Conventional wisdom once held that couples should stick it out in unhappy marriages for the sake of the children. But as the divorce rate soared, the myth emerged that kids get over divorce quickly, so an amicable separation is better than a bad marriage.
More than 30 years of research has found otherwise. Extensive studies reveal a staggering correlation between divorces and emotional wounds that last into adulthood. Divorce has been linked to many social problems, including trust issues, higher rates of drug abuse, difficulties maintaining meaningful relationships and higher suicide rates.
Myth of the good divorce
Margaret Harper McCarthy, an assistant professor of theological anthropology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., brought together 18 family and marriage therapists, professors and researchers, including some from divorced families, in her new book “Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins” (Eerdmans Publishing, $34).
“We wrote the book to challenge deep-seated culture doctrines,” McCarthy told Our Sunday Visitor. “These were the driving force behind the myth of the ‘good divorce.’”
She explained that there are two deeply ingrained notions that have encouraged divorce. “One is that we are what we make of ourselves; our past doesn’t matter,” McCarthy said. “The second is that to be a free, consenting adult, we need to have a whole range of options open to us. Marriage, accordingly, has to be reconceived as open-ended, something one can easily get out of.”
The problem with those doctrines, she said, is that in reality, the scars of our past become a part of who we are regardless of our age, and secondly, exiting marriage because it no longer interests us does not offer real freedom or happiness.
“The experience brought forth by children questions the dominant ideals which would decouple marriage from children,” McCarthy said. “Children of divorce, even as adults, show that their parents’ union is not negligible for them. They are forced to live in two worlds — torn asunder — because they are the physical manifestation of the unity of two people that went their separate ways.”
According to McCarthy, it’s a mistaken notion that if there is enough outside support, kids will do fine. When research only considers exterior markers for success such as college, jobs and income, she explained that it might appear children of divorce are unfazed, but looking deeper uncovers lasting wounds.
Divorce changes kids
In the 25-year landmark study, presented in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” (Hatchette Book Group, $16.99), Judith Wallerstein tracked children through adulthood who were 13-18 years old when their parents divorced in the early 1970s. Using extensive clinical interviews, they were contrasted with adults who grew up in the same communities.
The two groups viewed life differently. Wallenstein discovered a sleeper effect where the worst symptoms often appeared after children grow up and attempt to form intimate relationships and have families of their own.
“The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy and commitment,” Wallerstein wrote. “Their lack of inner images of a man and a woman in a stable relationship and their memories of their parents’ failure to sustain the marriage badly hobbles their search, leading them to heartbreak and even despair.”
Wallerstein observed that “children of divorce and those in happy, intact families live in separate albeit parallel universes.” For instance, she noted that children of divorce tend to remember very little of their parents’ pre-divorce situation while children from an intact family group have vivid memories of early childhood.
McCarthy explained that children of divorce crave the unity of their parents. “They often get more attention from their parents who still love them, but they miss the love of parents for each other.”
She acknowledged that there are times a spouse needs to divorce for reasons of safety. “Life isn’t fair, and sometimes there are bad situations, but we should not deny it’s a bad deal for the kids,” she said.
As Christians, McCarthy said, we are not victims of our wounds, but “acknowledgement of what is at stake offers a source of relief for the generations whose experience had long been managed by happy talk.”
Reasons to stay married
Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, author and the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, has made saving marriages his life mission. He has worked with hundreds of couples over the past 35 years and contributed the chapter “Children of Divorce: Conflicts and Healing” to the book “Torn Asunder.”
“Since 1974, about 1 million children per year have seen their parents divorce,” he said. “They are two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies.” Fitzgibbons stated that no amount of success in adulthood compensates for an unhappy childhood or erases the memory of the pain and confusion of their divided world.
“Before I go to work every morning, I go to Mass and put my patients on the altar,” he said. “The most difficult patients I have to treat are the children of divorce, so I’m highly motivated to protect them knowing that the suffering could be prevented if people [their parents] could just have more self-knowledge and understanding that the Sacrament of Marriage can protect and sustain their love.”
He gave three reasons that couples should be committed to marriage: They made a vow to God to love and honor one’s spouse all the days of one’s life; it is the parents’ responsibility to protect their children’s psychological and spiritual lives from the lifelong trauma of divorce; and most marital conflicts stem from unresolved problems that can be overcome.
“All of us bring gifts as well as weaknesses into our marriages,” he said, “but there was only one perfect family. We can overcome weaknesses of selfishness, anger, controlling behaviors and poor communication that lead to divorce by growth in virtues and in grace.”
Greg Alexander and his wife, Julie, the parents of seven children, are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year. Yet 20 years ago they had planned to divorce until coming to understand what the Church teaches about marriage.
The Alexanders went on to found The Alexander House to help other couples heal relationships, and they authored “Marriage 911: How God Saved Our Marriage (and Can Save Yours Too!)” (Servant Books, $14.99).
“Most engaged couples don’t understand what marriage is about,” Alexander said. He pointed to Catholic canon law as defining marriage as the intimate, exclusive, indissoluble communion of life and love, raised to the level of a sacrament between baptized persons for the purpose of their own good and the procreation and education of children.
“When we don’t participate with God in the sacrament in the way he mean[s] it to be, we experience difficulty,” Alexander said. He likened it to failing at using a computer properly by not following the owner’s manual.
The biggest culprit, according to him, is selfishness, which manifests itself in a host of areas of marital life, such as in finances, infidelity and communication. “If I’m focused on myself and not happy, I think now I have to go somewhere else to find fulfillment,” Alexander said.
“Many young people are looking for alternatives because we have failed to show the beauty of marriage,” he said. “At the first sign of trouble to a relationship, they get out because that’s what mom and dad did. Then they take the same problems to another relationship and deal with the same issues again and again.”
God does not want couples to be unhappy, according to Alexander. “We have a whole process of understanding God’s plan for marriage and what it means to be a helpmate and then to weave love into the whole process,” he said.
Even when the other spouse does not cooperate in the process, Alexander said that he has witnessed marriages recover based on the prayers and efforts that began with just one spouse.
“Love isn’t a feeling,” he said, “those are up and down. You choose to love the person you married because you made a promise to that person and to God.”
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.