The Rotten Spouse Theorem
By Bryan Caplan
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.