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    shadow of child and woman on a kitchen wall

    Divorce Wrecks Children’s Lives Too

    Despite what our culture tells us about putting ourselves first, divorce is not good for you or your children.

    By Erika J. Ahern

    January 10, 2022
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    • M. Grolfton

      Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, buddy. What the heck do you have against avocado toast?!?

    • Anne M

      Oh. I don't *wholly* disagree. I found myself agitated the other day by a woman on Twitter waiting for the first round of divorces in her age group so she might find a nice divorced man, and I was chagrined by the callousness the whole group treated divorces. But also, as a suburban mom of three, including one with hard special needs, and very, very committed to sticking out my marriage for better or for worse, forever, I nonetheless divorced my husband five years ago. He had moved 1600 miles away, didn't want us to come with, pretended to be someone else in the other city, had a couple dozen other girlfriends, and continued to act out after I had given repeated second chances. I do realize divorce was hurtful to my children, especially to my oldest son, and have apologized to him that my choices were so damaging to him....but by that, I mean my choice to marry his father in the first place, not to divorce when I did. Divorce is a grave decision, but it is, often, the right decision.

    • Greg Coates

      Thank you. My wife divorced me in 2017 because she wanted to “find herself.” It has town our two children apart. I’m still so angry and hurt and raw. It feels like it will never heal. Most of all, I’m angry at how her selfish decision has damaged my daughters. Also, she claimed I was abusive. This ruined me, and my career. We fought and I may have been guilty of verbal abuse during our arguments, but I was never physically abusive. So. Much. Damage. caused by her lies.

    • Valerie R Hensley

      I only wish my Mother had left my miserly, controlling Father. Even after we had left the home, my Mother was too fearful to leave. Instead she surrendered «like a good wife» What a waste.

    • Samantha

      This article does a disservice to the important topic of marriage. As Christians, we DO have a responsibility to talk about the benefits of marriage amd to encourage our friends and loved ones, that when possible and safe, to work through things and make it to the other side of hard seasons. We have the awesome opportunity to talk about what a gift marriage is. We can talk about the lingering effects divorce has on children with compassion. However, I wonder what the purpose of condescension is? The tone of this article worries me. Do we as Christians ever ingratiate ourselves to others by taking a holier than thou attitude? Do we ever help our own case by tearing down what someone else has offered? What if instead we spent our time talking about examples of the beauty that marriage could offer? Maybe if we offered an alternative path forward and painted a picture of what a long and committed relationship looks like without tearing down others, we might be better heard. I hope that the editor of the Atlantic never reads this article, nor her children if they are ever curious and searching the internet for information about their parents. I hope they find people and spaces that offer them kindness and point them toward truth with love in their words. Lastly, I want to point out that it's okay if you aren't married. You will still have an incredibly beautiful and fulfilled life as a single person. You can know yourself and be in great community outside of a marriage union.

    • Ruth

      I appreciated your perspective and agree that dissatisfaction is a poor excuse for upending a family. Sadly statistics tell us that 1:3 marriages include some kind of abuse. God does not demand that a woman or man should stay in an an abusive situation. It is painful enough to recognize that the vows have been broken by an abuser, too many times the church is complicit when it does not recognize or address the abuse.

    • Melchior J Fros

      Divorce is never a good thing, and sometimes it is necessary!

    • Tamara Kittelson MS, OTR/L, ATP/SMS

      I read this piece and the one to which it refers. They left me feeling uncomfortable - I left my abusive husband after 4 decades, having committing wholeheartedly to marriage for life. He first raged at me in the second week of said marriage, on our honeymoon. Blindsided, I couldn't think where it came from. My response, internalized from childhood was "I must have done something". I now realize it was generational pain passed from father to son. "Pain that is not transformed is transmitted". (Richard Rohr) I told myself it would not happen again. And it didn't - for several months. There were good times. We were "equally yoked Christians" who outwardly appeared an ideal couple. We lived that way for decades, a hypocritical facade. I worked hard to maintain the image, driven by shame and feelings of failure. If I could just be a better wife and get it right, I thought. Emotional and verbal abuse accelerated over the years with the addition of children (which he very much wanted) and after the death of our third child. I now deeply regret the environment in which my children grew up, because I could not countenance leaving my marriage. Thousands of therapy and medical treatment dollars, plus marriage retreats including a "Boot camp for angry, resentful, abusive relationships" later - I finally allowed myself to quit. I decided that my life was worth something. It was destroying us both for me to stay. Some of us stay in marriages where living with our spouse makes us a shadow of who we were created to be. In the last year of my marriage, I had a therapy goal - to live amicably with my husband while having an authentic, meaningful life. We couldn't do it. And that's okay.

    • Judy Nowlin

      Very well stated. THIS is the unvarnished truth! Thank you!

