Jennifer Johnson is Director of the Children of Divorce Project at the Ruth Institute. She is an author, whose interests include homeschooling (she homeschooled her three children), children’s rights and family structure issues. She has worked full time with the Ruth Institute since 2010, an organization founded by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse “dedicated to finding Christ-like solutions to the problems of family breakdown.”
Johnson’s most recently published work is “Marriage and Equality: How Natural Marriage Upholds the Ideal of Equality for Children.” She recently talked about divorce and its effect on her life.
What is your own personal experience of divorce?
I have a lot of experience with divorce, far too much to ask of any one person in my opinion. My parents divorced when I was three and went on to subsequent marriages, divorces, different children, a lot of back and forth between “two homes,” and a lot of chaos. By the time I was about 22, I had experienced three divorces: my own parents’ divorce and my dad’s two subsequent divorces. I am divorced as an adult and there is quite a bit of divorce in the rest of my family.
How did it affect you, and how have you been able to recover?
That is a whole story that I tell in my Special Report, “Marriage and Equality: How Natural Marriage Upholds the Ideal of Equality for Children”. The short version is that I did not have a family; I was the lone member of my family. The family experience that I had was shared by no other person. I include diagrams in the report to show what I mean.
That experience taught me to suppress my true thoughts and feelings about the original divorce and the remarriages. That chaotic situation taught me to ignore my own intuitions, taught me that letting my intuitions bubble to the surface of my mind was dangerous. Had I examined and revealed my intuitions about all that to my parents, it would have jeopardized my already-tenuous relationship with them. Learning to ignore my thoughts, feelings and intuitions about things that bothered me made me extremely vulnerable once I became an adult. I joined a cult at the age of 19, had an arranged marriage there, and participated and endorsed some horrific abuse and exploitation of others so that I could fit in and not be thought of as an outsider. The cult appealed to my deep need for belonging, for being a full-fledged member of a family.
Anthropologists have a concept that applies here. It is called “liminality.” Limin is Latin for the threshold of a doorway. The threshold is not one room or the other. It is the in-between place between two rooms, or between the outside of the house and the inside. Liminality is the condition of being between states or statuses. Sometimes it is referred to as being “betwixt and between.” When somebody is in a liminal state, they are no longer what they were and are not yet what they will be. The old rules no longer apply, and the new rules do not apply yet.
When my parents divorced, I ceased to exist as a full-fledged daughter in my family, because my family ceased to exist. I never again entered a full-fledged status with either of them. Their divorce and subsequent remarriages pushed me into a liminal state from which I have never emerged. Joining the cult was my attempt to exit the liminal state, to become initiated as a full-fledged member of a family, even if it was an abusive family.
There have been many studies about the effects of divorce on children. What are some of the findings?
It’s bad. It is worse than the average person wants to realize. Divorce shortens people’s lives. That alone should get people’s attention. Plus it increases the risk factors for addictions, not finishing high school, getting divorced as an adult and losing contact with grandparents. Children of divorce report feeling a lack of empathy from their churches, and don’t go to church as much as kids from intact families.
“No fault” divorce came to California in 1969, and the rest of the country soon after. How do you think divorce has affected society as a whole?
In order to talk about society, we need to talk about the mechanics behind the changes of “no-fault.” No-fault changed an important legal presumption in marriage. A presumption is a starting-point, a place where we say, “Here is where we begin, and we can make adjustments to individual circumstances from this place, but we need a beginning point so we always begin here.” Prior to no-fault, the legal presumption, the legal beginning point, was that marriage is permanent. It was viewed as a truly life-long commitment and the family courts honored this, at least in principle. Of course, there was divorce and separation prior to no-fault, but the presumption of permanence was honored by the courts. In order to get a divorce, that presumption had to be overcome by demonstrating why the marriage had failed. Such circumstances included adultery, addictions and abandonment.
No-fault changed the legal presumption. Now marriage is no longer legally presumed permanent by the family courts. The courts get involved in the minutia of family life at the behest of one spouse. One spouse has the power to harness the family court to destroy the family, like wielding a sledge hammer, and the family courts must comply. They no longer side with the family, giving preference to its legitimate claim on wholeness. They side with the person who wants to destroy the family. If the other spouse wants to keep the family together, that person has no legal remedy. The divorce will be enforced in all cases if one spouse wants it.
