Commentary: Couples who stay in unhappy unions for the sake of children may end up harming them
A toxic home environment that drags on for years may take a big emotional toll on children, says family lawyer Sharanjit Kaur.
SINGAPORE: With the number of marriages being dissolved, hitting an all-time high of 7,623 cases here in 2019, divorce is naturally a topic of interest to both the state and social agencies.
On Dec 8, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) released information about a landmark study which examined the marital and economic records of more than 100,000 Singaporeans.
It found that by 35 years of age, these adult children whose parents divorced before they turned 21, earned less than their peers whose parents stayed together.
They were also more likely to get divorced too. These were what the researchers called “divorce penalties”.
On Dec 11, local women’s organisation the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) responded to the MSF study, saying in a Facebook post that it questioned the methodology and was concerned about the message it was sending about how this may make getting divorces harder.
“Children of divorced parents should be compared to children of parents who faced similar issues as their divorced counterparts but chose to remain together. In other words, children of divorced parents should be compared to children of unhappy but intact families, if we want to isolate the effects of divorce on children,’’ said AWARE in a Facebook post.
In Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 5), the issue was discussed when MP Melvin Yong asked MSF about the study and the issue of a “divorce penalty”.
In her reply, Minister of State Sun Xueling said the study did not set out to prove a “deterministic cause and effect relationship” between divorce and outcome on children.
She went on to say that the study found that some did well and “even better than many children whose parents remained married.’’
The underlying point is that a marital breakdown is often complex and sometimes may include very serious issues such as abuse.
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STIGMA OF DIVORCE IN SINGAPORE
In Singapore, divorce is still a taboo. The social stigma attached to a divorce still very much exists in our society, especially for women, albeit to a lesser extent.
The conservative approach towards marriage endorsed by “Asian values” or culture, which are entrenched primarily in the older generation and reiterated to the next, still upholds the concept of a nuclear family.
Correspondingly, divorcees and children from divorced parents may be perceived negatively by society.
In the 23 years that I have been a family lawyer, I do see couples stay in unhappy unions due to these factors. There are financial reasons – one of the most immediate and inevitable implications of divorce is its impact on the financial health of the family.
Not only is a contested divorce process itself costly, but divorce also has a direct impact on the economy of the family, particularly in single-income households.
For instance, if the woman is a homemaker and wants out, she may be concerned about how she is going to find the money to fund the process and support herself. This fear of a future that is uncertain is real among couples.
But perhaps the most significant reason is the children. Some parents choose to stick it out despite being in an unhappy relationship so as not to disrupt their children’s lives.
When seeing through the lens of whether this reason is indeed in the best interest of the children, it is important for parents to weigh the value of staying together against the risks of staying together.
STAYING IN A TOXIC HOME MAY BE JUST AS HARMFUL
While research rightly shows that divorce has implications on children, we cannot ignore other findings which suggest that, exposing children to a dose of daily arguments, resentment or even a violent or abusive relationship may not serve them any better.
Such a negative environment in an intact marriage, can also take a toll on many aspects of the lives of the children.
When a child is constantly caught in between the acrimony of their parents, it eliminates the opportunity for the child to experience a nurturing, calm and peaceful environment. This leaves the child stuck in a cycle of having to cope with the emotional turmoil instead of focusing on matters essential for the development of the child.
In my experience, adult children have shared that this has resulted in affecting the children’s views of marriage and eventually affect the way they build relationships with others. Certainly, more studies can shed light on this.
In 1995, three American researchers, Paul Amato, Laura Spencer Loomis and Alan Booth conducted a 12-year longitudinal study on the consequences of martial conflict on children. They found that consequences on children depended on how high or low marital conflict was.
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In high-conflict families, the well-being of children was better if their parents divorced, than if they stayed together. But in low-conflict homes, they did better when parents stayed together, instead of splitting up.
What this study showed was that conflict is at the heart of better or poorer outcomes for children.
SPLITTING AMICABLY IS POSSIBLE
According to the Department of Statistics, the number of divorces of marriages with durations of 30 years and more have increased by 35 per cent from 414 divorces in 2010 and 561 divorces in 2019.
In these cases, it is not uncommon to see parents who have been living in unhappy relationships choosing to finally dissolve their marriages after their children have grown up or have left home.
According to government data, more seniors are getting divorced. In 2018, 601 men aged 60 and older got divorced, more than double the 274 in 2008.
As for women, 313 in the same age group ended their marriages in 2018 compared with 131 in 2008. It is a trend that experts and lawyers are seeing too.
Couples delayed their divorces in the hope that once their children reached adulthood, they can deal with the split better and there is less emotional harm involved.
But years of having to live with tense and fraught emotions have shown to take a toll on children, who when given a chance to speak about their views, say they wished their parents had split up earlier.
There are cases where some adult children have shared that they would have preferred if their parents had gone their separate ways from the get-go.
It is noteworthy that these adult children regret the emotional turmoil on them over the years with some of them realising that they needed to re-learn the way they build relationships with people in their adult life.
In some unfortunate cases, the children were not able to turn to either parent for support and resorted to looking to others for the same, thus building a lot of resentment against one or both parents.
While these adult children were seen in the eyes of society as hailing from an intact home, there were many challenges they had to face living in a chaotic environment seeing their parent’s unhappiness and struggles, but not being able to voice out and seek help.
Divorce should never be the first option in any marriage. No one enters such a union wanting to fail. But relationships do fail and divorce may not necessarily be a definite egregious option for some families.
Focus should be placed on strengthening relationships in a family, which would be in the best interests of children, and not just preserving the marriage.
There are couples who, despite their differences, were able to go their separate ways without compromising the welfare of their children. They could see the benefits of co-parenting and working together despite going their separate ways.
In placing the children first, they have worked towards always providing a stable and healthy environment – in a manner of speaking, they have shared that living in two peaceful homes is better than living in one chaotic one.
Sharanjit Kaur is a partner in in Gabriel Law Corporation and specialises in family law.