    • Melinda Viergever Inman

      Well said! You emphasized all of the reasons that God ordained marriage in the first place. I’ve been married for almost 45 years and have raised six children, and the journey of learning to be selfless stretched me and flattened me and remade me into a better person. Committing to a lifelong covenant, desiring to provide a stable home life for our offspring, and then fulfilling those vows has been a growing process and still is. I’m glad our grown children have both parents still living together and loving one another.

    • Christiana M.

      I really appreciated this article. Divorce has never entered my mind, but as a homeschooling mom of five I admit to being a bit grumpy lately about my "daily grind". Thank you for the reminder to shut out the constant din of the world telling us to find ourselves at the expense of everyone else.

    • Frances Shirer

      While I appreciate the sentiments expressed regarding children of divorced parents, I think you do some of them a grave disservice. Those children who have a parent who struggles with an addiction, anger, or emotional detachment - the parent who is not these things has a very difficult choice. Your writing gives no room for the honest struggle that the spouse of such a person may go through. No merit given to the agony of trying to decide what would be best for the children. “Will they be harmed more or less, if I stay in this relationship?” I don’t think making the decision to get a divorce is as cut and dried, as you describe it. Or without emotional turmoil. I think the majority of people who make the decision to get divorced do it after a lot of soul-searching and thought. I don’t know one person who has made this decision lightly or without agonizing over the trauma that it might cause their child/children. They make it in the hopes that, in the long-term, it will be beneficial for their children and themselves. For most people, I doubt that it is a decision callously made.

    Just after Christmas 2021, Honor Jones, a senior editor at the Atlantic, published “How I Demolished My Life: A Home-Improvement Story.” It’s a self-portrait of a mother who, while wrangling with kitchen renovation plans, decides she doesn’t want a new kitchen.

    She wants a divorce.

    Jones spends the next three thousand perfectly manicured words trying to justify her decision to break up her family. She displays all the self-congratulatory bravado of middle-aged white women who read Henrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House or Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray for a high school literature class and then imagine themselves forever in the role of Brave Protestor of Victorian Oppression.

    Jones describes her marriage, which produced three children who are still young, as her cage. Her imperfect suburban home is, to her, an icon of her imprisonment.

    She doesn’t like the “chaos” of her house and, even with the help of sensible Luba, her hired cleaning woman, she finds the lived-in quality of a home with children irksome.

    “[T]he crumbs got me down. I sometimes felt that they were a metaphor, that as I got older I was being ground down under the heel of my own life. All I could do was settle into the carpet.”

    So she tells her husband she’s divorcing him. She loves him, she really does. He gave her everything she’d asked for. But it wasn’t enough.

    “I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself.”

    She seems to think she has now suddenly come to herself: only by breaking free and feeling “cold wind on my face” will she be herself again.

    So they move their three children into a large apartment in New York City (the city is “better for our careers”). She and her husband alternate staying with the kids and camping out in a smaller, one-bedroom apartment that they can afford. She sells their Pennsylvania home, folds her husband’s sport coats for the last time, and ruminates on the deep mysteries of self-actualization.

    Jones is a gifted writer. She applies all her considerable talent in the art of rhetoric, but only to showcase her utter failure in the art of self-knowledge.

    All in all, she paints a vivid picture of what we might call a “good divorce.” She applies just the right measure of compunction and sincerity, as well as compassion for her children (whom she admits she’s deprived of their family).

    The piece struck a nerve. It received pointed censure on the Atlantic’s Twitter feed and comment box, much of it along the lines of “you sad, pathetic, entitled woman” and “what about your children, you selfish pig.”

    It’s unlikely a Twitter mob will ever change a heart or mind. And to be fair, we don’t know the real Honor Jones, who may be far more conflicted about her decision than the picture she has put forward. We can’t know what other factors in her life and marriage she has chosen not to share. The fact that such “brave,” “confessional” writing is encouraged, let alone celebrated as heroic and cathartic, tells us more about our society and its appetites than about the writer.

    But the public response to the piece does get surprisingly close to the heart of the matter. Marriage was not the prison. Jones was terribly, tragically wrong, because her marriage was in fact her best means to finding herself. By jumping ship on her family, she abandoned the one vessel that could best carry her on her voyage of self-discovery: the life-long, exclusive commitment made in a marriage.

    shadow of child and woman on a kitchen wall

    Photograph by Artur Aldyrkhanov

    Self-knowledge is the key to the happy life. Greek philosophers inscribed the admonition “know thyself” over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi. Confucian and Daoist philosophers, in their distinct ways, call for self-awareness and self-cultivation.

    We are a puzzle to ourselves, as Jones demonstrates. But she has swallowed the lie that only by breaking free of commitments and disappointments and the daily grind of life together will she find out who she really is. That daily grind is called “losing yourself,” and it hurts.

