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The Divorce Controversy – What We Don't Know

To put it simply, there is a lot we don’t know.

Most importantly, we don't know how an individual child, your child, will respond to divorce. Divorce research looks at trends, statistics and averages. Since there is no such thing as an average child, the best we can hope for from the research is some broad guidelines to help us think clearly and avoid common pitfalls. While it's natural to look to the experts for help amidst the confusion of a divorce, the experts don't necessarily have answers.

Secondly, it is important to recognize that in divorce research, very few conclusions stand out as bold, unequivocal facts. Rather, the results of the vast body of research, taken as a whole, points to some general outlines, much like looking at the silhouette of a distant mountain range on a foggy day. In any given study, questions of statistical validity, accuracy of data, sample size etc. call into question any precise interpretation of results. Even when the statistical evidence is sound, there are often questions of interpretation. For example, we know that children of divorce are statistically more likely to have conduct problems or antisocial behavior. But there is a chicken-and-egg problem when we look for the meaning in this. Does divorce trigger these kids' aggression? Or could the reverse be true —are parents of out-of-control kids less happy with their lives, and more likely to divorce in the first place?

This may sound like statistical nit picking, but social scientists are making dramatic—often contradictory headlines with claims about the effects of divorce on kids. And on the basis of these headlines, therapists, counselors and others give advice to parents considering divorce. More importantly, lawmakers and family court judges are sometimes influenced by these headlines too, with the result that, if your divorce winds up in court, your future and your children's future may turn on a judge's opinion or a recently passed law that is based on a headline based, in turn, on questionable research claims.

But in fact, the validity of these claims often evaporates when research itself goes under the microscope. We have a rule of thumb: if research on divorce makes any claim that is startling, bold, or controversial enough to make headlines, consider it with suspicion. Social science research just doesn't work like that.

Why does all this matter? We believe that parents and children both benefit greatly when parents take control of the process of divorce, and take back responsibility for their choices. It is important to be as educated as possible about what social science knows about the effects of divorce on kids. But even the most responsible social science researchers—and we can't emphasize this enough—don't know you. They don't know your strengths and inner resources, or how committed you are to your children's happiness. They don't know your financial or housing situation, your relationship with your spouse, your circle of supportive family and friends, how you work and play and live. They don't know your children either. You do. And if you are committed to their well-being, then you are the ones most qualified to make the decisions that will shape their lives and yours. The decisions are yours. You don't have to abdicate to the experts. Or the lawmakers or judges either, for that matter. It is your choice to be fully responsible and in charge of your lives. We believe this strongly. And we believe that mediation can be an important part of responsibly exercising that choice.



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