actively hostile toward each other, and especially when physical violence is present, the well-being of the children improves following the parents' divorce.

On the other hand, in cases in which the divorce is the result of a low-conflict, but unhappy, marriage, children do worse following divorce than if their parents had stayed married -- even if the marriage continues in an unhappy state.

Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, most divorces do not result from high-conflict marriages. According to a 15-year study of a nationally representative sample of families, Paul Amato found only about 30 percent of divorces result from high-conflict marriages. Hence, fully 70 percent of children whose parents divorced would have been better off if their parents had stayed married.

This, of course, is not the message heard by most parents in unhappy marriages. Instead, popular culture tells couples in unhappy marriages that they cannot possibly be good parents unless they are happy themselves. Hence, parents often see divorce not only as the solution to an unhappy marriage, but also as the recipe for becoming a more effective parent. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth.

Indeed, after divorce, one parent - most often the father - often is reduced to being a mere visitor in their children's lives. Stripped of any real parental authority, many non-custodial parents begin to focus not on parenting, but on being their child's friend. As such, far from making parents more effective, divorce often leaves children with one, often overwhelmed, custodial parent and one Disneyland Dad or Mom.

Presenting the choice in this way - get divorced or stay in an unhappy marriage - is a false choice. When faced with an unhappy marriage, there is also this third option: Fight for one's marriage and make it better.

The good news is that we now know how to make unhappy marriages happy again. Through the use of mentor couples and marital education, couples in unhappy marriages can fall back in love with each other, sometimes even more deeply than before. When this happens, not only is the marriage saved, but also the children learn, through observation of their parents, that when relationships go through difficult periods, the answer is not to give up, but to work hard at repairing the relationship.

Unfortunately, too few couples in unhappy marriages are presented with this third option. Instead we say such things as, "It's better to get a divorce - for the sake of the kids - than it is to stay in an unhappy marriage," as if divorce were some wonderful present being given to the children.

So the answer to the first question is easy: No amount of abuse is OK. An abusive mom or dad needs to be out of the home - immediately.

The answer to your second question is more complicated and it is this: If you find yourself in a high-conflict marriage, especially one in which physical violence is present, your children are likely to be better off following divorce. If, however, you are comptemplating divorce, the chances are you are in a relatively low-conflict, but unhappy, marriage, in which case your children will be better off if you stay married, even if the quality of the marriage doesn't get any better.

The real answer to an unhappy marriage, however, is not to stay married and miserable, but to make your marriage better. Not only will that make you happier, but your children will do a whole lot better as well.



JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn