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The Carnage of Divorce

June 28, 2017

divorceAlmost two decades ago, as a younger priest, I remember trying to save a marriage. Sadly, by the second counseling session I concluded that the couple really had no intention of trying to save the marriage. Rather, they were looking to me to assuage their guilt and to console them by telling them they were really “doing the right thing,” that God wanted them to be happy and would not mind if they divorced. I could do no such thing.

At a critical moment the couple said, in effect, “We are really doing this for the sake of the children. We don’t want them to suffer with all of our bickering.” To which I replied, “Then stop the bickering!” As they looked at me incredulously, I went on to urge them to get whatever help they needed to work through their differences. I insisted that God hates divorce and that divorce is not good for children; reconciliation is what they want and need.

Realizing that they were not going to get the approval and consolation they sought, the couple ended the session and did not return. They finalized their divorce. Their three children went on to be subject to things far worse than bickering: being carted around to different households on weekends, meeting Dad’s new girlfriend, accepting a stepdad, always secretly wishing that Mom and Dad would love each other again.

I thought of that story (and others like it) as I was reading this book, published in May: Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, by Leila Miller. It should be required reading for anyone who thinks that divorce is “good thing” for their children—or even for them.

Consider the following passage from the book, in which a woman writes of suffering through her parent’s divorce during her youth:

My grandparents’ generation had to deal with a lot — war, undiagnosed PTSD, and alcoholism—but they had a noble idea: That you sacrificed your own happiness for your children’s well-being. You took on all the heartache so they didn’t have to. …

My parent’s generation inverted that. They decided it was better a child should have her world torn apart than that an adult should bear any suffering. Of course, they didn’t frame it that way. They wanted to believe that the child would suffer less, because children were just extensions of the mother, and the mother would theoretically be happier [p. 131].

It is shocking logic, but widespread in our culture. Indeed, the whole conversation about marriage today is about adults and what makes them happy; children are something of an afterthought. Marriage is said to be about romance, being happy, and “finding a soulmate.” But if one asks a couple about having children, a common response is, “Oh sure, that too. We’ll probably have a kid or two … when we’re ready.” Children are seen more as a way of accessorizing the marriage, as an “add-on” rather than the essential work of a marriage.

Yet the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage has its entire structure made sensible by its central work: procreation and the subsequent raising of the children. That a man and a woman should enter a stable, lifelong union makes sense because that is what is necessary and best for children. Marriage is about children and has its very structure directed toward what is best for them. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, a child is best raised by a father and a mother who are stably present and who manifest the masculine and feminine genius of being human. To intentionally subject children to anything less or anything different does them an injustice.

The divorce culture casts this aside and insists that marriage is about adults and what makes them happy. If there are children in the picture, don’t worry, they’ll adjust; kids are resilient. Or so the thinking goes.

Leila Miller has done a wonderful service in showing that children are not so resilient after all. In fact, even long after attaining adulthood, these victims of their parents’ divorces still suffer painful and lasting effects. Ms. Miller interviewed 70 adult children of divorce and let them speak for themselves.

Many were surprised that anyone was interested or even cared about what they thought or had experienced. One of the more common experiences shared was a “we’re not going to talk about the divorce” mentality. Never mind the awkwardness of Mom and Dad marrying others. We’re supposed to go along with the drastic changes and be delighted, happily accept new siblings, and call some man “Dad” (or some woman “Mom”) who really isn’t. We want to make sure that no one’s feelings get hurt, so we’re all going to be nice and pleasant. The unspoken message in this is that the feelings of the children matter less and must be sacrificed so that others—mainly adults—can be happy and “get on with their lives.”

Some who have read this book say, “Finally, someone understands.” Or “Wow, that’s just how I feel!” The powerful, articulate testimonies in it will help those who had to live through divorce to name and understand their own hurts and feelings, not merely so as to brood or to reopen old wounds, but to the bring them to the light and seek deeper healing.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a healing for those who have suffered and, I pray, a strong medicine to prevent divorce. As Christians, let’s remember that God designed marriage to be what is best for children. The truest happiness any father or mother can find will be the knowledge that they made the sacrifices necessary to be sure that their children were raised well and prepared for life here, and even more, for eternal life.

