The Baggage Adult Children of Divorce Carry


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For those engaged in America’s culture wars, it is clear that the welfare of children is the battle ground of choice. We are barely out of the gate with civil unions and same-sex “marriages,” and we have been told, in defense of these new institutions — and with the help of Hollywood — that The Kids Are All Right. And if it be true that “by their fruits ye shall know them,” then, if the kids are all right, so must be their parents.

But as we hurtle along in our social experiments, allaying our fears that children may not be getting the best deal in the new domestic arrangements, let’s pause for a moment and pay heed to the many children who, as adults, have come forward to say something about that older, accepted, and more or less “settled” issue: divorce.

Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds (2005), Stephanie Staal, The Love They Lost (2000), Andrew Root, Children of Divorce (2010) and Susan Gregory Thomas, In Spite of Everything (2011), all have in common is a willingness to fully and honestly examine the perspective of an entire generation of children who experienced their parents’ divorce and have conducted their own hard-won research. Their forthright, painful stories challenge the entrenched doctrine that it is better for children to have a “good divorce” than a bad marriage.

Living in the trenches, between two separated households, these authors have been able to put their fingers on what is essentially bad about divorce no matter how much their parents adhered to the norms of the “good” one — avoiding any public conflict, parting “amicably” and sharing the kids equally.

They were exposed. They had been brought into the world by two worlds coming together; and now they were “left hanging,” so to speak, “between two worlds.” And notwithstanding all of their measurable successes (good grades, high college enrollment rates, and well-paying jobs), the divorce of their parents had inflicted a wound at the depths of their being. For this wound, there was no remedial “social capital.”

The unraveling of this “settled” question has led the newly formed Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research, at The Catholic University of America to hold a conference, “Recovering Origins: Adult Children of Divorce.” Panelists at the conference examined the experience of children of divorce, and then reflected on what those old wounds revealed about the inalienable link between the human being and his or her origins in a “unity of two.”

The conference offered a rich assembly of social commentators and social scientists who documented the struggles of a generation brought up in the horizon of an origin split in two.

Marquardt, based at the Institute for American Values in New York City, is largely responsible for breaking the silence on divorce. Marquardt brought to light its most basic problem: the sense of “homelessness” that divorce generates in the child. At the conference Marguardt and fellow researchers, including University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox,, and David Blankenhorn, author of The Future of Marriage, described the destructive impact his experience of “homelessness” has wrought on this  generation.

Researches speak of an all-pervasive tentativeness in love that stifles the desire for making a home by marrying and beginning a family.

During an election-year marked by the intense politicization of social issues — from contraception to same-sex “marriage” — that draw attention away from the fundamental issues of human dignity, freedom and responsibility — it’s worth noting that the conference was designed to provide an opportunity to focus attention.   

Maggie Gallagher, who leads the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, together with the psychiatrist Marcella Colbert and the canon lawyer Sister Maximillia Um, asked: “Does divorce make us happier?” In the wake of no-fault divorce, that question was rarely been asked, and struggling married couples were more likely to believe that divorce would cure their unhappiness.  

Panelist Nathan Schlueter of Hillsdale College challenged that assumption and suggested it was time for couples in difficult marriages to consider a possibility: happiness through fidelity.

Parents who balk at the notion of adhering to marriage vows in tough times, might contemplate the tribulations their children will experience once divorce papers are filed.

Then there is the lingering question that divorce injects into the consciousness of the surviving progeny: “Who am I now that the two people who together made up my origin have gone their separate ways?” — as one conference participant put it.

This painful preoccupation underscores the inseparable link between the child’s identity, and the “unity of the two” that gave rise to it. But it also opens up a profoundly religious question: What is the deepest origin, the wellspring for my parental origins?

Father Antonio Lopez, the dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family, and Lisa Lickona, a homemaker, farmer and author, reflected on the link between the human image and the divine origin, which draws every child ultimately back to God the Father.

This link is the reason divorce is so pernicious. By severing the child from his or her origins in love, divorce puts   the child’s “filial” identity into question, and together with it, the goodness of his or her existence, said Father Lopez.

Yet despite the gravity of divorce, and the toll it takes on the lives of innocent children, divorce is not ultimately tragic.

Lickona concluded that “in the end, even though one’s parents are charged with radiating God’s eternal and perfect love, they are not that eternal and perfect love. And in the face of the abyss, there is an Other who will respond. ‘Abyss calls upon abyss.’” We are not, in the end, our parents’ children, simply.   

If it is true that children are a litmus test of current practices, the conference proceedings reveal that the children of divorce are a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ amid a culture that would cancel out its deepest memory, the memory of God.

Those who would like to follow the CCPR’s interest in the question of divorce as well as other themes tied to the “recovering of origins” (artificial reproductive technologies, same-sex “marriage” and absentee fathers, can peruse the Center’s new on-line journal Humanum.

Margaret Harper McCarthy is an assistant professor of theological anthropology at the John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America, and the director of its Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research. She is a wife and mother of three children.