The Science of Divorce

MarriageBack 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:

  1. “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)
  2. “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 or or  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:

  1. “Children are less likely to thrive in cohabitating households compared to intact, married families.” (p. 7)
  2. “Family instability is generally bad for children.” (p. 7)
  3. “American family life is becoming increasingly unstable for children.” (p. 8)
  4. “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)
  5. “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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Build alliances with schools, youth programs, community family agencies, and other people and organizations working to strengthen marriages and families.

For starters, check out 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!





14 responses to “The Science of Divorce”

  1. Mark Squire Avatar
    Mark Squire

    Thank you, Dr. Hartung, for this very insightful and helpful article. Though anecdotal evidence is sometimes helpful, many times it can lead to something like, “It happened to me, and I turned out all right. Therefore, it’s not really a big deal.” It seems that the research and its resulting literature can be useful practical tools for reinforcing the biblical truths that we believe, teach, and confess, namely here regarding divorce.

    1. Bruce Hartung Avatar
      Bruce Hartung

      Hi Mark! Thanks for your comments. One point to underline: there are lots of folks who are adults who went through a divorce who, for one reason or another, did well. I praise God for their experience, for those who care for them and loved them through the process, and for their own strength and resilience. And there are others whose stories are quite different. We need, however, to move beyond the individual story, to get up on the balcony to see the whole picture. It takes significant research to do that. What we are finding is that, overall, divorce takes its toll. Once we understand that then we can begin to strategize both to help children and adults walk through divorce, when it occurs, and to strengthen marriages and families.

  2. David Rufner Avatar

    Dr. Hartung, I too thank you for pointing to the goods that back-up the claims.

    I must also recommend a recent book concerning the theological effect of divorce on children. In many ways it was a devastating, though important and compelling, book to read: “The Children Of Divorce” by Andrew Root.

    He points to parents and marriage as being so foundational (natural order) to who we are that to experience divorce as a child is to experience the loss of being – ontological crisis.

    His book made more sense of what my eyes have seen in the lives of so many young people than anything else to date.

    1. Bruce Hartung Avatar
      Bruce Hartung

      Hi David! Thanks for your post. I am not familiar with the book. Thanks for recommending it. It is on my reading list. Perhaps you can post more about the central findings of it.

    2. Amy Ziettlow Avatar
      Amy Ziettlow

      Disclaimer: I am one of the author’s of the report mentioned in the article–Andy Root was a part of the scholar co-hort for this project. He wrote one of the chapters for The Children of Divorce during the process. If you go to the website for the report mentioned above, you will find links to all the papers published as a part of the project (the report lifts out all the themes covered in the research and I write a section on practical application for the parish). Melinda Lundquist Denton’s paper I find to be especially helpful and Ueker and Ellison’s paper on the unique impact of a father’s father expression and practice on his children is worth reading. We need to do more for dad’s as a church!

  3. Andrew Bartelt Avatar
    Andrew Bartelt

    Very good stuff, and always good when the church looks at actual research and data, but is there study of the other side of the issue — If the old conventional wisdom preferred divorce to maintaining a failing, or failed, marriage, and this has led to significant consequences, is there a similar longitudinal study to compare children who were left in a family dominated by a dysfunctional, antagonistic marriage?

    Further, any studies on whether marriages deemed irreconcilable could be redeemed to the point of stability for the children? and if so, what made the difference? Here our Christian pastoral care must play a key role.

    1. Bruce Hartung Avatar
      Bruce Hartung

      Hi Andy! Thanks for your post. I am not aware of longitudinal research that follows children in the setting you describe. Those of us who have done counseling with folks have seen the results firsthand, but that becomes a view with folks who are struggling. you point out a good research project.

