Critique of Constance Ahrons's We're Still Family

By Richard Beaulieu with John Crouch

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Recently, family researcher Constance Ahrons released a new work titled We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce, in which she detailed the results of her study of 173 children of divorceof 98 divorced families in a few Wisconsin counties over the past twenty years.

Ahrons' findings include:
Ms. Ahrons is a respected researcher, however, several flaws are present in her methodology and conclusions.

A possible source of error in the study is Ms. Ahrons's sample selection procedure. The vast majority of subjects in her study are white and middle class, and all were collected from divorces in a single Wisconsin county. These factors alone reduce the reliability of her findings in any attempt to generalize them over the population at large. As has been noted elsewhere, divorce can have particularly negative effects on minorities and those in lower socioeconomic strata, a factor largely ignored in Ms. Ahrons's study.

Secondly, the study primarily measures qualitative effects on the children, and does so in a subjective fashion, by asking the subjects of the study to assess their own well-being. While not useless, this methodology creates results of questionable reliability and generality. Judith Wallerstein's work, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, measured quantitative, as well as qualitative, data, and did so in a more objective fashion. Thus, the less damaging picture of divorce portrayed in Ahrons' work may be a simple case of respondents attempting to minimize the appearance of damage to themselves, in an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. Additionally, the influence of parental messages pertaining to the first two results mentioned above should not be underestimated. Many of the statments Ahrons quotes sound like they were adopted straight from one of the parents, and not independently formulated by the child based on the child's observation of events. The opinion of the children as to their parents' current state is less valuable in determining the effects of divorce on the divorced individuals than an objective, qualitative study of outcomes would have been.

In other words, remember that this study is only what it literally claims to be -- it's about "What Grown Children Have to Say" -- not about actual objective outcomes.

Ms. Ahrons's conclusion that "Dramatic changes in contemporary family life make the Norman Rockwell images of family life obsolete," is a misinterpretation of the results generated by the survey. Even assuming that her data is correct, fully one out of five children of divorced parents suffers significant psychological damage. This damage to a significant portion of children of divorce cannot be dismissed lightly. As David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, said having a good divorce "is not nearly as important as having less divorce. No matter how good your divorce is, it is still a very painful experience for your child." Furthermore, the aforementioned lack of generality in her study's results further reduces her ability to make such wide-ranging statements based on this study.

Finally, although this is not a criticism of Ahrons, here is what I think is going on with the children reporting that their parents' divorce was a good thing. Based on my work as a divorce and custody lawyer, I think that most children end up adopting the perspective of the parent who "won" in the divorce. In a psychological sense, not a legal or economic sense. Often both parents will convey the message that one parent won, and had his or her way, and one lost. Most children are not dispassionate and objective about stuff like this.

(Source: Petersen, K. (2004) Families split, but kids survive. USA Today, 6/6/2004. Retrieved 1 July, 2004 from www.usatoday.com.)



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Originally posted and maintained by Americans for Divorce Reform; now maintained by John Crouch. You can call me at (703) 528-6700 or e-mail me through my law office's web site.