Disclaimer: Not everyone who is divorced came to be so in the same way. Some tried hard to save their marriage but their spouse was unwilling. Others came to conversion later in life. Still others were physically endangered during the marriage. This essay is not to be construed as a general condemnation of all who are divorced. Rather, it is a heartfelt plea that amidst today’s divorce culture we count the full cost of divorce and that we remember that marriage is first and foremost about what is best for children.

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Comments (19)

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  1. Jennifer Watkins says:

    I applaud you! God hates divorce. It is like covering oneself in a robe of violence. If those in their right mind would think about this, really consider it, they would agree. Continue the good fight to hold up marriage.

  2. Nick says:

    Dating and lifelong marriage are human courtship and monogamous mating in the animal kingdom. Sex is human reproduction, part of our natural selection and human evolution. One should have as many children as one can raise because we’re iteroparitous. Abortion is wrong because animal life begins with the zygote and we’re viviparous. Gender identity is wrong because we’re unisexual. Children are people, so they ought to be respected and cared for as children.

    These are scientific facts, even regarding abortion and gender identity being wrong – being as wrong as outdated models and superseded theories of science. The theories that life doesn’t begin at fertilization, that there are more than two genders, that children aren’t Homo sapien, that population control is good, that sex is evil, and that marriage isn’t about children are debunked. How often will this pseudoscience be pushed by advocates of an intrinsic evil!

  3. a catholic psychologist says:

    Some day people will be able to speak candidly about divorce that it is a form of legalized child abuse. ( Too bad, our current pontiff cannot bring himself to speak to this abuse, paying instead too close attention to the misery of the adults who are perpetrating the abuse. )

  4. John says:

    I grew up in a divorced household replete with stepmothers and a stepfather. What I figured out later in life but not at the time was that these “steps” did not want me as part of the deal when marrying my birth parents. I was not liked by any of them. Consequently, after being shuttered back and forth between their homes and the rest of it I decided to exit this scenario before I got out of high school. Fortunately, back then rentals were not exorbitant in the area I lived as they are now and I was able to pull it off.

    From what I gather when it comes to divorce today is the rates are much lower with higher educated couples. Like many other things in American society educational and income stratification are telling when looking at not only divorce rates but out of wedlock births. Lower income couples not only divorce at much higher rates than higher income couples, but have unusually high rates of children out of wedlock. As a reference Charles Murray in his book “The State of White America: 1960 – 2010” goes into this topic in great detail.

  5. Mike in Virginia says:

    Amen!

    The negative outcomes of our nation and society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage will be small compared to the negative outcomes of our nation and society’s acceptance of casual, no-fault divorce. We are a nation of cruel policy towards children. We are a nation that places near zero accountablity on parents for behaving irresponsibly towards marriage and the care of children.

    Our nation has no clue regarding the importance of marriage and why it is of extrement importance both to God and also the healthy-minded civic state.

  6. Juris Doctor says:

    Thank you, Father. It is true that not enough is said (or taught) about the plague of divorce and the consequent damage to children. In my view, much would be accomplished if the canon law on separation cases was better known and actually used. These laws not only protect a “primal” good, but they also protect the faithful from a no-fault legal system that cares neither for the parties nor their children. When it comes to divorce, the law can’t simply cut the babe in half and call it a day.

    • john farrell says:

      JD, this book demonstrates what a “grave offense against natural law” looks like. The canons you mention protect against this. To deny these canons is in effect to deny natural law. The reason 100% of US bishops deny canons 1151-55 and 1692-1696 is because you can’t very well promote annulment while telling spouses they are obligated to live the common life. Annulment is the bishop’s priority..

  7. Nathaniel says:

    Divorce is popular because it can make life better for the decision makers, the parents. For the children it is mostly terrible. It rocks your whole world. You learn to survive because in a survival sense kids are strong. But what it takes to survive creates deep, permanent wounds. It draws you inward and makes you untrusting and doubtful. God hates divorce and so do I having been victimized by it.

  8. Matthew K Minerd says:

    Bravo—on all counts. I write as one who knows the dynamics well myself, and who also has a deep sympathy for my mother’s own choice to divorce when I was three years old. At age 27, at the time of my biological father’s death, I was the only family member who had any contact with him. His actions at the time of my parents’ divorce understandably lead to family-wide estrangement. Still, while I was incredibly fortunate to have a step-father who was effectively a father in his devotion and love, the going was never easy. Today, I joke about being the “potato sack” handed off for visitation with my paternal grandparents, who effectively had visitation rights. While they too were superlative persons, it was impossible not to get caught between the egos and drama between my mother and my grandmother. These sorts of situations are incredibly difficult of children to navigate.