    2. Amy Ziettlow Avatar
      Amy Ziettlow

      Hi Andrew, I am a co-author with Elizabeth Marquardt and Charles E. Stokes of the report mentioned in the article. Wallerstein’s longitudinal study includes a comparison group of children who were raised in in-tact families. One of her findings (that is also fleshed out somewhat in Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds which reports on the first study of the moral and spiritual lives of children of divorce canvassing over 1500 adults half from divorced families) is that children fare the worst in high conflict marriages and in high conflict divorces–the stories she traces of some of the adults who grew up in high conflict intact families haunt me still. Thankfully, she points out that most divorces occur in low conflict marriages (conflict that was not observed by or remembered by the children in the family) and it is those divorces she seeks to speak to on some level.

  4. Justin Hannemann Avatar

    Dr. Hartung,

    A sincere thank you for this meaningful and timely article. Your suggestions at the end are, in my humble opinion, RIGHT ON! I was especially struck by the admonition for churches not only to support marriage within the congregation, but within the community as a whole. This is our hope in Omaha with GracePoint Institute for Relational Health.

    Blessings and Peace,

    Justin Hannemann

    1. Bruce Hartung Avatar
      Bruce Hartung

      Hi Justin! Thanks for your post. May the work of GracePoint Institute for Relational Health be richly blessed!

  5. Elizabeth Avatar

    Dear. Dr Hartung,
    Thank you for sharing these research articles. Quite insightful. Divorce, cohabitation and the erosion of the institution of marriage have affected great numbers in our society. My family is in that statistic; it’s painful. We have a two year old grandson and have been affected. Yes, it does affect children, and all around, including the church, today. The world is broken. Our pastors, teachers and congregation members need to address what has plagued the country and church for years. Also, keep in mind that God controls all happenings. Yet, He does not want us to be complacent with His means,THE WRITTEN WORD OF GOD. He wants us to be teaching and applying it to our daily lives. This is what is lacking. God promises to rescue us and help us in time of need. Why don’t we pursue what we know to be trustworthy? The research is a tool. Useful and beneficial dialogue and conversation would help the church today. Where are our moral and spiritual compasses? The research is evident that there is an effect upon society. The church in not infiltrating society, it’s the reverse.

    Forgive me for my lengthy comments. One last note: divorce has affected my soul and heart deeply, let alone our son and family. I am blessed to have Pastor Tom (longtime friend and Godfather of soon to be divorced son); woman confidante and prayer warrior; faithful father; husband; and two sons, who are all reassuring and reminding me God knows the depths of my pain. Also, “watch and see his great mercy to come.” What saddened me most was having pastors and congregation members using secular words for an aching heart. “Oh it happens all the time and children are resilient.”

    Thank you for your work in the LCMS church


  6. Amy Ziettlow Avatar
    Amy Ziettlow

    Thanks so much for sharing this article, Dr. Hartung. Professor Marty was a mentor of mine and passed along a link to it. I did want to mention that as a pastor and person of faith I was quite chagrined to see that the only significant critique of the report came from Slate magazine that dismissed the report because “faith does not matter and neither does marriage.” A good reminder to us in the church that we have a good news story to tell and our presence of compassion and grace is needed now more than ever! Thanks again, and soon a study guide for the report will be made available at the website for congregational and youth ministers to use in navigating the themes of the report while pondering them through the lens of scripture and prayer.

    1. Bruce Hartung Avatar
      Bruce Hartung

      Hi Amy! Thanks for you comments, reflections, and contributions. Please let me know when the study guide is ready. I’ll do my best to publicize it in our midst. Best wishes!

  7. tom hawley Avatar
    tom hawley

    Thank you, Dr. Hartung, and Amy Ziettlow,
    Working with severely disturbed children and teens I can see clearly the damage of terrible relationships and absent parents.
    I, as all of us have plenty to learn about my own family life, as there is always tons of room for improvement. Sometimes looking at the state of marriages and family life can be discouraging, even depressing. It is people like you that push us all to dig deeper for our own families and the families in our congregations and counseling offices.

    Tom Hawley, M.Div, LCSW
    Crittenton Children’s Center
    Kansas City

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