“The facts about divorce in our societies speak for themselves, and are not very encouraging.  For example, in the United States, according to experts, about half of marriages end in divorce.  This should be a cause of great concern, because, among other things, empirical research shows that divorce increases the economic vulnerability of men, women and children, reducing many of them to poverty and utter deprivation.”  Augusto Zimmermann

Assessing the destructive impact of divorce

Augusto Zimmermann, News Weekly, August 3, 2013, p. 16, 17

The facts about divorce in our societies speak for themselves, and are not very encouraging.Divorce

For example, in the United States, according to experts, about half of marriages end in divorce. This should be a cause of great concern, because, among other things, empirical research shows that divorce increases the economic vulnerability of men, women and children, reducing many of them to poverty and utter deprivation.[1]

It has been shown in the US that women’s standards of living decline approximately 30 per cent post-divorce as a consequence of divorce, while men’s decline about 10 per cent. The figure of 30 per cent has been validated in a number of subsequent studies, in particular the seminal work by Professors Saul D. Hoffman and Greg J. Duncan.[2]

Curiously, these American scholars explain that the event which helps to equalise and improve a woman’s standard of living is re-marriage, which for about half of all divorced women occurs within five years.

According to Stanley Elliot Tobin, there is only one undeniable fact about divorce: “Women (as a general rule) and children (almost invariably) suffer in many ways as a result of divorce, not the least of which is financially. And, more often than not, men suffer less financially than women. All that is a ‘given’.”[3]

In Australia, figures from Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research indicate that family break-up, rather than unemployment, is the principal cause of the rise in poverty levels in the country.[4] The centre’s research also discovered a strong link between single-parent families and the likelihood of poverty, especially for women and children.[5]

This is confirmed by further research carried out by Canberra University’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, which indicates that divorce generally leaves both partners worse off economically, although women tend to experience the greater fall in disposable income.[6]

Finally, another study by Monash University has found that, in economic terms, married couples are concentrated more amongst the affluent in society, whereas individuals from broken marriages, lone parents and single people are concentrated among the poorest.[7] Indeed, social indicators released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal that more than half of all single parents are on welfare. They depend on the government’s financial assistance to maintain their basic living standards.[8]

Several respected studies from overseas indicate that children whose parents divorce are more likely to suffer numerous negative side-effects. These researchers have found that the incidence of such adverse outcomes is noticeably higher for children from single-parent families than for children from two-parent biological families.

For example, US studies show that children of divorced couples often blame themselves for the divorce, which creates debilitating guilt. They are inevitably hurt financially as the fractured family bears the cost of maintaining two households.

They are more likely to develop behavioural problems, such as delinquency, and to suffer significantly higher incidences of depression and fear of abandonment. They are more likely to have learning difficulties and to drop out of high school, and hence less likely to graduate from university, than are children from “intact homes”, even when compared to children from families who have lost a father through death.[9] They are more likely to experience alcohol and drug abuse.[10] Finally, their own future marriages are more likely to end in divorce.[11]

These findings also show that, when a father is present in the household, children are much less likely to suffer child abuse or get involved with drugs and commit crime. Teenage girls from intact homes are half as likely to get pregnant than their fatherless counterparts.[12]

According to a well-known study undertaken in 2002 by the Washington-based research body, Child Trends, it is far better for a child’s development that he or she grows up in the presence of his or her two biological parents.[13] Unmarried motherhood, divorce, cohabitation and step-parenting are widely known to fall short in significant developmental domains (such as education, behavioural outcomes and emotional well-being), due in no small part to the comparative fragility and instability of such relationships.

This well-regarded non-partisan research organisation concludes its study as follows:

“Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.

“Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in step-families or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes than do children in intact families headed by two biological parents. Parental divorce is also linked to a range of poorer academic and behavioural outcomes among children.

“There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.”[14]

The same destructive impact of divorce on children has been amply documented in Australia. For example, research about rising crime rates in Western Australia has revealed the strong connection between broken families and crime. It found that “family breakdown in the form of divorce and separation is the main cause of the crime wave”.[15]

Robert Fisher, who was director-general of the WA government’s Department of Family and Children’s Services from 1994 to 2001, declared before stepping down from his post that father absence was a major risk factor in making young children much more likely to develop serious behavioural problems, which in turn could lead them to become juvenile or adult offenders.

The other factors, he said, were teenage parenthood (which is more frequent amongst the children of divorced parents), poverty (which can be caused by father absence, single parenting and teenage pregnancy), poor parenting skills and long-term parental unemployment.[16] Indeed, those who have worked with juvenile offenders would be the first to confirm these observations. According to one Australian, who spent nearly two decades working with homeless youth and young offenders, “almost 100 per cent” of all young delinquents are from “single-parent families or blended families”.[17]

Naturally, one should always acknowledge that many factors other than divorce or single parenthood can influence outcomes leading to poverty and social deprivation.[18] Intact family structure is only one factor contributing to social health and well-being. Circumstances vary from family to family, and some marriages are extremely unhappy, and thus do not offer the same benefits for both adults and children. Under extraordinary circumstances, divorce indeed may become a last recourse as it can provide a necessary way out for children and adults in violent or high-conflict marriages.

Sadly, however, we live in an era when more people than ever no longer view marriage as foundational to their lives. Instead, they feel they have a right to dispose of it just because they “feel” a need for a “change”.

Sadly, many such divorces could easily be prevented if both husband and wife could learn to forgive each other, and to approach each other more gently and lovingly when reconciliation was required.

To avoid the tragedy of divorce, and the train of painful consequences for both parents and children, we need to discover once again the great truths that a forgiving heart brings healing to wounded relationships and, above all, that unselfish love is fundamental to a happy and enduring marital relationship.

Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD (Monash), teaches legal theory and constitutional law at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is also president of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA) and editor of The Western Australian Jurist. He recently published a widely acclaimed book, Western Legal Theory: Theory, Concepts and Perspectives (Sydney: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2013).


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