Between Two Worlds—The Effects of Divorce on Children
In America and Britain roughly half of all marriages end in divorce.1 While few pretend this is easy for the children, conventional wisdom holds that there is nothing worse for them than growing up amid marital discord; furthermore, if the divorce is reasonably amicable and the children stay in touch with both parents, the damage will be limited.2 However, according to a recent American survey, even the so-called “good divorces” typically result in psychological damage to the children, who experience more stress, loneliness, and inner confusion than those whose parents stayed married.
The 2003 survey, conducted by Elizabeth Marquardt of the Institute for American Values in New York and University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn, was based on telephone interviews of 1,500 people between the ages of 18 and 35. Half came from intact families; the other half had divorced parents, with whom they were still in regular contact. Beyond the phone calls, the survey extended to 71 other young adults, who participated in face-to-face interviews. They, too, were split fifty-fifty—half coming from stable homes, half not—but all were college graduates, so as to test whether apparently “successful” children had suffered emotional damage from their parents’ divorce.3
In Between Two Worlds, her book based on the findings, Marquardt showed that the differences were stark. Even after a “good” divorce, 52% of the children said that family life was stressful, compared with just 7% from happy marriages and 35% from unhappy but “low-conflict” marriages.4 Half reported that, even as children, they “always felt like an adult,” compared with 36% from happy marriages.5 And children of divorce felt less protected by their parents, less emotionally secure, and less safe at home than other children.
Marquardt, herself the child of divorced parents, argued that married parents were responsible for making sense of their two sets of beliefs, values, and ways of living. This might spark conflict, but in marriage, it was the parents’ job to handle that conflict—not the child’s. But when parents divorced, they retreated into their own worlds, and the gulf between these two worlds could become increasingly wide. The children who stayed in touch with both parents lived between these two worlds and had to determine alone, and at a young age, what their own beliefs and values would be. They became “early moral forgers” with “divided selves” as they tried to fit into two, separate parental realms. Not surprisingly, this led to stress, often prolonged into adult life, even amongst the apparently successful. Also, because divorced parents failed to provide for their children a shared vision of the world, their children were less likely to be religious or active in church. Furthermore, their trials often caused them to doubt the existence of a loving God.6
Though apologists for divorce are prone to point to “high conflict” marriages beset by physical abuse and chronic, bitter quarrelling, Marquardt focuses on the two-thirds of all divorces which terminate “low-conflict” marriages, where the parents simply feel unhappy or unfulfilled. Here, especially, she urges parents to reconsider their decision to separate. She pleads on behalf of the children, who “are voiceless: they don’t write books, they don’t vote, they don’t usually get interviewed on television. We learn about their experience by sensitively observing their lives and later, when they are grown up, asking them what it was like.”7 But by then the damage has been done.
Of course, the Bible offers marriage counsel and the Holy Spirit provides healing power extending well beyond the observations and remedies of social scientists. Without, and sometimes contrary to, academic publications, pastors know that even “high conflict” marriages are redeemable. But it is helpful for them to know that statisticians have mined data underscoring the wisdom of God’s standards. Malachi 2:16 teaches that the Lord hates divorce, and it should not be surprising that secular sociologists and psychologists would uncover some of the reasons why.
1 An international comparison of divorce rates published in 2002 by Gulnar Nugman of the U.S. Heritage Foundation found that 54.8% of marriages in the U.S.A. and 42.6% of marriages in the U.K. ended in divorce. These are amongst the highest rates in the world. See “World Wide Divorce Rates,” Americans for Divorce Reform, www.divorcereform.org/gul.html (accessed January 31, 2007).
2 See Kairos Journal article, "Divorce’s Forgotten Victims".
3 Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (New York: Crown Publications, 2005), 2-3.
4 Ibid., 195.
5 Ibid., 196.
6 Conversely, however, some of the children actually become more religious, as they looked outside the family for moral and spiritual guidance to help them make sense of life. See, Ibid., 139-159.
7 Ibid., 4.