Bryan Caplan  

The Rotten Spouse Theorem

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Even after a bitter divorce, people often pay their ex a compliment: "He was a bad husband, but he's always been a good father" or "She was a bad wife, but she's always been a good mother."  Gracious, yes.  But accurate?  Hard to see how.

A family isn't a set of independent relationships.  They're all connected.  Damaging one foreseeably damages the other.  This is particularly obvious when parents fight in front of their children.  When your children hear you yell at your wife, you don't just hurt her feelings.  You hurt their feelings.

Thoughtful parents often respond with a "not in front of the children" pact.  It's a good idea, but changes nothing fundamental.  If you make decisions that hurt your spouse, you have to expect your children to suffer, too - even if they never connect the dots.  Maybe your spouse won't have the energy to play with them.  Maybe your spouse will snap at them.  And maybe your bad behavior will precipitate a downward spiral that destroys your family.  Try saying "not in front of the children" then.

Of course, it's conceivable that you can hurt your spouse without hurting your children.  But probabilistically, you have to expect your family members' pain to move in unison.  Think general equilibrium: The way you treat your spouse ripples out to your children.  The way you treat your spouse affects the way your spouse treats you, which ripples out to your children.  The direct effects are more visible, but that doesn't make them more real.  A good parent must, as Bastiat says, foresee the indirect effects of his behavior with the "inner eye of the mind."

The painful lesson: Contrary to gracious exes, being a bad spouse makes you a bad parent.  If you'd been a good spouse, you could have held your family together, and spared your children the pain of dissolution.  Of course, being directly bad to your spouse and indirectly bad to your children isn't as awful as being directly bad to both.  But either way, he who troubleth his own house inherits the wind.

P.S. None of this means that familial conflict or divorce hurts kids' long-run success or happiness.  Your kids' short-run distress - and long-run damage to your bond - should be troubling enough.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Tom West writes:

I suspect "he/she is a bad spouse/good parent" tends to come up when parents have young children and [time-needed-by-spouse] + [time-needed-by-children] + [time-needed-to-remain-employed] > 24 hours/day.

At that point, *something* is going to get neglected. Splitting the neglect between spouse and child may simply mean failure with both.

And oddly enough, the neglected parent may also agree with the split of attention, even if it causes them to seek emotional companionship elsewhere, since demanding the spouse neglect the children would make them feel selfish.

I've seen a moderate amount of this in the older generation, often when marriages are still legally, although not emotionally, intact.

drobviousso writes:

I think what Tom said probably applies to many families. I would also suggest that bad spouse/good parents can arise when one parent might be a good spouse in general, but can't function with their particular current spouse. I have a friend who work in family law, and she says that a big part of her job is figuring out if the parents should be divorced, or totally split up so they never have to see each other (e.g. dropping kids off with a social worker instead of the other parent)

Ignacio writes:

The criticism of "not fighting in front of the kids" should not be based on the fact that it is not as good as the perfect alternative (i.e., getting along so well that there is no reason to fight). It should be viewed as better than the most likely alternative.

Couples have disagreements once in a while and those disagreements must be resolved for the sake of the relationship (civily, one would hope). Consequently, the most likely alternative to not fighting/arguing in front of the kids will not be not to fight/argue at all, but to do it in front of them.

Thus, I disagree with your comments. I think that, for the sake of reducing the kids' short term distress, not fighting in front of them is a reasonable choice.

siredge writes:

Also, I think there is a bit of trying to justify sunk costs- "after all, why did you marry him in the first place?" If a person can't pay a former spouse a any compliment, then it looks naive (at best) or stupid / gullible for having married the other in the first place. Much easier to save face by paying some compliment that is still consistent with the decision to split up.

Tracy W writes:

siredge - that reminds me of Miss Manners' advice to divorcees, to always speak well of your ex so as to give the impression that you are quietly relieved to have gotten free, and thus your ex is presumably heartbroken.

Bob Murphy writes:

Well, if Bryan wants to get all technical and apply armchair economic logic to awful social situations, how's this: Once you are divorced, you are told that the best thing for the kids is to show them that you are civil to the other parent. I can label this "subgame perfection" if that gives it more oomph.

