Children of Divorce: Stories of Loss and Growth, Second Edition

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John Gottman, who leads the Relationship Research Institute where he focuses on marriage, family, and child development, has developed and carefully evaluated some of the most innovative new approaches to marital education and group instruction. Pamela Jordan developed the Becoming Parents Program, a couple-focused educational research program being tested in a large randomized trial.

Howard J. Markman and Dr. Among the skills-training programs, PREP is the most widely used with couples who are about to marry. It teaches skills such as active listening and self-regulation of emotions for conflict management and positive communication. PREP also includes substantial content on topics such as commitment, forgiveness, and expectations clarification. PREP appears to have a significant effect on marital satisfaction initially, but the effect appears to fade over time Gottman, , and there is some indication that it improves communication among high-risk couples but not low-risk couples Halford, Sanders, and Behrens, Therapeutic interventions are more open-ended and involve group discussions, usually guided by trained professionals to help partners identify and work through the marriage problems they are facing.

Couples meet in a group with a trained therapist over a six-month period that begins before the child is born and continues for another three months after the birth. Initially, marital satisfaction soared and divorce rates plummeted relative to a similar group of families that did not participate in the program. But the divorce effects waned by the five-year follow-up point, even while marital satisfaction remained high for those couples who stayed together Schultz and Cowan, More recent work by Cowan and Cowan and by John Gottman appears to produce more promising results.

The Cowans found positive effects in the school performance of children whose parents participated in their couples instruction and group discussion program.

Child-Rearing And Developmental Change

Gottman describes improved cooperative interaction between the parents and their infant child and sustained increased involvement by fathers. While the results from the marriage education programs are encouraging, they are not definitive. Most of the studies are small, several have serious flaws, and only a few have long-term follow-up data and those that do seem to show decay in effectiveness over time.

Moreover, only a handful of the studies collected information on child well-being. Most importantly, all of the programs studied served mostly white, middle-class families, not the low-income and diverse populations that would be included in a wider government initiative. They are more likely to experience job loss, have an unexpected health or family crisis, be evicted from or burned out of their home, be the victim of a violent crime, and so forth. As a result, they face greater difficulty than middle-class individuals in forming and sustaining marriages.

With the exception of African-Americans, low-income couples are not less likely to marry; but they are more likely to divorce when they do marry. Yet evidence from the Fragile Families survey of 5, low-income couples who have just given birth to a child and ethnographic interviews conducted with low-income women in Philadelphia by Kathy Edin of Northwestern University provide convincing evidence that low-income people share the same normative commitment to marriage that middle-class families demonstrate. The poor want to marry, but they insist on marrying well.

This…is the only way to avoid an almost certain divorce. If poor families share the same commitment to marriage as better-off couples, what is it about their low-income status that inhibits the formation of stable marriages? One possible explanation is the mismatch between a large number of stressful events they face and few resources with which to respond to those stressors. The imbalance places greater demands on the individuals in a dyad, leaving less time together and less time to dedicate to relationship building than might be the case for a middle-class couple.

In addition, the problems low-income couples have to manage — problems such as substance abuse, job loss, eviction, chronic infidelity, a child with a chronic condition like asthma or developmental delays, and criminal activities — may be more severe than those confronted by better-off couples.

Edin, ; Karney, Story, and Bradbury, ; Heyman, Because the problems low-income couples confront are likely to be more acute and chronic than those faced by middle-class couples, it is an open question whether the problem-solving and communication skills taught by marital education programs will be as effective among low-income couples as they appear to have been for middle-class couples where the evidence base is still evolving. Clearly, the skill sets taught in those programs and the strategies applied by therapists and counselors to solve the problems couples present will need to be adapted.

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Moreover, it is possible that these kinds of stressors overwhelm the abilities of individuals to use the skills they are taught. Such concerns have elicited two kinds of responses: first, efforts to adapt marital education programs to better meet the needs of low-income families; and second, proposals to combine marital education with strategies that would directly tackle the poverty-related stressors on family life — for example, with help in finding a job, income supplements to make up for low wages, child care assistance, and medical coverage.

Underpinning the interest in public support for marital education programs is a conviction that low-income individuals do not have good information about the benefits of marriage. In part, this dearth results from their experience of having grown up in single-parent households where they were simply not exposed to role models that might inform their own relationships.

In part, it is a consequence of their lack of access to the same kinds of supports and information, counseling, and therapy that are often available to middle-class couples contemplating marriage or divorce. The objective is to equip low-income couples with relationship skills to improve couple interaction by reducing negative exchanges anger, criticism, contempt, and blaming and strengthening positive behaviors expressions of support, humor, empathy, and affection. The logic is obvious: When couples enjoy positive interaction and are successful in handling conflict, their confidence and commitment would be reinforced, thereby fostering satisfaction and stability.