    Now, having had that moment of self-honesty, just one quick observation that stuck out to me as a philosopher. I want to caution about the language in this sentence, “Yet the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage has its entire structure made sensible by its central work: procreation and the subsequent raising of the children.” The “traditional” view is, in fact, more than mere tradition. That would exist solely secundum placitum instituentis, i.e., customarily. In the final analysis, it is the philosophically robust definition of the natural ends of marriage. Natural marriage, in the formal and proper sense of the term, is a natural (i.e., not-purely-conventional) community based upon that naturally given end. (And we need to remember that the “biblical” ideal of marriage becomes the mysterious sign of the future form of the SUPERNATURAL sacrament, which adds finalities to NATURAL marriage, thus making marriage a sign of something much greater.) I am only making the SLIGHTEST of points, mind you, but it is important that the argument be couched in terms that show that it is more than mere tradition. Marriage, according to nature as such (i.e., prescinding from sacramental finalities) buds forth from the prepolitical end that we have by nature and that we do not set, as we do in so many other cases of human artcraft. This is all very important and is not well emphasized anymore in the CIC or in the CCC, though they do not contradict it. Indeed it is not emphasized enough anywhere, it seems, and part of this is probably due to the problematic philosophical formation given for decades in many seminaries. There is a great hesitation to be clear that even though there are COORDINATED ends in NATURAL marriage, every coordination PRESUPPOSES A SUBORDINATION, according to the maxim once taught well among Thomists. Everything in natural marriage is coordinated to that first end, which you so very well state. (CAPS only for emphasis, akin to how Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange used to write.)

    Again, on the whole, thank you though. Very glad for this resource.

  9. motherofsouls says:

    This pierces my heart in a terrible way. Married at the age of 21. Eight years and two children later, life was truly a nightmare. He fell away from the Church almost overnight, became pro-choice, called me militant and fundamentalist for trying to grow closer to Christ. Never came to Mass with us. Alcohol became his way of dealing with stress. I prayed novena after novena, begging him over and over to get help. The swearing, name-calling and finally a couple of incidents of domestic violence later (including one against one of our children), I took steps to get myself and my kids out of there. I spoke with FIVE priests and one nun and they all said the same exact things: you need a safety plan; you need to leave; your children’s well-being comes above all things; if he is refusing to get any help or acknowledge any of his issues, you can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink; he has made his choice. I cried and kept asking if I would be breaking God’s heart, if I would be barred from receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist. One priest asked me what more could I possibly do. I have tried everything and anything. Who WANTS to get divorced? Who giddly signs those papers? I am not happy about all of this. I still wear my wedding band because I am still legally married at the moment and because it is a blessed object. My husband has not worn his for months, and where he works, a bare finger is just asking to be hit on.

    To know that no matter what, I will be treated as a pariah by some in the Church is heartrending. I really did try. For years. But should my son grow up believing women should be screamed at? Should my daughter grow up seeing her mother cower as her father calls her a useless whore? I hope and pray my children receive calls to religious life but if they receive calls to the married life, I want them to have the peace and love I did not have. I want their houses to be HOMES. I want them to be open to life, to follow Christ and the Blessed Mother to the letter, and to love God more than I do! I’m not sure why I’m writing this but maybe I just want people out there to know that Catholics like myself… we tried, we are trying, we don’t want to be put in that category of “not true Catholics.” We are trying to have the perseverance of the saints. But sometimes, you might also be beating a dead horse. Please pray for us.

    • Primal Lessons says:

      Motherofsouls,

      I am sorry to hear of what you and your children have been through. A house like that is no place to raise a child.

      I am a child of divorce, and the day my parents split(I was 11), I felt nothing but massive relief. They were a disaster together, and I found it unbearable living with the two of them together.

      While I strongly believe all children of divorce deserve to be heard, please know that not all of us feel permanently damaged by our parents’ failures. I am happily married with six children, and I honestly believe one of the reasons our marriage is so strong is because I watched and learned what NOT to do in marriage.

