"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, October 17, 2005

Children and divorce

I've sometimes heard it said that the only thing worse than a bad marriage is a nasty divorce. When young, I was not convinced of that. But I am now—especially when children are involved, because conflict over them often makes a divorce so bitter and vindictive that they rarely if ever benefit from the fallout. (The tragicomically counterproductive jousts about property aren't usually so, but they can be. Recently I read about one guy who did three years in the cooler for the "civil contempt" of refusing to fess up to the "hidden assets" his wife claimed. What assets he did have were chewed up by legal fees he was forced to pay for "discovery" that of course discovered nothing. There are killers and rapists who do less time than that—when they're caught, that is. And even the ones who do more at least get cab fare and real clothes when they get out; in this case, nobody got anything but bills. At least his grown kids visited him while he was getting "three hots and a cot"—and health care to boot—at taxpayer expense. But I digress.) Even so, I've also heard it claimed that ending a bad marriage when children are involved is better for the children. Perhaps it is—except when it isn't, which is more often than we've been led to believe.

Elizabeth Marquardt, a Catholic author I respect all the more because she actually leads a healthy life, has recently completed a book entitled Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce and talked about it in a Zenit interview. A few lines, backed not just by research but by trenchant criticism of countervailing research, are instructive:
  • ...children in high-conflict marriages, or in situations where there is violence, benefit from divorce. Such cases, however, involve only around one-third of divorces, and the children of the other low-conflict marriages fare worse after divorce.
  • Even if a divorce is amicable, and the couple maintains a good relationship after separating, and even if they continue to love and care for the children, this does not eliminate "the radical restructuring of the child's universe"...
  • ...children require strong, lasting marriages in order to have the secure home they need while growing up. They are not like property that can be divided, but need love, stability and moral guidance. This means making changes to our thinking about marriages. Parents...must not just love their children but must also love and forgive each other, to sustain families that last a lifetime.

The first point is the most controversial, but an increasing body of research seems to sustain it. The second is just common sense. So the third would seem too—but alas, the last prescription about love and forgiveness is much easier to state than to follow. And there's the rub.

I am increasingly convinced that the vast majority of problems that persist (as distinct from originate) between people are due to unforgiveness. Whatever the reasons for unforgiveness—pride, defensiveness, rationalization, a mistaken notion that forgiving wrongs means condoning them—it is probably the most common spiritual poison there is, perhaps save for lust and greed. The poison is all the more subtly effective when we cloak unforgiveness as something mandatory: realistic concern for one's own or others' welfare. That is why Jesus made very clear we will only be forgiven to the extent we forgive. To the extent we refuse to forgive, we become the sort of people who cannot be forgiven. And that, I have observed, is what happens to some people in divorce. Way more marriages would stay intact and improve if more people wanted to be happy than to be right; when they don't, the dynamic only gains momentum in and by the process of divorce. Thus custody battles, ostensibly waged for the welfare of the kids, typically ensure that the kids lose—whichever parent "wins."

I suppose it's too much to expect the Church in this country—embroiled in a huge and costly sex scandal whose rise paralleled the increase in divorce among Catholics—to do much about all this right now. It does seem a most appropriate field for concerted pastoral efforts; yet as of now, most pastors don't want to "get caught in the middle" of marital disputes and don't feel competent to step in anyhow. That is understandable; the trick is to avoid getting enmeshed in the couples' mushrooming debate and make clear to them the spiritual costs involved, whoever may be "right." As of now, pastors tend to pass estranged couples off to therapists who usually don't have a distinctive, theologically informed spiritual perspective. That can and must change. And it is laity such as Marquardt who will have to cut the key to changing it.

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