But the designers of these programs recognize that they must adapt marital education as middle-class families know it to better meet the different needs of low-income households. This might involve changes in the types of agencies that deliver services, the training leaders would get, the content and examples used in the training, the duration and intensity of services, and the balance between strengthening internal communication and the forging of links to community programs that can provide support related to the contexts in which poor families live.

While there is a strong relationship between poverty and marital breakup, would programs that ameliorate poverty by providing supports to the working poor actually improve marital relationships? There have been few tests of this question; the most relevant recent reform that has been carefully evaluated for two-parent families is the Minnesota Family Investment Program MFIP.

Implemented in , MFIP used the welfare system to make work pay by supplementing the earnings of recipients who took jobs until their income reached percent of the poverty line, and it required nonworkers to participate in a range of employment, training, and support services. Because MFIP treated two-parent family recipients who were receiving welfare at the onset of the study and new applicants differently, outcomes for these groups were examined separately. In contrast, MFIP had fewer effects on parental employment, earnings, and income for welfare applicants, a finding that is not entirely surprising given their short welfare spells.

One of the striking findings of the three-year evaluation was that, among the two-parent recipient families who were part of a follow-up survey sample, families in the MFIP group were Most of this increase in marital stability was a result of fewer reported separations in MFIP families as compared to AFDC families, although some of it was a result of small reductions in divorce.

Because there is some question about how families on welfare might report their marital status, MDRC also obtained and analyzed data from publicly available divorce records. We did this for some two-parent recipient families who were married at study entry. The other or so families in the original survey sample were cohabiting, and we did not look for marriage records for them.

The data confirmed that these couples were 7 percentage points less likely than their AFDC counterparts to divorce. This gave us confidence that MFIP did indeed reduce marital instability. Again, divorce records would not tell us about the separations we found in the survey, so the effect should be smaller than the 19 percentage point effect we found there. These findings have two important implications.

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First, make-work-pay strategies might reduce financial stress and increase the likelihood that two-parent families stay together. As a first step in that process, MDRC went back to the state of Minnesota to obtain divorce and marriage records for the full sample of 2, two-parent MFIP families including both recipients and applicants for a follow-up period of more than six years. This fuller record would give us the opportunity to understand whether the positive effects on divorce but not the much larger effects on separation we found for the two-parent families in the survey sample applied to the larger group of two-parent MFIP families.

Six years later, the full-sample story on divorce is decidedly mixed. Overall, for the full sample of two-parent families, there is no discernable pattern of effects on divorce over time. When we look at the two-parent recipient families only, those eligible for the MFIP program appear to be less likely to get divorced, but the finding is not statistically significant until the last year of follow-up, leaving open the possibility that the pattern we see could still be due to chance. Moreover, the pattern among applicants is also uncertain — barely statistically significant in one year, but favoring more rather than less divorce.

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The different direction in the findings for the recipient and applicant groups explains the absence of an overall effect on divorce. And in both cases, the effects we did see were small — about a 3 to 4 percentage point difference in divorce between the MFIP group and the AFDC group. They cannot distinguish informal statuses like separations, the form of marital dissolution that drove the dramatic month recipient findings mentioned above. We have no reliable way of exploring the separation findings. But the full-sample findings cast some doubt on that promise with regard to divorce but not separations , reinforcing the need to replicate programs like MFIP for two-parent families in different settings before reaching conclusions about the contribution such strategies might make toward strengthening marriage.

The findings particularly leave open the question of the possible range of effects that programs could achieve if policies providing marital education were combined with policies designed to affect employment and income. While the evidence base on marital education is extensive, there is much left to learn. For example:. On substantive, policy, and financial grounds, there are good arguments to be made for public involvement in the marriage field.

If marital education programs could be mounted at scale, if participation rates among those eligible were high, and if the programs were effective in encouraging and sustaining healthy two-parent families, the effects on children could be important.

Children of Divorce: Stories of Loss and Growth, Second Edition

The key word is if! The strong correlation between growing up in a two-parent family and improved child outcomes does not ensure that intervening to encourage more marriage and less divorce will have the intended results. Indeed, social policymaking based on correlation has an uncanny way of ending with unintended consequences. The Administration of Children and Families within the U. Department of Health and Human Services has launched two new projects to do just that. Both projects will involve large-scale, multisite, rigorous random assignment tests of marriage-skills programs for low-income couples.

The goal is to measure the effectiveness of programs that provide instruction and support to improve relationship skills. Some programs might also include services to help low-income couples address barriers to healthy marriages, such as poor parenting skills or problems with employment, health, or substance abuse. Programs operated under these demonstration umbrellas will screen for domestic violence and help participants gain access to appropriate services. Done well, the results from these path-breaking projects should inform the marriage field, and they should add value to our existing understanding of the potential and the pitfalls of government intervention in this critically important arena.

Edin, K. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Gennetian, L. Gottman, J. Marital Interaction: Experimental Investigations. Oxford, England: Elsevier. Furstenberg, F. Halford, W.

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