      God brings great good even out of the biggest messes in our lives, and I am grateful for the lessons that all my unhappily married relatives (which is most of them, to be honest, although the vast majority of them managed to stick it out through their varying degrees of misery) taught me. That’s not nothing.

      Had my husband ever called me a useless *****, I would have kicked him out in a heartbeat (he feels the same way, and I would expect nothing less). Our children deserve far better than that, and abuse of any kind is simply not tolerated in our home (this includes sibling on sibling–we have zero tolerance for meanness and rude behavior between the children). I have a close friend with nine children who just left a husband who called her a ****** and ****** for years, occasionally shoving, pushing, and raising his fists to her, often in front of the children. The only thing she regrets is not leaving when it first started two decades ago. While your husband fell away from the church, however, this guy keeps saying the Divine Office and rosaries and talking big about Catholicism all while heaping abuse upon his family. As a consequence, most of the children want nothing to do with the Church. So perhaps that can give you a small degree of comfort—at least your children won’t see your husband’s abuse as connected to Catholicism.

      Sometimes we are in situations where none of our options are good, but divorce is the best option of the bunch. You should hold your head high, knowing that you chose the wellbeing of your children over your desire to be thought of as a “good Catholic.” People are going to believe what they want to believe, but none of them love your children like you do.

      [Admin note — edited for language]

      • motherofsouls says:

        Primal Lessons, thank you SO much. You have no idea what a balm on my heart your words are. And I am so sorry to hear about the pain you have gone through but I rejoice with you that some good did come of it, mainly in the form of learning what not to do in a marriage. That is my prayer for my children, too. And oh, my gosh… your poor friend! I will pray for her, her husband and her children that they may all find healing and come back to Holy Mother Church.

        I really do hope I have done the right thing. My older child is currently having trouble with his temper and I am scrambling to break the cycle and get him some psychological help so the madness can stop before he takes it all with him into adulthood. I just hope and pray everything I have done will bear good, healthy fruit in the end!

  10. David Thomas says:

    Saint Philomena patron of Families

  11. Sarah says:

    Whoa. I am fully adherent to the Magisterium of the Church. But I also am divorced because of abuse. Please, in your treatment of divorced Catholics, go about this with care!! Not all divorces are the same. There are many who find themselves divorced without wanting to be there. Their are some who SAVED their children from abuse by divorcing. So do not call them names. Do not force them out of the Church by rash judgement. Do not tell their children that their parents abused them by divorcing. (In doing so you push them away from the Church and separate them from their parents at the same time). Do not push divorced people or their children from participating in Church activities. Catholic divorced people especially have it hard because they are rejected by the world for being Catholic and they are rejected by the Church because they are divorced.

    • Bender says:

      Sarah —

      First, I (and no doubt everyone who reads this blog) am sorry about your experience and hope that you find healing and peace.

      Second — And I want to be delicate here — Who are you saying “Whoa” too? Certainly not Monsignor since he clearly stated that he is talking about the no-fault, divorce-on-demand, disposable marriage mentality and culture — and NOT those cases involving abuse and its attending dangers, for which separation and civil divorce might be justified.

      In addition, I don’t know who you are talking to or where you go to get this impression, but the Catholic Church does NOT condemn or reject or push divorced people away. Go into any parish on any given Sunday and you will find a large percentage of the people in the pews are divorced. And they are welcomed. And people are friendly towards them.

      And, just to show you that I know what I’m talking about — my own parents are divorced. I am a child of divorce myself. And my Catholic mother has NEVER been mistreated or made to feel unwelcome by the Church. My non-Catholic father has been attending Catholic Mass for 40 years since they divorced. All the other divorced people I know likewise feel welcome and included.

      But, in any event, whatever led to the divorce — a mere whim and caprice or something like abuse — it is harmful to the children. It is always a tragedy.

      Again, I’m sorry for your experience that would lead you to lash out, but from my reading of the piece, your criticisms are out of place here. And there are many, many, many people — and the Church herself too — who welcome and embrace those who have experienced marital break-ups. After all, the Church is a place of inclusion and healing. That is what it is here for.

