PARIS: A recap of the 2014 Divorce Conference at INED

The 2014 Paris divorce conference – by Marion TD Lewis

The Twelfth Conference of the Network for the Sociological and Demographic Study of Divorce was held in Paris at INED (institut national d’etudes demographiques) from October 2 – 4, 2014. I was lucky to have been invited. I took the Metro to Porte de Montreuil and arrived at the INED Center on Boulevard Davout ahead of most of the other attendees. The moderator had expressed fears that most of the people who registered would not show up on account of the Air France strike, but it was a full house and I would say a very successful event. There were speakers and presenters from several countries including but not limited to Norway, Finland, Mexico, Belgium, United States, UK, Germany and Israel.

The key note speaker was an American professor of sociology and demography  from Penn State University – Dr. Paul Amato.Professor Amato  presented on the variations of children’s reaction to divorce. He used various variables from an academic, emotional and behaviorial point of view, and used charts and graphs to depict regression coefficients, change score analysis, mean deviation and standard deviation for his hypothesis that there are variations to children’s reactions. He underscored that looking at the mean differences was not enough.

As someone with a legal background as opposed to a scientific background, I was totally mesmerized by how scientists can literally turn even the most mundane divorce issues into pie charts and line graphs. I wondered whether having the science would make divorce lawyers better advocates for their clients or whether all this talk of coefficients, percentiles, quintiles and economies of scales would just get in the way of lawyers being able to make objective, reasoned legal décisions for their clients. Do divorce lawyers need to look at divorce empirically and to quantitatively analyze issues like income inequalities post divorce and how grandparents’ presence after a divorce impacts the lives of children of divorce in order to make more persuasive arguments to the courts for example? Or is it just too much information for the average judge to digest?

This was not a conference for the mathematically challenged (so yes there were moments when I thought of taking two handfuls of hair and pulling it from my head) and there weren’t a lot of surprises at the end of the day because it seems everybody concurs that divorce is usually not usually such a great event in a person’s life. But it wasn’t all bad news; a lot of the findings expressed were encouraging. Dr Amato, for example made the point that at least 19% of children exhibited a positive change in behavior after a divorce! He pointed out that “family structure is not destiny,” and that divorce can be good for some kids in some circumstances and that, as expressed earlier, there are “variations” in children’s reaction to divorce. He also made the point that it is difficult to predict which children will decline and which children will improve even when factoring variables like parental education, teacher’s role in children’s lives post-divorce and level of contact with the biological father (thus increased maternal parenting post divorce).

One researcher from Turku Finland made the point that contemporary familistic regimes are good for kids because more parents are better than too few parents. So children today who are the product of divorce often find themselves with at least four parents pretty quickly (biological mom, biological dad, step mom, step dad – for example) and this, all things held equal, is better for the kids according to his research than, say, being in a single parent home. That is, there is a correlation between  post-divorce outcome for some kids and the fact that their parents remarried and formed hopefully stable relationships within a reasonably short time after the divorce from the child’s parent.

What is the takeaway? Divorce is a complex issue that affects people’s lives all over the world. It has repurcussions that go far beyond the certificate of dissolution. This should not be a huge newsflash. From a lawyer’s perspective it was a bit sobering because we are not trained to think about the sociological or even interpersonal aspects of divorce. Divorce lawyers play a very limited role in getting that marriage contract dissolved but this role can be incredibly consequential in the sense that how that contract is dissolved can have far reaching and reverberating effects on the lives of the spouses and their children.  So perhaps having some scientific exposure to this issue might make some divorce lawyers a little bit more sensitive in the way they execute their jobs. That is, maybe instead of needing to “win” at all costs, sometimes lawyers can work to have a “win win.”

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