Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Divorce is the most prevalent form of child abuse.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 10, 2014

We have a donor who occasionally posts in Sound Off!, offering insight into current issues from a psychological point of view. This is not surprising. His Sound Off! alias is Shrink and he is, in fact, a psychologist. I call your attention to a trenchant comment he made following my second essay on the Charlotte controversy (What the Charlotte controversy reveals about the acceptance of Catholic teaching). In that essay I had made the point that whether or not gay “parents” were more likely to deliberately and overtly abuse their children was beside the point. The point is that placing a child with a gay couple is intrinsically abusive, especially with respect to the child’s affective development.

In response, Shrink wrote as follows:

I would add the following psychological point: Once society tolerates wide-spread divorce, it is tolerating wide-spread child abuse, because divorce is simply legal recognition of one kind of child abuse. The gay parenting aspect simply extends a tolerance of abuse that has been with us for 50 years.

While this should not have been a new insight for me, in fact it was. I have, of course, always been against easy divorce and serial monogamy. I have always known what has since been overwhelmingly confirmed by many significant studies—that children of divorce are far more likely to suffer from emotional instability, serious insecurity, stunted affective development, and many other dysfunctional tendencies as compared with children raised in a stable family with a mother and father. And I have known that single parents, even regardless of the reason, face an uphill battle when it comes to raising stable, well-adjusted children.

But I had not thought about all this in terms of child abuse.

Spiritual Caveats

Now a few caveats are in order here. We are all weak and even broken in various ways, and no family perfectly meets the needs of every child. There is certainly plenty of evidence in both nature and Revelation that the human person is designed to be nurtured in a family which grows from a stable union of love between husband and wife. But even if we experience the great benefit of being raised in this way, we will still in some respects feel confused, distressed and unfulfilled at times. Not only is our own human nature weakened by sin and adversely affected by the human weaknesses of others, but there is very definitely a yearning in every person that can be satisfied only by an ever-closer relationship with God.

Moreover, those who have no moral choice but to be single parents, even while they are aware of the additional problems this creates for their children, should take hope from the reality that God Himself can supply through His grace and presence anything that might be missing in nature. This does not mean that raising stable and happy children in a single parent family is easy; but it does mean that, in a context of prayer and spiritual development, it is possible. This context includes fidelity to one’s legitimate marriage vows even in the absence of the spouse—in itself a huge catalyst of grace and blessing. When parents and children turn to God, especially through Jesus Christ in His Church, all things are possible. Under such circumstances, the hope of parents and chlldren does not die. It gets a new lease on life.

Finally, it goes without saying that even properly married men and women must foster the same hope. All parents ignore their dependence on God and the spiritual development of their children at their peril.

But, having said all that, it remains true that the playing field is not level for single parents, and especially for divorced parents (a child can deal far more easily with death, and usually even with an unwed mother, than with divorce and deliberate family “reconfiguration”). Even if the playing field can be levelled and smoothed through the perfection of nature by grace, very often that does not happen. Very often, probably most often, it is not even sought. In the ordinary course of life, then, the deliberate sundering of the marriage bond, wrong when avoidable for so many reasons, is in fact deeply abusive to the children of that marriage.

If we have ears, then we must hear

In a culture which fears commitment and strives for sexual “emancipation” as a positive good—and also for reasons of basic psychological denial on the part of those who have been responsible for a divorce—there are many who either do not wish to be told the truth about divorce, or who think it is “hateful” or at least “hurtful” to express such realities to those who have suffered through a divorce. This follows the rule that it is “hateful” (or at least “hurtful”) to tell the truth about anything that cuts against the grain of what is culturally acceptable. But while truth certainly demands charity, we often forget that charity—true love—also demands truth. It is always a disservice to keep people in the dark about the fundamental moral and spiritual realities which, in the end, must inescapably determine their happiness. What is required is always a hopeful recognition of both the problems and their remedies.

In any case, if you ask anyone who has been forced into a divorce unwillingly, with little or no need to rationalize his or her own role in that process, you will find that to a man or a woman they know that divorce is horrific in its consequences for their children, not to mention themselves. In contrast, the modern world sugarcoats divorce, even making it the subject of romantic comedies. Heroic characters in books, television programs, and movies are disproportionately divorced, and by a huge margin. I have a kitchen apron with this slogan written across the front: “What would Gibbs do?” I love the television series from which this slogan comes, “NCIS”. But I do not kid myself: Gibbs has been married three times, losing a wife and child through murder initially, and then married and divorced twice. His friend in the FBI has also been married and divorced from one of these wives. This fictionalizing perpetuates and reinforces the lie that divorce is normal and does no harm to anyone. This may well be “the big lie” of our time.

I also had for many years a T-shirt which showed a man standing on the stump of a fallen tree, asking this question: “If a man speaks in the forest and there is no woman to hear him, IS HE STILL WRONG?” Having been married now for 42 years, I can state with confidence that this is a fair question! Nonetheless, though I may be crying in the wilderness, I am not wrong about this: Even if it is sometimes unavoidable on the part of one of the spouses, and even if in certain abusive situations it can be the lesser of two evils, divorce is intrinsically a very severe form of child abuse.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: littleone - May. 19, 2014 7:07 PM ET USA

    Traumatic Loss is devastating to children, and I would put divorce in this category, rather than calling it abuse. There are far far too many folks who separate and divorce for the good of the children in situations of severe domestic violence and physical and emotional neglect and abuse to label the need to escape the abuse as abusive. Nonetheless, the message is the same. Traumatic loss is devastating and has similar effects as does child abuse. In reality, the effects are often worse.

  • Posted by: David Miller - Apr. 11, 2014 8:21 AM ET USA

    My parents' divorce became an issue for my faith: it taught me any promise could be broken and trusting other people with your heart makes no sense. This isolation applied to God as well. It took years for me to even realize I was isolating myself, and more years to realize why. At the Good Friday service last year I experienced something that moved me: that God does always keep his promises, and even my parents never broke their promise to love me. I hope my stepkids will have it better.