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Rethinking Divorce

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

We live in a divorce culture. I’m not trying to be dramatic when offering this observation. It’s a statement of fact, based upon empirical data. I could offer you a long list of statistics to substantiate this last point. But I won’t. Here are a few that succinctly make my point. Since 1960, the divorce rate has increased three fold. In 1999, there were approximately 2.5 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces in our country. In addition, it’s estimated that only 56% of all married couples will celebrate their 20th anniversary.

While the divorce rates have leveled off over the past decade, they still remain obscenely high. These statistics are one reason why the National Center for Decease Control considers the divorce rate a national epidemic with far reaching negative consequences for our society and for our way of life.

Suffice it to say, married life in our society is a risky proposition. A big part of the reason is linked to the messages that we absorb by simply living in a divorce culture. This article will address itself to four of the more widely held, unsupportable beliefs that I will call divorce myths. From the perspective of numerous respected family scholars, these myths have functioned to condone and encourage divorce.

But, before beginning, let me indicate that I’m not interested in bashing those who have gone through the divorce process. God knows you have gone through enough agony and do not need to be further victimized. My purpose for writing this article is linked to my desire to promote marriage and encourage others to do the same.

Myth #1: When spouses are unhappy, it is better for all family members if they divorce.

I’m certain that all of you have heard variations of this myth. But make no mistake about it, this statement cannot be supported when the literature related to divorce is examined carefully. On the contrary, social science maintains the opposite is true, and that all family members suffer negative, long lasting consequences when couples divorce. The following few quotes illustrate this last assertion.

  • Research suggests that marital dissatisfaction is probably not in and of itself psychologically damaging for children: what counts is whether, how often, and how intensely parents fight in front of their children…When it comes to helping children succeed in school, the structural benefits of marriage – more money, better schools, and neighborhoods, and more time for supervision – seem to matter more than whether or not parents have a close and warm marital relationship.”

The Case for Marriage (2000, pp. 144-45)

  • The average mother and child whose family was not poor prior to the divorce suffer a 50% drop in income when the parents separated.

The Case for Marriage (2000, p. 142)

  • …prospective studies that follow the lifestyles of individuals as they move in and out of marriage show that upon marrying, people typically adopt a healthier way of living…. Let’s take suicide for example. Married men are only half as likely as bachelors, and one-third as likely as divorced guys, to take their lives…. For men, a lot of the health advantage of marriage can be summed up in a single phrase: fewer stupid bachelor tricks…. The day a man says, ‘I do’,…he holds the Grim Reaper at bay.”

The Case for Marriage (2000, pp. 52 –54)

Myth #2: It is better to divorce than have to endure a lifetime of unhappiness.

Our society tends to consider the individual’s needs above all other needs. Personal needs often come before group needs, including marital and family needs.

People who are caught in an unhappy marriage are generally counseled to consider the wisdom behind myth # 2. Books promoting a good divorce enable this type of thinking, as do numerous quotes in the media from high profile persons extolling the virtues of divorce. Quotes such as, “Be good to yourself,” and “You deserve better,” seem to pervade our society, and encourage conflicted spouses to consider the individual’s needs, irrespective of the children and family needs.

Despite what our pop culture advocates, researchers have begun to discover that many unhappy marriages do not have to remain conflicted and unhappy. Couples who are invested in reclaiming the intimacy and love they have lost can do so. Moreover, such efforts will protect them and their children from the long-term toxic effects of divorce. If you are considering divorce, please consider the following empirical statement that hardly ever makes it into our media.

  • Even the unhappiest of couples who grimly stick it out for the sake of the children can find happiness together a few years down the road…86% of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier.

The Case for Marriage (2000, p. 142)

Myth # 3. If parents are conflicted, children will be better off if their parents divorce.

This is an elaboration of the first myth I addressed. Since our children are our most precious gifts, I’ve determined to spend a little more time addressing how divorce impacts children.

Many unhappy couples considering divorce are still comforted with the logic behind myth # 3. But recent studies do not support the logic behind myth # 3. Longitudinal studies examining the effects of divorce on children over the last 25 years indicate that they are not nearly as resilient as we once supposed. Moreover, the effects of divorce have a negative impact on them in many different ways. Here are a few quotes from respected social scientists and thinkers to support this last statement.

  • Boys raised in single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.

Why Marriage Matters (2002, p.15)

  • Children who do not live with both their biological, married parents are at greater risk of child abuse.

Why Marriage Matters (2002, p.15)

  • “A child in a single parent family is twice as likely to drop out of school, three times more likely to give birth out-of- wedlock, six times more apt to be in poverty or to commit suicide. Males from divorced homes are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than those from intact homes; those born to unwed parents are 22 times more at risk of being jailed.”

