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The Divorce Myth

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 01, 2009

Children are happier if their parents are happier; they are better off growing up in an environment free from bickering; they are resilient enough that family upheavals do not negatively affect them over the long-term. Few would argue with these statements, but there is at least one scenario in which all of them are resoundingly false: That scenario is divorce. It turns out that, apart from violence and abuse, children are very much worse off if their parents become happier by divorcing, or if they avoid bickering by divorcing, or if the upheaval in question is the destruction of the family unit itself by divorce.

An article in this month’s Homiletic & Pastoral Review by Barbara Meng summarizes the data. Meng herself has an impressive résumé. She holds an MTS degree from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC; she is the editor of the Catholic Family Quarterly and the business manager of Catholic Faith Alive; she has seven children and eighteen grandchildren; and, by the way, she’s been married for 50 years.

In considering marriage and divorce, I’m always reminded of my wife’s grandmother, who had a reputation as a bit of a shrew, and who was heard to make the following comment on her own marriage when she was considerably older than Barbara Meng, had been married longer, and had become far less mentally alert: “Willie and I have been married for sixty years,” she said, “and never a bad day!”

Yes. Well. But this is not as much of a digression as you may think, for by the very laughter with which this statement must be greeted by any married couple, the opposite is proved, and a key point is made: There are many “bad days” in every marriage. It isn’t only those who are deliriously happy who stay the course. Yet staying the course is supremely important to children, and even to grandchildren.

Consider the only study that has followed, from childhood into full adulthood, the lives of those whose parents have divorced: Judith Wallerstein’s study, begun in 1971 and updated several times over a period of 25 years following the divorces in question. Wallerstein concluded:

Children in post-divorce families do not, on the whole, look happier, healthier or better adjusted even if one or both parents are happier. National studies show that children from divorced and remarried families are more aggressive toward their parents and teachers. They experience more depression, have more learning difficulties, and suffer from more problems with peers than children from intact families. More of them end up in mental health clinics and hospital settings. There is earlier sexual activity, or children born out of wedlock, less marriage, and more divorce. Numerous studies show that adult children of divorce have more psychological problems than those raised in intact marriages. (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Hyperion, 2000, p. xiii)

Wallerstein calls her findings, and those of other researchers, a “debunking of myths”—a thorough discrediting of what our own selfishness makes us want to believe. Another study by Carla Garrity and Mitchell Baris demonstrates that children benefit greatly from remaining in the same house and the same school and having an involved father, three things almost always eliminated by divorce (Caught in the Middle, Macmillian, 1994). And in yet another study, James Flosi concludes that even “children who are 30 or 40 when their parents decide to divorce will still experience the results of that divorce in their own personal lives…long after it has ceased to be an issue for the parents themselves” (Lives Upside Down, ACTA Publ, 1993). Other studies show that:

  • Women whose parents divorced were twice as likely to cohabit before marriage and have an illegitimate child.
  • Women ages 18-23 with recently divorced parents experienced more depression and were 50 percent more likely to say they needed psychological help.
  • Adults who had experienced divorce as children, even before age seven, were twice as likely to suffer major depression and commit suicide.

Young children, adult children, their spouses and their children (that is, even the grandchildren of divorced parents) suffer grievously from divorce. The myth that “we’re doing it for the children”—that it is better for children to end a troubled marriage rather than work hard to see it through to better times—has indeed been thoroughly debunked. This gives us another way to understand why fidelity is the key to marriage, and why the Church, in marriage cases, actually appoints someone to defend the marriage bond. It also gives another reason to enter marriage with the attitude that divorce is not an option, and to discuss that commitment up front. Finally, the debunking of the divorce myth provides another reason not to cut and run, another very good reason to work through the bad days.

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: Randal Mandock - Apr. 24, 2018 8:21 PM ET USA

    Is it the translator, or is it the Pope, who frequently uses "happiness" when the fruit of "joy" is most likely what he is trying to impress?

  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Dec. 05, 2009 12:32 AM ET USA

    In a society with "no fault" divorce laws, the result is "no responsibility" for marriage. Our "progressive" society now pushes "same sex" marriage. As with the impact of divorce on children, how will same sex parenting ultimately impact the lives of children raised in such an environment. While they cry out for "education" in which their children are "bullied", what they really want is a mandate to raise children in a disordered environment without public opposition.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 02, 2009 10:47 PM ET USA

    tleecat5005 defends divorce when there is abuse, and I say that divorce is abuse. When one spouse, or both, will not carry his/her cross, the children are burdened with unbearable crosses. tleecat5005 also defends declarations of nullity for incapability to make a commitment. And I argue that it's not incapability; it's unwillingness. It's the parental demand to have a new chance at romance, which has been unheard of up to now among Christians.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 02, 2009 4:38 PM ET USA

    It really is too bad that in our modern age that it is necessary to have an article about something so obvious: but it is.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 02, 2009 1:17 AM ET USA

    My husband and I are older and we both went through bad stuff growing up. Somehow the older generation did better in life with minor after effects. No prison, disrespect for authority, suicides, both had two marriages, have great kids/grand kids as well. At least one of our parents had good formation, love and faith. I think those ingredients made the difference. Much of that is lacking in families today. Many UNvalues prevail now with permissive thinking and much materialism. We had simple lives, less TV.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 01, 2009 11:26 PM ET USA

    Beyond the problems you cite, divorce is a mortal sin, dating among divorced people is a mortal sin. . .we should be hearing sermons on these facts because it is our priests' and bishops' job to lead us to salvation. The only place they seem to want to lead us is to the tribunal, which continues the evils of divorce/remarriage, and we are in a vicious, evil circle.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 01, 2009 10:26 PM ET USA

    Sometimes there are very valid reasons for divorce: abuse is one. In these cases, there is no way to work anything out. One must act. Also one party may be incapable of making a commitment (mentally, physcologically)--a reason for a Declaration of Nullity. Also in order to end an invalid marriage and obtain a Declaration of Nullity (annulment), one must first obtain a civil divorce.