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A Plea to the Synod Fathers: Don’t Make Divorce Any Easier



Rick Fitzgibbons, MD - published on 10/09/14

Research conclusively shows that children of divorce experience lifelong psychological and spiritual harm

The health and flourishing of the Catholic family is dependent first and foremost on the stable loving relationship between the father and the mother of the children. The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" acknowledges this reality: “Children need their parents’ stable union” (n. 2381). In the Synod’s discussions it is, therefore, essential that the Catholic family be protected through a deeper understanding of the severe, lifelong psychological and spiritual harm done children by the divorce of their parents. This will involve refuting many of the prevailing myths about the perceived “benefits” of divorce.

In the U.S. alone, one million children each year are severely traumatized by their parents’ divorce. These children do not need an easing of the process of annulments. They want their parents to overcome their conflicts and love each other. They need the Church to defend the Sacrament of Marriage by challenging spouses to work to resolve their emotional conflicts and to sacrifice themselves in order to prevent divorce.

Dr. Norval Glenn, the late, distinguished family scholar from the University of Texas, conducted a pioneering national study with Elizabeth Marquardt on the moral and spiritual lives of children of divorce. Their findings disproved many of the myths about the “good divorce.” In his Foreword to “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of the Children of Divorce,” Marquardt’s book about their findings, Dr. Glenn wrote:

The proportion of emotionally troubled adults is around three times as great among those whose parents divorced as among those from intact families. No amount of success in adulthood can compensate for an unhappy childhood or erase the memory of the pain and confusion of the divided world of the child of divorce.

Divorce Is Not Inevitable: The Origin of Most Marital Conflicts

Numerous myths about divorce interfere with couples’ need to address their personal conflicts and marital conflicts. Research studies have demonstrated that approximately 70% of adult psychological conflicts arise from unresolved (and unconscious) childhood and adolescent hurts, most often with parents. These conflicts of sadness, mistrust with controlling behaviors, excessive anger and low self-esteem can emerge during marriage, without the major origins being identified over the course of the marriage, and these unresolved hurts damage the feelings of trust and love for a spouse. If these conflicts are properly uncovered and addressed, along with the selfishness of the spouses, trust can grow and love can be rediscovered.

The Church’s "Retrouvaille" program has helped many couples experience healing of family of origin wounds and of marital emotional “wounds.” Dr. Howard Markman, marital researcher, author and professor at the University of Denver, has written, “We believe that most divorces and most marital unhappiness can be prevented” (Fighting for Your Marriage: Enhancing Marriage and Preventing Divorce).

Divorce Myths

What are some of the myths about divorce that have been accepted by the American public without any real scrutiny? 

  • Divorce will not harm the children, my spouse or me
  • Divorce is the only solution to my unhappiness
  • Marital conflicts cannot be resolved
  • What is good for me is good for our children
  • I will be happier away from my spouse
  • I can still be an excellent parent even if we divorce
  • My spouse is the cause of all the marital unhappiness and stress
  • Trust and love cannot be rediscovered
  • My family background is not related to my marital unhappiness
  • (For Catholics) I am entitled to an annulment.

Psychological Harm to Children of Divorce

A large number of well-designed research studies on the children of divorce demonstrate that it is now impossible to make the case that divorce does not harm children. Although it was once possible to believe that the nation’s high rates of divorce, cohabitation and non-marital childbearing represented little more than lifestyle alternatives – brought about by the freedom to pursue individual fulfillment – the evidence is now such that many marital experts and advocates believe that these parents’ choices can be damaging to children, who have no say in them, and to the society that enables such lifestyle choices.

In the first major study (published in 2010) of American adolescent psychopathology of ten thousand teenagers, forty-nine percent of the youth met the criteria for one psychiatric disorder and forty percent met the criteria for two disorders. This research demonstrates that youth are major victims of the divorce plague.

Penn State sociologist Paul Amato’s research on the long term damage of divorce to children showed that, if the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and approximately 70,000 fewer suicides every year. Turning back the family-stability clock just a few decades could significantly improve the lives of many children.

Dr. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has written:

social scientific evidence about the connection between violence in youth and broken homes could not be clearer. A 2013 study revealed that male children are the most traumatized by divorce and tend to fare particularly poorly, with effects apparent in almost all academic and economic outcomes” (referring to Autor & Wasserman, 2013).

In the wake of their parents’ divorce, children are likely to experience a family move, marked declines in their family income, a stressed-out single mother, and substantial periods of paternal absence – all factors that put them at risk. In other words, the majority of divorces involving children in America are not in the best interests of the children.

A number of research studies are now demonstrating that from a child’s perspective there is no such thing as a “good divorce.” In one study children whose parents had a “good divorce” fared worse compared to those whose parents had unhappy marriages. Dr. Norval found that the negative effects of divorce on children couldn’t be avoided merely by the parents being cooperative. Rigorous analysis of the idea of “good divorce” revealed significant conflicts in the children as a result of the breakup.

The experience of those of us who work to help strengthen marriages and prevent divorce supports the research showing that many couples give up too quickly on their marriages. In part, this is often the result of three factors: (1) failure of family, friends, clergy and mental health professionals to support the Sacrament of Marriage; (2) lack of confidence that most marital conflicts can be resolved; and (3) denial of the severe harm done to children, spouses, the extended family and the culture by divorce.

One study found that only about one-third of divorced respondents to a national survey – conducted by the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas at Austin – said that both they and their ex-spouses worked hard enough to try to save the marriages.

Data from the National Survey of Children (NSC) indicate that approximately 80 percent of divorce cases in this country are forced divorces. In other words, the vast majority of divorces occur because one spouse puts an end to the marriage through legal coercion, even while the other is fighting to save it.

Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that children “are a living reflection of their (parents’) love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of there being a father and a mother” and that “parental love is meant to become for the children the visible sign of the very love of God ” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 14). The fracturing of the sacramental marital union profoundly harms the identity of children.

Let us hope that the Synod Fathers will support the family – by challenging spouses to work to resolve their emotional conflicts and to sacrifice themselves to prevent divorce – rather than simply looking for ways to facilitate the annulment process, which often inflicts harm upon youth and innocent spouses.

Let us also join in the prayer of Pope Francis, as he prepared for the Synod on the Family, that “the Saint of the Family,” John Paul II, “from his place in heaven … guides and sustains us.”

Rick Fitzgibbons, MD
is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia and has worked with several thousand couples over the past 38 years. Trained in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, he participated in cognitive therapy research with Aaron T. Beck. In 1986 he wrote a seminal paper on the psychotherapeutic uses of forgiveness in the treatment of excessive anger and in 2000 coauthored
Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope
with Dr. Robert D. Enright, University of Wisconsin, Madison, for American Psychological Association Books. The second edition of this book is in press.

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