What is Bryan really saying in this post? That he wants divorced people to go around saying, "My spouse sucked and hurt our kids." ?

I don't think he's saying that. I think he's really just saying, "Getting divorced is hard on kids." Yes, it is.

TT writes:

I think that being a good spouse may not be enough to held your family together. someone could be a good spouse and could fail to held her/his family together.

Tom West writes:

I think he's really just saying, "Getting divorced is hard on kids."

Actually, I suspect Bryan's thesis (which is in accordance with his 'you don't really matter all that much to your kids prospects' theme) is don't neglect your spouse for your kids.

In the long run your spouse *needs* your attention if a marriage is to prosper, while as long as you don't go way outside the norms for middle class parents, your attention won't make much difference to how the kids turn out.

Lemmy C writes:

Being a poor spouse isn't the same thing as hurting them. It can simply be about other forms of disconnection: a loss of sexual interest, different directions in life, responses to outside pressures, etc.

Being a good parent and being a good spouse are objectively distinct sets of skills and behaviors. At its most general, the love of one's children tends to be unconditional. That of a spouse, not so much (it is much easier to think of a line which a spouse could cross which will produce an alienation of affection.)

There is so much lazy conflation in this article, and a lack of real empirical data, in might have been written by... an economist.

John writes:

What an incredibly simplistic and unscientific judgment. Embarrassing, really.

KenF writes:

So, what you are saying is that if people were nicer to their spouses, there would be fewer divorces. And people *should* be nicer to their spouses, reducing the number of divorces, because divorce upsets children. Also, being divorced is proof that you (or your ex-spouse? can it be both?) are not nice, since if you (or your ex-spouse? or both of you?) *were* nice, you wouldn't be divorced.

ledaddyswing writes:

i disagree.

have one kid, get out of the marriage before he or she is two and then negotiate a solid co-parenting agreement with your ex-wife or hubby. no real damage done to kid.

Ken writes:
being a bad spouse makes you a bad parent.  If you'd been a good spouse, you could have held your family together, and spared your children the pain of dissolution.

I assume I just overlooked the peer-reviewed empirical data you used to carefully arrive at this decision, rather than just a baseless blanket smear of all divorced parentets.

/rereads again.

Nope, just spouting off uninformed opinions to support a prima facie conclusion that all divorce is bad, no matter what. I hope you didn't get paid for this.

David H. writes:

This is like saying if you divorce, you're financially irresponsible because divorce can be financially ruinous. Huh?

[N.B. Commenter is not David Henderson--Econlib Ed.]

Anonymous writes:

As with most things that sounds simple and straightforward, its really not the simple and straightforward. The whole premise lies on the basis that one spouse in knowingly hurting the other spouse which therefore hurts the kids. Besides some very black and white scenarios (physical/mental abuse) most marriges suffer when the two individuals don't see matters the same way. I'd agree with the premise IF the spouse was intentionally causing harm but real life is more complex than that.

Tania writes:

I hope this is a generalization. The line "If you'd been a good spouse, you could have held your family together, and spared your children the pain of dissolution." offends me deeply. How am I a bad parent when my ex-husband had an affair and decided he'd rather get a divorce than to go to counseling and try to work through the aftermath?

valk writes:

I disagree with this. My parents divorced, would I be happy if they were together even when they clearly didn't love each other. Nope. Yet both were great parents to me. Referring to your credentials or general equilibrium theory is not going to change that.

Sure, divorce causes some bad feelings, awkward situations and scheduling nightmares but people can adapt. My worst childhood memories never came from my parent's divorce. In fact, I enjoyed being with either of my parent alone rather than with both of them together, and I still do. It is rather annoying being with them when they're together, because the lack of affection and the unspoken feelings show even when not a word is said. When I'm with them alone, there's not bad air at all, and its overall more enjoyable.

I think its good for parents to realize there're third parties, namely the children, involved when arguing or divorcing but you shouldn't make these generalizations that divorce is always wrong. In my case it was complete opposite. Sure, I'd be happier if they were together and loved each other, but when they don't, there's no reason to fake a relationship.

It also depends on the age of the children. The later it happens, the better. And it also depends on how the divorce is done. If its done in a civilized way without any "bitter arguments" (in the face of the children), its much better.

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