The Science of Divorce
Back in the day when I was in my Ph.D. program (1967-1971), the conventional wisdom was direct and unambiguous, and therefore not capable of challenge: if a marriage was chronically problematic, conflict was intense and regular, and marital partners had given it their best shot to fix the marriage, it was better for both partners, but especially for their children, that they divorce.
Especially emphasized was the positive effect on the children. Get the children into a safer environment, where there was less fighting and therefore more peace, and they would prosper.
Such was and is conventional wisdom in the behavioral sciences and among many compassionate and concerned religious folk. Among the behavioral sciences researchers was Judith Wallerstein, the founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition and a senior lecturer emertia at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkley.
Good researchers challenge conventional wisdom. Her challenge emerged in her book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study published in 2000. Here was a longitudinal study of 131 children of divorce. Her research findings challenged two major myths:
- “If the parents are happier the children will be happier too. Even if the children are distressed by the divorce, the crisis will be transient because children are resilient and resourceful and will soon recover.” (p. xxiii)
- “Divorce is a temporary crisis that exerts its most harmful effects on parents and children at the time of the breakup.” (p. xxiv)
Myths they were and are. Her conclusion: Quoting Karl Menninger, “What’s done to children, they will do to society” (p. 294). “From the viewpoint of the children, and counter to what happens to their parents, divorce is a cumulative experience. Its impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood. At each developmental stage divorce is experienced anew in different ways. In adulthood it affects personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change” (p. 298). It is in their adulthood that these children of divorce suffer the most.
On the surface of things, one would think that such a longitudinal study would make a major affect on our public policy at least to the point that we would be talking about divorce and children in a different and more enlightened way. The enlightenment would come from actual research into what actually happens. One might also expect that the leaders of our churches, avid readers of the behavior sciences, would pick this theme up. Not as much as I would like.
But, every once in a while something or somebody comes along in the church and points to actual research that most clearly indicates the ongoing challenge to the direction of American culture and marriage/divorce/cohabitation values. But there is a lot going on in the behavior sciences research world, and a lot of interaction with the religious community that, if our church workers are not connecting to it, leaves us pretty much out of the proverbial loop. Kudos to Marty Marty for seeing some of this and wondering if the changes document might be some of the cause of the decline of institutional religion..
The January 21 edition of Sightings at the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion features a brief article by Marty himself titled “Divorce’s Toll.” Marty cites, among others, Peter Wehner’s article “America’s Exodus from Marriage” in Commentary magazine (January 17, 2013), Manya Brachear’s article “Researchers: Even Amicable Divorces Take Toll on Children and their Religious Attitudes” in The Chicago Tribune (January 13, 2013, requires subscription to view online), and the Elizabeth Marquardt report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Calling the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change (2013).
Two of Marty’s musings: From Marquardt: “The authors argue that much of the often-noted decline in the mainline churches results from the changes in the family resulting in divorce.” From Wehner, who quotes the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “’The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.’ Wehner would say, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.’”
Marty’s article points to a resurgence in serious research, but also seems to suggest this is relatively new material. The ongoing research is contemporary, but it is clearly not really new since Wallerstein published in 2000, and apparently not even new in the 60’s as it was seen by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Check out www.centerformarriageandfamilies.org/shape-of-families/ or www.americanvalues.org or www.nationalmarriageproject.org. All these sites offer a bevy of information, some of which is even taught at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis. For instance, everyone in my marriage and family elective reads Why Marriage Matters (third edition) to see thirty conclusions about marriage from the social sciences. The five new themes:
- “Children are less likely to thrive in cohabitating households compared to intact, married families.” (p. 7)
- “Family instability is generally bad for children.” (p. 7)
- “American family life is becoming increasingly unstable for children.” (p. 8)
- “The growing instability of American family life also means that contemporary adults and children are more likely to live in what scholars call ‘complex households’ where children and adults are living with people who are half-siblings, step-siblings, step-parents, step-children, or unrelated to them by birth or marriage.” (p. 8)
- “The nation’s retreat from marriage has hit poor and working-class communities with particular force.” (p. 8)
If all this is not enough, the bigger threat to societal stability, according to the Institute for American Values, is cohabitation as children grow up in generally unstable and “complex” households.
There is little question that Marty is correct: “What the various studies turn up deserves prime attention on the agendas of those who would make a difference tomorrow.” Indeed!
More is needed, though, than keeping up with the research and, perhaps, lamenting the changes.
To what extent are we prepared to make a difference tomorrow? If we are, then we need to do at least three things:
- Get more familiar with the behavioral science literature. There is a clear congruence between most traditional religious values about family, marriage and children and the emerging behavioral science research. Church workers will need to put these together.
- Clergy, teachers, and congregational leaders will speak directly and with information, but, even more so, congregations will need to develop themselves into places of support for marriage, family, and children both in the congregation itself and in the community in which it lives.
- Build alliances with schools, youth programs, community family agencies, and other people and organizations working to strengthen marriages and families.
For starters, check out www.familyfriendlypn.com and the work of Ben Freudenberg. But how about all this being a major initiative in the life of a congregation and in the focus of our seminary and church leader education? It may be that while we increasingly need to move into the byways and highways to connect with people about the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the present, we also need to invest in the future by investing in marriage and family now. Just maybe? Likely absolutely!