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I gave a talk recently on ways to avoid divorce. Obviously my agenda as a pediatrician is to protect children from the negative effects of divorce.

One mother came up to me afterwards and said her children’s numerous emotional problems and school difficulties virtually disappeared after she divorced her husband and moved to a new community. She chided me about making women who felt they had no option but a divorce feel guilty about what they were doing to their children.

Point well taken. The last thing I want to do is add to maternal (or paternal) guilt. The single parent has enough troubles.

Every time I talk about divorce I try to point out that, although negative effects on children of divorce have been well-documented, there is very little evidence that divorce per se is the CAUSE of the difficulties. Very few of the widely-quoted studies on the deleterious effects of divorce on children compare children of divorce with children in intact families.

The differences between children of divorce and children who live in two-parent families can be traced to THREE POSSIBLE CAUSES. 1) Growing up in a dysfunctional family and living with the psychological problems of the parents that lead to divorce can certainly affect children. 2) Prolonged marital conflict which leads to divorce is no picnic for kids. 3) The transition after separation or divorce which can lead to financial and emotional stress in both parent and child adversely affects children.

Perhaps the most telling are studies that show children’s problems do not START at the time of the divorce but precede the divorce by at least a year. This indicates that dysfunction and conflict harm children, not just divorce.

One study showed that a good divorce can be better than an unhappy marriage. The authors noted that divorce causes children pain but challenged some myths that surround divorce. It is a myth that divorce happens because selfish parents don’t care about their kids. The parents studied agonized over their decisions and endured miserable marriages over long time periods for the sake of their children. It is also a myth that divorce is always bad for kids. The children studied all wished their parents would stay together but most adapted, over time. And persistent conflict or violence was the single biggest stressor to all the children studied.

According to Katha Pollitt, the bottom line is, “When Mom has enough money and Dad stays connected, when parents stay civil and don’t badmouth each other, kids do all right.”

So, if you are in an abusive or miserably unendurable marriage, if your kids are exposed to violence or endless conflict that counseling cannot resolve, if you have given it your best shot, don’t feel guilty if you choose the divorce option. Make it as good a divorce as you can which means it protects and spares the children as much as possible.