The Moral and Spiritual Experience of Children of Divorce
by Elizabeth Marquardt    |    Reprinted from Jacob's Well, CDM's quarterly membership newsletter.

Beginning in the late 1960's and 70's, each year this country saw a growing increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce.  The number of divorces per year stabilized in the early 1980's at its present rate of almost one in two marriages, meaning that as many as half of the people in their twenties and thirties today have experienced the divorce of their parents.  Yet, with the exception of Judith Wallerstein's pioneering work, very few researchers have demonstrated an interest in the inner lives of children of divorce.  More specifically, despite the predominance of divorce in family life today, no one has asked significant questions about the moral and spiritual experience of children of divorce, especially as it develops over a lifetime.

There are at least two reasons why we must inquire about the moral and spiritual experience of children of divorce.  First, due to the high divorce rate (and the rising rate of children born outside of marriage) it is now more common to grow up without an intact family than with one.  Second, the experience of children of divorce is often quite different from that of children in intact families.  There are substantial bodies of literature on moral and spiritual development in children and how these factors influence the kinds of adults they become.  Yet, this literature almost universally assumes an intact family experience — that a child grew up in a single home with a married mother and father with whom the child had some kind of daily interaction.  However, removing a father or mother from a child's daily experience changes the way a child interacts with his or her parents, extended family, and the wider world.

With regard to their moral experience, I suggest that children of divorce who grow up seeing both of their parents are like travelers between two lands.  In each land the child is both an insider and an outsider.  The child is an insider because he or she shares physical and personality characteristics and experiences with a parent.  At the same time, the child is an outsider because at times he or she looks, acts like, or shares experiences with the parent in the other land.  In each land the child has a realm of experience the other parent usually knows little about.  When the child grows up, there may be a whole thread of experience that the other parent knows practically nothing about.  Each land also has different rules and customs and it is usually up to the child, not the adults, to assimilate and negotiate between them.

With regard to their spiritual experience, it is clear that the primary experience for the children of divorce is loss.  If a child continues to see both parents then he or she still "has" them, but it is never the same.  To be with one parent automatically means not being with the other and this is a constant, yet ever-shifting experience in the lives of children of divorce.  In addition, a divorce often causes children to lose such things as their home, neighborhood and more — even family friends and extended family may disappear.

One theological metaphor that allows rich description of this experience is the Judeo-Christian story of the exile.  Children of divorce experience a kind of exile, with the attendant emotions of loss, grief, anger, and fear.  Yet, in the Biblical tradition the story does not stop with exile.  God promises a return, a deliverance from fragmentation to a state of wholeness.  The role of the Church is to help children of divorce in their journey to find home and wholeness.

Today, many church leaders are asking how they can attract and welcome young adults into the full life of the Church.  The phenomenon of divorce directly affects as many as half of the young adults in the populations and it deeply impacts all young adults as they wonder whether they will be able to form stable, lasting families of their own.  If the Church can recognize and speak to this experience, these young people are likely to respond favorably.  In addition, if the Church can adequately minister to the young children among them who are affected by divorce, these children will be much more likely to grow in the faith and consider the Church their spiritual home for a lifetime.

Elizabeth Marquardt, M.Div., M.A., is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York City.  The research for her forthcoming book, titled The Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce, is supported by the Lilly Endowment.  She is also co-author of a ground-breaking study on college women's attitudes about sex and dating on campus.
Article and biography reprinted from the April, 2002, issue of Jacob's Well, CDM's quarterly membership newsletter.