Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins
Edited by Margaret Harper McCarthy
William B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2017
216 pages, $34
To order: amazon.com
As a child of divorce who, through God’s grace, was able to take up this challenging cross and get marriage right, I appreciate the powerful acknowledgement that the contributors of Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins gave to children’s wounds and the fundamental Christian truths they upheld in the process.
I know what it is like to walk in these children’s shoes and what is required to heal sufficiently in order to establish a good and lasting marriage. And when reading Torn Asunder, I discovered both aspects of this journey vigorously explored, up to a point.
Torn Asunder is a collection of interesting essays that bring new ideas to an old issue. The book contains research and analysis by various scholars who challenge conventional opinion about a “good divorce” by highlighting the damage that adult children of divorce have experienced, no matter how favorable the divorce circumstances.
The contributors use these injuries as a springboard for examining essential questions such as: “In what does man’s true happiness consist?” (154) and how can human beings “love with the love that endures all things” (172)?
In this process, they explore key factors in lasting relationships, such as the willingness to sacrifice and forgive. They also endorse a belief in a link between personal identity and the child’s origin in a union of two parents — and, more deeply, in the fatherhood of God.
In addition, they consider the problem of divorce more broadly by exploring areas such as the effects of no-fault divorce laws, cohabitation and the lack of clarity in our courtship system.
Torn Asunder weaves together many important and profound ideas in making its claims, a message that parents contemplating divorce, in particular, could benefit in hearing, along with those counseling and ministering to them.
I found Andrew Root’s chapter, “The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being: Divorce as an Ontological Wound,” particularly relevant, again, though, up to a point. The description of the impact of a father’s absence on a child after a divorce rang true.
Referencing the thoughts of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher, Root says, that “when the one who moves to another place is her father, the one responsible for the origins of her own being ... this sends shockwaves back to her own being” (100). “An ontological world has collapsed. ... She must question who he is, and in so doing must also ask who she is” (101).
However, what was not true in my journey was Root’s claim that “because the child’s very being-in-the-world is bound to his or her parents’ union, its dissolution ... reverberates throughout the young person’s being, disorienting him or her” (97). Root neglects to consider those children for whom the marital dissolution may come as a major relief because physical abuse, verbal abuse, flagrant adultery and/or other sinful circumstances mired the parents’ union.
I knew my parents only to have an unrelenting, high-conflict marriage. It became so stressful and upsetting to live with that I encouraged my mother to get a divorce. I speak for other children, as well; however, these situations were not explored.
I respect the determination of the contributors in making their respective assertions. While they offer an enlightening academic lens in debunking the “good divorce” notion and affirming sources of the child’s origins, there is a problem: They do not explore exceptions, nor mitigating factors, such as the healthy psychological adjustment of the residential parent, authoritative parenting, close sibling relationships and extended family supports — to name a few.
Detailed consideration of all these factors is essential for a balanced and sensitive exploration, given the moral imperative we have as a Church to identify and bolster supports for these families, as they face the enormous task of healing their wounds.
Failing to highlight these factors detracts from the book’s message. Moreover, I can imagine persons either with limited exposure to divorced families or those beginning their divorce journey reading this book and coming away with the idea that divorce — by itself — dooms all children to psychopathology, future divorce and other ills, regardless of any positive influences.
These omissions also run the risk of adding to the castigation that divorced families often experience. As Pope Francis insisted in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love): “Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: ‘There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.’ ... Consequently, there is a need ‘to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and ‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’” (296).
This imbalance of ideas is disappointing because there is so much value in Torn Asunder. As previously mentioned, it brings new ideas to an old issue.
Where else will readers learn, in so much detail, about the place of sacrifice in marriage, concepts frequently confused with forgiveness, and prominent process models of forgiveness (intervention programs that help people move from unforgiveness to forgiveness and, in some cases, improve relationships with the offender, i.e., process emotions, e.g., hurt/anger, which leads to more positive ones, forgiving more, improved self-esteem and less psychological distress; one chapter presents two forgiveness models and helpful strategies for the offended and for the offender)? Who else is highlighting the need that children of divorce have for ontological security? When is the last time you heard someone explore the question of whether divorce makes couples in troubled marriages happier?
Torn Asunder does all these things, and more, well. I appreciate this book. I sighed and shook my head while reading it. Other times, I cheered at it. I found some parts inaccurate in describing my journey, and other parts were spot-on.
I recommend this book. But I recommend that any reader keeps in mind that this book is only part of the picture as we work toward understanding children of divorce and how best to help them navigate and grow from their wounds.
Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski, M.S., LGPC, is a pastoral counselor, author,
adult child of divorce and founder of the Faith Journeys Foundation, Inc.,
which provides pastoral care programs for children of divorce (FaithJourneys.org).