A Marriage Agenda for President Bush
Mike McManus
(Director of Marriage Savers)

  • A central finding in my research is that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them. They carry the template of this relationship into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment. Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.”

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000, p.XXIX)

Myth #4: Fathers can be replaced.

No one in our society would dispute the value of motherhood. But this is not the case with regard to fatherhood. For example, research suggests that approximately 50% of mothers today see no value in the biological father’s continued contact with his children.

We receive many conflicting messages regarding a father’s value. But research clearly indicates that a child’s well-being is positively impacted when the child lives with both biological parents. The following information clearly supports this last assertion.

  • “In today’s dominant cultural conversation, probably the central prescription regarding fatherhood is to lower our standards…. Instead of good fathers, we settle for child-support payments…Search for adequate substitutes for fathers.”

Fatherless America (1997, p. 211)

  • “If mothers are likely to devote special attention to their children’s present physical and emotional needs, fathers are likely to devote special attention to character traits necessary for the future, especially qualities such as independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to test limits and take risks. If mothers frequently set the standards for children’s conduct within the home, fathers often take special interest and pride in their children’s conduct outside the home. When asked to define the satisfaction of parenthood, mothers are likely to describe the qualities of the mother-child bond. But fathers, much more frequently than mothers, link parental satisfaction directly to successful outcomes for their children in the society.”

Fatherless America (1997, p. 218)

  • “A father plays a distinctive role in shaping a daughter’s sexual style and her understanding of the male-female bond. A father’s love and involvement builds a daughter’s confidence in her femininity and contributes to her sense that she is worth loving. This sense of love-worthiness gives young women a greater sense of autonomy and independence in later relationships with men. Consequently, women who have good relationships with their fathers are less likely to engage in an anxious quest for male approval or seek male affection through promiscuous sexual behavior.”

Fatherless America (1997, p. 46)

  • “For boys, the most socially acute manifestation of paternal disinvestments is juvenile violence. For girls, it is juvenile and out-of-wedlock childbearing. One primary result of growing fatherlessness is more boys with guns and more girls with babies.”

Fatherless America (1997, p.45)

Conclusion

The other day I received a phone call from a woman. She began asking me a number of questions related to marital enhancement. As our conversation continued, her story became clearer as did the purpose of her phone call.

She wanted to know what the Archdiocese is doing to help distressed couples. She indicated that she had recently attended a marriage enhancement experience that was making a difference for her and her husband. She also wanted to know if the Greek Orthodox Church was currently offering marriage enhancement retreats, since she would have preferred to attend something sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church in her area. She also reminded me that many of her friends were experiencing marital difficulties and she implored me to consider developing these types of experiences. I told her that there were some efforts being made, and that I would do whatever I can.

People don’t get married so that they can get divorced. No one in his or her right mind wants to go through this experience. Just ask someone who has divorced. They will tell you it was a very painful time in their lives and the residual effects linger for years. That’s why the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-IV) considers divorce a serious psychosocial stressor that mental health workers must consider when doing assessments.

Except in the case when there is some form of serious abuse, I believe that most conflicted marriages can be reclaimed. I also believe that the consequences of divorce on individuals, families and our nation require that we do more as a Church to support and promote marriage.

Our holy tradition teaches us that marriage is a gift from God that blesses spouses in many ways, and that divorce is a human tragedy that conflicts with God’s will. This is the reason why the Church seeks to promote reconciliation and discourages divorce.

If you are currently involved in a less than satisfying marriage, please know that your marriage can be turned around. Don’t give into the temptations to consider divorce until all possible efforts regarding reconciliation have been carefully and prayerfully explored. Lift your pain up to God and ask Him for direction, strength and perseverance. He will not forsake.

Father Charles conducts marriage building retreats around our Archdiocese. For more information about these experiences, you may contact him at joanidesch@aol.com.

References

For those interested in reading more about this national tragedy, the following few resources should prove helpful. Michele Weiner-Davis’ book is an especially good resource for those desiring to reclaim their marriages and avoid divorce.

Amato, Paul., Booth, Alan. (1997). A generation at risk: Growing up in an rra of family upheaval. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Blankenhorn, David, (1995). Fatherless America. New York: Basic Books.

Institute for American Values. (2002). Why marriage matter: Twenty-One conclusions from the social sciences. New York: American Values Institute

Kalellis, Peter. (2000). Restoring relationships: Five things to try before saying g goodbye. Westfield, NJ: Ecumenical Publications.

Waite, Linda., Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage. New York: Doubleday.

Wallerstein, Judith S., Lewis, Julia M., & Blakeslee, Sandra. (2000). The unexpected legacy of divorce: A 25 year landmark study. New York: Hyperion.

Weiner-Davis, Michele, (2001). Divorce remedy: The proven 7-step program for saving your marriage. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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