Divorce hits men and women much harder if they are parents—particularly of younger children—than if they are childless, according to our research. These findings suggest that we could find new ways to help protect children from the trauma of divorce. Experts have tended to conclude that divorce per se damages children. Our research identifies problems that are particular to parental divorces—but largely absent in childless divorces—and that may explain some of these harmful effects on children.
These issues largely relate to money and family relationships. Policy-makers and practitioners should consider whether such problems could be alleviated for parents whose marriages break up. Our findings hold out the possibility that children might do far better after divorce if their parents’ individual suffering—and the issues that seem to underlie it—could be minimized so the divorce is more like that experienced by childless couples. In short, if we looked after divorcing parents better, their children might suffer less harm.
Large differences between experiences of mothers and fathers We found two big differences in suffering between parents and childless couples experiencing marital break-up—and each difference is highly gendered. First, in a divorce, mothers experience considerably larger economic losses than either childless women or divorcing fathers do. Second, compared to mothers and childless men, divorcing fathers typically pay very high social costs in terms of their sense of family well-being. Our findings spring from survey data of more than 2,000 married men and women—including both parents and childless couples—in Germany who divorced between 1985 and 2012.
They were asked about their feelings of general, economic and family well-being. Ours is one of the first such studies to compare childless couples with those who are parents. We also examined the significance of gender and the age of the children in determining well-being.
Declines in well-being measures are large
Some of the declines in well-being we saw among parents in the initial years after divorce were extraordinarily large compared to the impact of other negative life events. For example, in the first year after divorce, fathers of children age 4 and under reported that their sense of family well-being plummeted three times more than a man’s general well-being typically declines when he loses his job. The decline in mothers’ sense of family well-being was relatively low—about a third of that felt by fathers. T
he impact of divorce on a childless man or woman’s sense of family well-being was negligible in comparison. Conversely, the economic impact of divorce weighed more heavily on mothers than on fathers—and again was small in comparison for childless couples. For mothers, the impact on their sense of economic well-being was almost as large as average decline in general well-being that women feel when a husband dies. The economic impact on mothers was twice that experienced by divorcing fathers, and it continued even several years after the break-up.
Support needed especially when children are young
Our findings suggest that help for divorcing parents would be most beneficial when young children are involved, since we found suffering to be particularly acute among their mothers and fathers. Help is also most needed around and soon after divorce—we found that, with the exception of the impact on mothers’ economic well-being, the large well-being gaps between divorcing parents and childless couples diminished over time and vanished after six years. We should, however, be cautious about saying that the gap in well-being definitely diminishes. That conclusion relies on self-reporting by a panel of individuals who have their feelings canvassed every year.
It could be that, in later years, it’s mainly the parents who are coping better who return to be measured while those with the greatest continuing problems are less likely to do so and therefore may be under-recorded. It’s easy to speculate why effects on well-being differ for mothers and fathers. Many mothers, particularly of young children, may have been out of the labour market for some time, and it may be difficult for them to return to work because of their child care responsibilities. Meanwhile, many fathers lack access to their children after divorce, which may help explain the sudden collapse in fathers’ sense of family well-being, particularly among those with children age 4 and under.
Some need more help than others
Our research doesn’t tell us how to help parents after divorce. But it should focus the minds of policy makers and practitioners on whom to help. The first message is that many parents suffer profoundly, albeit differently, after divorce. Indeed, our data may underestimate the level of suffering for some parents. For example, our figures for fathers don’t distinguish between those who see their children often after divorce and the sizeable minority who never see them. The reported well-being of these two distinct categories might differ considerably. Likewise, the figures for mothers’ sense of economic well-being cover another highly diverse group. It includes mothers who work full time as well as those who aren’t working and those who may receive little or no maintenance support from their children’s fathers.
These groups of mothers may have different economic experiences. However, parents’ suffering can compound their children’s suffering. So an important way to support children through divorce may be to support their parents. Doing so may require a gendered approach because the suffering of mothers and fathers is different. It may be necessary to tailor economic supports to mothers’ needs while targeting social supports around fathers.