In this respect, no-fault divorce is like abortion. That might sound like a dramatic claim, so let me spell it out.
In both cases, the State sides with one person (the pregnant mother, the petitioner in a no-fault divorce action) to uphold or enforce the action that the person wants (the abortion, the no-fault divorce), while simultaneously providing no legal defense for the other person (the unborn child, the respondent in the divorce action). The individual who wants the action (of the abortion or to be divorced) must be “freed” from every restraint that he does not explicitly want. Even if he chose the restraint at a point in the past, if he changes his mind, then the State’s duty is to free him from it if this is what the individual wants.
In February, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput published a book called, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World. He makes this same point when he says: “Without the restrains of some higher moral law, democracy instinctively works against natural marriage, traditional families and any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens. It insists on the autonomous individual as its ideal.”
Thus, as a society, we believe that the State’s duty to the individual is to annul or at least modify his familial obligations whenever he chooses in order to free him.
I’ve heard it said divorce may be a necessity when “the 3 A’s” are involved: addiction, abuse and adultery. Do you agree?
This is a complex question since it touches on a variety of issues. We can talk about it from the State’s perspective or the perspective of individual families. Taking the State’s perspective, we might ask: what is the State’s role in divorce? Should the State be involved? If so, at what point? I would say that yes, there is a role for the State, but to restore some semblance of justice in divorce we need to restore the legal presumption of permanence. I do not know how that should be done. Should we go back to some sort of fault-based system that relies on “the 3 A’s”? Should we at least eliminate the unilateral aspect of divorce and require both spouses to consent to it? I would say yes to both of those questions.
We can also consider the perspective of individual families. Perhaps somebody reading this article is experiencing one or more of those things right now. It is difficult to give blanket advice since each case is unique. Even so, I have heard many reports about couples who recovered from adultery. For addiction issues, help can be found through groups such as Al-Anon.
The good thing about the old fault-based system is that somebody was legally culpable. This person was then penalized by the courts. This deterred bad behavior. For example, if the child is not living with that person post-divorce, then this makes sense. Children should not be living with addicts or with abuse, especially when their other parent is not there to serve as a buffer.
What might you say to couples with children considering divorce when less serious issues are involved?
That triad of your family matters a great deal. It matters to your children, to all of the people around you, and to your grandchildren and the rest of your posterity. So try harder to work things out. I know you’re tired and you probably want to go find somebody else. But your kids need you there, at home. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your situation will beat the odds for your kids. Are you willing to implicitly tell them that you don’t want to live with them for half of their remaining childhood? Because that is what you will be communicating to them if you split up. Do you want to throw away their sense of being your full-fledged child?
You will continue to have a relationship with your spouse even after the divorce, and you will have less say-so in the lives of your children than you do now. Your ex-spouse might bring undesirable people into your children’s lives, and your children will feel pressure to accept and love those people. Some spouses resort to parental alienation tactics, which means that you run the risk of losing all contact with your children for a very long time.
Please do not make the child live in “two homes.” Do not break up their daily life like that. Consider keeping the family home, letting the children live there full time, and getting a small place nearby that you share with your ex-spouse. Each of you takes turns going back and forth between the family home and the other place. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then please reconsider making your kids do the same. Apply the same standard to your children that you want applied to you.
What help/advice would you offer children of divorced parents to help them recover?
I don’t have any magic words here. Healing is an ongoing process. The first steps were the hardest for me:
- to acknowledge just how damaging my parents’ divorce was to my sense of self. Their one-flesh union was supposed to be a mirror for me to see myself in a holistic way. Shattering that mirror shattered my ability to see myself and to orient myself within my family and later into society as a young adult.
- that I was not resilient like the experts said I would be, even though I tried very hard to be.
- that I really did love that family and miss it terribly to this day.
- that their divorce and remarriages taught me to lie to myself about how I really felt about it all. Out of fear, and wanting to be accepted, I showed approval even though I did not approve.
- that learning to lie to myself hamstrung me as a young adult, since by the time I was grown I was totally comfortable with ignoring and distrusting my intuitions. Without my intuitions to help me, this led me into situations that were further damaging.
- that as an older adult I have had to learn how to trust my intuitions and it is an ongoing process, scary at times.
I recommend my reading my book for more details about all of these concepts, plus many diagrams that make it easy enough for a child to understand.