    • Primal Lessons says:

      I took Sarah to be responding to those who think like “a catholic psychologist,” who stated “Some day people will be able to speak candidly about divorce that it is a form of legalized child abuse.” (I suppose annulment is a form of Church-sanctioned child abuse, then, because it has the same practical effects on the children, maybe worse because now they have to deal with the fact their parents were never in a real marriage in the first place).

      Given that most parents fail their children in some way (and some quite spectacularly, even while they remain married), I suppose that for many people, simply reproducing is a form of legalized child abuse. That’s where that kind of crazy thinking leads.

      Continuing to raise your child in an abusive household, subjecting them to actual abuse, is the real “legalized child abuse.” Divorce in these sad situations is the most loving thing a parent can do for a child.

      I’ve been around Catholics who say some crazy stuff about divorce. In the case of my friend who just got out of an abuse situation with her 9 kids, statements like “Divorce is like aborting your children” have been hurled at her. Not only does it cheapen the horrors of abortion, it strikes normal people as completely whack. What, would it have been better for her to take 9 trips to nearest PP abortion clinic than to bring these 9 children into the world in far-less-than-ideal circumstances? That’s a sickening thought, and one I completely reject. I’m a child of divorce, and–hello!! I’m here!–my parents did not abort me! In fact, I have lived a very blessed life, thanks to my far-from-perfect-parents having conceived me and raised me, despite their failures.

      If Sarah has been hearing the declarations of divorce-as-“legalized child abuse” or divorce-as-abortion, I can understand her “Whoa!”

      There’s a lot of crazy talk out there.

  12. Bridget says:

    I have a friend who says of divorce, “Divorce is when one or both parents lay down their cross and the children pick up their cross”. I am married to a man who has suffered greatly from his parent’s divorce and I have witnessed his “picked up cross” on a daily basis. His courage amazes and astounds me and breaks my heart on a regular basis. This book is so overdue and necessary. Thank you, Leila and Msgr. Pope, for acknowledging the courage and suffering of the children of divorce.

  13. tiarobbie says:

    You can’t tell by a man’s behaviour alone if he has been cheating over the past few days. A lot of things could occur between the act and him coming home that could alter his mood.

    You would have to know your own husband and spot the change in his behaviour. Some men become more affectionate, and others come home to degrade their wives because they now feel they have something over them.

  14. Mary Fran says:

    I hated my father when I was growing up. He was nice to everyone except my mom. He never hit her or anything like that. Never deprived her of things or kept her from doing the things she was interested in. But, he was often mean and petty. Mealtimes were mostly silent affairs except for the chatter of the youngest who hadn’t yet learned what was going on. He took us on 5 week vacations many summers, but he was the one who decided where we would go and what we would visit. We were allowed to share in what HE was interested in, but he didn’t care to share in our interests.

    In high school, I thought about being a cloistered Carmelite nun and made arrangements to spend the summer at a monastery in Wheeling, WV, helping the externe and getting to know the nuns. My father was SO ANGRY about that that he didn’t speak to anyone in the family for months. He blamed it all on my mom.

    I remember saying to my mom once, “Why don’t you get divorced?” But, she was of the generation that believed in “for better or for worse” and she got the worse. She was just waiting till my dad died so she would be free. They stayed together for almost 50 years, neither of them happy together, not sharing their lives. After the five of us children were gone and married with children of our own, Dad left on a birding weekend. As he walked out the door, he said to my mom, “When I come back, I want a divorce.”

    I was 40 at the time and I can tell you that divorce is still devastating for someone at that age. I was so angry with my father who said he had a RIGHT to be happy, but he would never go for counseling with my mom so that he could be happy with HER. Instead, he had his eyes on a much younger woman, a woman 3 years older than me. And, as soon as this other woman got divorced, Dad started the motion for his own divorce.

    Poor Mom. Thrown out at age 70 to fend for herself. And my dad marrying again. I felt betrayed by all the times my dad had come alone to visit us in Baltimore, making side trips to Fairfax, VA, for “bird club business” when he was really seeing this other woman he had become enamored with. After 10 years of “marriage” with this other woman (my mom was killed in a car wreak 3 years after the divorce), when my dad died, I shed not a tear. i had finally forgiven him, but never cared for his new “wife”.

    So, divorce isn’t just devastating to young kids who have no real way of protecting themselves. It still hurts no matter when it happens.