    We make a promise in marriage that offers unconditional love to one person and the children that come from that union: we say “you can place your happiness in my hands.” In that moment, both you and all your dependents are inextricably linked by your own choice until death. No amount of re-imagining your life will change the fact: you will never be fulfilled personally until you have fulfilled your vow. We don’t understand the vow when we make it, but it hangs in our hearts as an immovable lodestar.

    If you want to be the brave hero, a real protestor of the wretched, selfish human condition, you must lose what you thought was yourself. As G. K. Chesterton writes, “‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers.”

    Until you bump up against other selves, other people, you will be inaccessible to yourself because we are social, dependent creatures. Life together is our window to our true selves.

    People will say, “Life pulled us apart.” But that’s wrong. Your own faults (both his and hers) pull you apart, and the hard work of marriage and motherhood is recognizing that you, not your promises, will have to change. Marriage exposes our faults so that we can become the best version of ourselves.

    She’s swallowed the lie that only by breaking free of commitments and disappointments and the daily grind of life together will she find out who she really is.

    Children do this better than any of the other gifts of marriage. Unlike the many couples struggling with infertility, Jones’s marriage was blessed with three beautiful children. She has three human beings who needed their parents to make them a home to achieve their own human flourishing.

    And the surprising twist that Jones missed is that she needed them. She needed her family and her vows. Self-sufficiency and self-actualization are, as Leah Libresco Sargent has written, not the default but the “aberration.” Sacrificial care for others and self-realization are two sides of the same coin. It is a great human paradox that nevertheless is true.

    At one point in the piece, Jones reports that her real estate agent reassured her: “This happens all the time.”

    Yes. It happens all the time.

    One in four Millennials report that their parents were divorced or separated. Only about six in ten were raised by both parents. When they were young children, the divorce rate was close to 50 percent (it has declined over the last forty years, but only by about 5 percent).

    To be fair, Jones acknowledges her children at intervals throughout the essay. She feels that, in spite of their loss, they are also beneficiaries of this new arrangement. She’s made the children “freer.” They will receive “a way of being in the world: of being open to it, and open in it.”

    More and more, I understood that what I wanted for them was public, not private, spaces. Maybe they would know from the beginning, in a way I hadn’t, that they didn’t have to own the playground to share it: monkey bars polished by thousands of hands, the secret shaded rooms under the slides, the parents filling water balloons for any passing children.

    Jones imagines for herself children who somehow, in some way that allows her to pursue her new life with minimal guilt, are actually benefiting from the divorce.

    My son is only six. He doesn’t know the worst that can happen. I don’t want him to know. Do I? I admire his confidence, but I sometimes wonder if he could use a little more of that animal intelligence – by which I mean, I guess, fear.

    Divorce will certainly provide him with a little more animal fear. There have been sociological studies of the adult children of divorce (such as the 2014 Linacre Quarterly report) as well as large-scale collections of their own testimonies such as Leila Miller’s Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak.

    Miller’s book gives a voice to the previously voiceless. “The unspoken, isolating (but ubiquitous) pain of divorce on a child is the most under-reported story of our time.” Reading through Primal Loss, you can understand why divorced parents don’t want to hear it. One thirty-five-year-old mother and professional whose parents divorced “amicably” testified:

    A parent might be able to totally start over with a new spouse, experiencing freedom from the first marriage and only minimal contact with the first spouse. For the child, however, their worlds will forever be fundamentally split. Forever. There is no starting over with a clean slate; things are now complicated and fractured. Divorce starts a family onto two different paths that, as the years unfold, grow further and further apart. It’s not a one-time event, but rather an ever-changing and ever-widening gap that only the children are really tasked with straddling and reconciling, season after season, change after change.

    Abandonment issues that spring from such powerful but unacknowledged feelings haunt the adult children of divorce. They have lost their “first family,” while their parents are busy building new lives and new families. In many cases, the grief never ends.

    A six-year-old doesn’t get to build a new family in the brave new “public space” Jones imagines. Maybe the kids don’t want a more public life. Maybe children need a private home and a sense of security.

    Maybe giving a healthy dose of fear shouldn’t come in the form of intentional parental abandonment. Maybe children should face danger first in fairy tales, where the dragons are defeated because strong knights and noble ladies are true to their promises.

    Jones briefly entertains the notion that she is wrong: “Maybe I’m deluding myself. Maybe I’m not free of anything and I just want different objects, a different home, maybe someday – admit it – a different man.”

    She may wake up one morning in her luxury New York apartment with her new husband or wife, order some organic avocado toast, pen the next great American novel, and therein find herself.

    But it’s more likely self-knowledge, if it ever comes, will come the day she’s reading Goodnight Moon to her grandchildren and suddenly realizes what she did to her own kids. On that day, the truth will be a cold comfort.

    Contributed By

    Erika J. Ahern is a freelance writer and cultural commentator focusing on family and education issues. Her work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Catholic Exchange, Connecticut Examiner, Crisis Magazine, and Regina Magazine. Erika lives in Connecticut with her husband and their six children.

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