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high-conflict households

The Gosselin family throws a party to celebrate the sextuplets fifth birthdayMichael Pilla/Getty Images

When Jon and Kate Gosselin filed for divorce, they challenged the notion that their eight children would be better off if they stayed married. "It's just not good for our kids, for us to be arguing in front of our kids," said Mr. Gosselin, while discussing the separation in an episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8 .

The man has a point, according to a recent study.

Although kids tend to do better when they live with both biological parents, the advantages are not shared by children in high-conflict households, writes the study's lead author, Kelly Musick, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University.

Teenagers whose parents don't get along, yet stay together, are much more likely to binge drink than other adolescents, the study found. As well, they are more likely to smoke, use marijuana and have sex at an early age.

Their poor school grades are similar to those of children whose parents are no longer together. And compared with children from low-conflict homes, they are more likely to be young and unmarried when they have a child and to experience the breakup of that relationship.

Income and parenting styles do not account for the differences, Dr. Musick says.

The study used data from almost 2,000 families interviewed by the National Survey of Families and Households in the United States. Dr. Musick and co-author Ann Meier of the University of Minnesota evaluated the level of conflict in married couples with kids aged 10 to 18 and then looked at how those kids fared from their teens through to their early 30s.

Overall, teenagers with argumentative parents are no better off in key areas than children who grow up in single-mother households or with a mother and stepfather, according to the report, which is available as a working paper at the University of California, Los Angeles, while under peer review.

The high-conflict couples said they argued frequently about household tasks, money, spending time together, sex, in-laws and the kids, which are "pretty common triggers," Dr. Musick says.

Whether they argued in front of the children is unknown, she notes. And since there is no standard definition of a combative marriage, the prevalence of such couples is hard to assess.

With its large sample size, however, the study does indicate that marital discord has an effect on a child's well-being, Dr. Musick says.

"It's important for couples to understand that it's not good enough just to stay together for the sake of the kids."

The social and financial costs of divorce are well documented, says Clarence Lochhead, executive director for the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Nevertheless, marriage is no longer the gold standard for ensuring a child's welfare, according to Mr. Lochhead. In fact, family structure may be less important than caring relationships and stability in a child's life.

"What this study does is address that sometimes there are costs associated with not breaking up," he says.

Kids who grow up in emotional battlefields are more likely to become depressed, according to family therapists. And parents who are consumed by anger for one another may neglect their children's needs. At the very least, they fail to model a loving relationship for their sons and daughters.

"All evidence points to the fact that conflict is bad for children," says Andrea Litvak, professor of social work at the University of Toronto.

While the negative effects of domestic violence are obvious, she says, other forms of marital conflict are damaging too, such as shouting, screaming or a cold war between parents.

Power struggles that involve children are especially harmful, she adds, even if it's a tug-of-war over whether a child is enrolled in hockey.

At the same time, conflict is inevitable in any meaningful relationship, Ms. Litvak points out. Children gain valuable interpersonal skills by watching parents settle their differences in a positive way. But even so, if parents are fighting daily in front of the kids, "it's probably not beneficial," she says.

Unfortunately, marital separation doesn't necessarily shield children from strife, experts say, since high-conflict marriages often turn into high-conflict divorces.

The goal is for parents to work together to meet the children's needs after a separation, says Edward Kruk, associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia.

Mediators can help diffuse tension between warring ex-spouses and teach them to avoid using their children as human shields during a divorce, he says.

Listen up, Jon and Kate.

"If you can co-operatively co-parent after the separation and figure out the financial issues, then you can go a long way to even improving [your]parenting," Dr. Kruk says.

The question is, can couples like the Gosselins co-operate on anything?

Ask their kids.