Divorce and Children
Pat Fagan, Ph.D.
Director, Marriage and Religion Research Institute
Here is a question for the two authors of the Scientific American’s recent article on the not-so-bad effects of divorce.
Why is it that in all measures of outcomes at the national level children of divorce as a group do significantly worse than children of intact married families? If divorce has so little effect why do these big effects constantly appear, in virtually every measure measured? Even remarriage does not wipe out most of them, and even intensifies some of them … at the group level.
On every outcome measured children of divorce as a group do worse, significantly worse. That is a generalization but one that holds. For a fairly recent overview and synthesis of the findings see The Effects of Divorce on Children.
Not all children suffer all the possible bad effects and different children suffer to different degrees, even within the same family. This provides some consolation to parents who divorce, but little to those who did not want divorce yet had to endure it.
As a former therapist who helped some awful marriages turn around I know how helpless the spouse is who wants to make the marriage work while the other spouse just wants out. When both, even in awful and abusive marriages, want to make it work, such marriages can be made whole again. But when one spouse in a relatively decent marriage wants out there is nothing that can be done. Spouse and therapist are helpless (though there are things a good therapist can try with the willing spouse to get the other to change her mind — more women want out than do men— but such is a long shot and both know it).
None of the literature reviewed talked about the sexual difficulties of children of divorce: out of wedlock births (but many protest that is OK too), early sexual involvement (but other protest that is OK too), cohabitation before marriage (but many protest that is OK too), and their own much higher rates of divorce after they marry (but that brings us back full circle).
The article seems more like a justification and rationalization of the radical individualism involved in the breakup of a marriage. More than half of American parents split whether in divorce, after cohabitation or by not coming together at all. By age 17 fifty four percent of American children have parents who have rejected each other. This intimate family experience of the deepest of rejections has lasting effects, some overt and easily measured by sociologists, others much more subtle but happiness-robbing and visible only in therapy or experienced only by spouses of children of divorce.
Western Civilization was built on stable marriage, a phenomenon Christianity gave the West and with it all the treasures and strengths of stable family life. Not all Christians lived Christ’s way but many did and they shaped law, society, expectations in myriad ways to give societies that stability with all its benefits. But modern man, including most modern Americans, even American Christians, find Christianity too hard and are leaving it or the harder parts behind. They are free to choose but they are not free to choose the consequences: more instability in family, more chaos in society, and less developed human beings overall.
Christians have to learn to live with these burdens that others place on society as a whole and thus on them as well. Early Christians lived in societies rife with these burdens.
We are going into a new phase in history that will not be as happy, nor as easy as it was half a century ago. Welcome to suffering, and to the self-justification of those who don’t want to make their marriages work when they get “bad”. The only way to turn this around is for Christians to live marriage and family life as they are called to live it. Eventually others will say again “See how they love one another”. Then they will want back in. Freedom works both ways: leaving and coming back.