The Nasty Ripples of Divorce

Pope Sounds an Alarm About a Widespread Mentality

LONDON, FEB. 2, 2002 ( In his speech to the members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota last Monday, John Paul II exhorted all to combat the “divorce mentality” so pervasive in today´s society. He has good reason to be worried.

Divorce levels in Anglo-Saxon nations, for instance, have been high for many years. A Rutgers University study published last June noted that 40-45% of marriages now contracted in the United States will end in divorce, if current trends continue.

The divorce mentality is beginning to grip other countries too, including ones of long-standing Catholic traditions. In Italy, divorces tripled during the period 1980 to 1999, according to an Oct. 20 report in the newspaper La Repubblica. In Spain, where divorce was legalized 20 years ago, one out of every three marriages ends in divorce, the Madrid paper ABC reported Dec. 17.

The great controversy

A number of recent studies have clearly established the high costs of the breakdown of marriages. In 2000, Judith Wallerstein published “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study” which found children who grew up in divorced families were less likely to marry, more likely to divorce, and more likely to have children out of wedlock and to use drugs.

Wallerstein based her conclusions on in-depth interviews with 100 children in a Northern California community who were followed by researchers for 25 years. She observed that the adult children of divorce tend to expect their relationships to fail and they struggle with the fear of loss, conflict, betrayal and loneliness.

Another work on divorce also published in 2000 was “The Great Divorce Controversy” by Edward S. Williams. Part of the book is dedicated to compiling information from a multiplicity of studies on the consequences of divorce. Williams notes that in the 1960s and 1970s pro-divorce academics produced a number of reports alleging that divorce could have beneficial consequences for some children. Further research has proved that optimism to be false.

In 1994, for example, an investigation among 152 families in Exeter, England, showed that even in high-conflict (but intact) families, fewer children were unhappy compared with those in broken homes. Children, in fact, were prepared to put up with family conflict, and preferred their parents to remain together.

Williams cited another study of 5,000 cases of child abuse in England from 1977 to 1990. Children who live with a mother and father substitute are almost nine times more likely to be abused than children living with both their married parents in a traditional family.

As for the adults, the book quotes from a California study that showed how a third of parents were severely depressed after divorce. Depression was particularly common among women, affecting almost 50%. Even 10 or 15 years after the event, the hurt and humiliation of divorce continued to occupy a central position in the emotions of many adults.

Further material on the ill effects of divorce are contained in Jennifer Roback Morse´s 2001 book “Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn´t Work.” Reviewing a number of recent studies, the book observes that children of single-parent families are more likely to drop out of school, have babies out of wedlock, or abuse alcohol and drugs.

Morse also noted that children in single-parent environments have between 50% and 80% higher scores for anti-social behavior, peer conflict and social withdrawal. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and hyperactivity. Moreover, these ill effects are not primarily due to the economic hardships after a divorce. Income differences, observes the book, account for only a portion of the problems.

The book also deals with the argument of those who defend divorce by alleging it is better for all involved to put an end to unhappy marriages. While it is true that some children benefit from the ending of high-conflict marriages, such situations represent a very small proportion of divorces. Physical abuse is simply not a factor among the vast majority of married women. In fact, unmarried, cohabiting women are more likely to be abused than are wives.

In Australia, evidence on the costs of divorce are contained in Barry Maley´s book “Family and Marriage in Australia,” recently published by the Center for Independent Studies. In a Dec. 8 article for The Age newspaper of Melbourne, Maley wrote, “In the past generation, Australian family life and marriage have undergone a revolution that has left wounds in the lives of thousands of adults and children.”

Forty years ago, observed Maley, 90% of children grew up in married families, living with their natural parents. That figure is now down to 68%. In this same time span, violent juvenile crime increased fourfold, suicide rates for young male adults quadrupled, and taxes rose sharply to pay for the large numbers of single mothers on government welfare.

Maley argued: “The consequences of divorce for children may mean, on average, a period of emotional disturbance, separation anxiety, unhappiness, often-difficult life adjustments, lower school and career performance, and, for many, difficulties with relationships in adulthood.”

For the better?

Shortly before the Pope made his Roman Rota speech, another study came out in the United States arguing that divorce did not cause so many problems for children after all. E. Mavis Hetherington published “For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered,” in which she says around 75% of the children of divorced parents cope fairly well with life, the Washington Post reported Jan. 22.

Hetherington was careful to point out that her work should not be considered anti-marriage or pro-divorce. Even if most children do adapt to their parents´ separation, some 20% to 25% are left deeply scarred. She also noted that it takes about six years for most family members to recover their emotional and mental stability after a divorce.

Commenting Jan. 24 in the online Daily Standard, Lee Bockhorn observed that Hetherington believes researchers such as Wallerstein have overstated their case. He noted how Hetherington writes, for example, that while ending a marriage can be “challenging and painful,” it is “also a window of opportunity to build a new and better life.”

Bockhorn, associate editor at The Weekly Standard, observed that these positive findings confirm the adaptability of humans. Yet, “that doesn´t make divorce any less regrettable or tragic,” he writes. We should do everything possible, recommended Bockhorn, to make such tragedies less common.

This is precisely what John Paul II wants to do. Just as he has championed a pro-life vision against the culture of death, the Pope is fighting against the divorce mentality. The future well-being of society depends on whether his words are heeded.

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