Elizabeth Marquardt will present at workshop at the Orlando Smart
Marriages conference, "The Moral & Spiritual Development
of Children of Divorce" on Friday, immediately following
the keynote luncheon by Wallerstein and Amato on The Children of Divorce.
 This workshop will provide a new perspective - help us all see the world with
the hearts and souls of these children - and adult children -
of divorce.

The following article gives a preview of this session.
If you can't attend, get the tape.

 

"Children of Divorce: Stories of Exile"
Feb. 21, 2001 issue of The Christian Century

By Elizabeth Marquardt

     The parable of the Prodigal Son is often used to illustrate the
gracious and steadfast nature of God's love.  Most of us can recognize and
even identify with the characters - the younger son who strikes out on his
own and makes costly mistakes, the responsible elder son who always does
what is expected of him, and the long-suffering father, who shows love and
constancy.  But for some people the father figure in the story is
unrecognizable.  Many people feel that one or both of their own parents were
never there for them, and as a result they may find it difficult to
apprehend the parable's message about the all-embracing love of God.

     Certainly there have always been troubled family relationships,
including in Jesus' time.  Many people have experienced the kinds of
conflict with a parent that might influence their reading of scripture.  Yet
unprecedented family changes have marked the past few decades.  Since the
1960s we have witnessed a precipitous increase in the number of marriages
ending in divorce.  The rate of divorce stabilized in the mid-'80s at is
present number of almost one in two marriages.  Consequently, many of today'
s 20- and 30-year-olds have experienced the divorce of their parents.  This
entire generation of young adults has been deeply affected by living in a
society in which the possibility of lasting commitment is viewed with
suspicion and sometimes despair.

     Yet our culture and our churches have asked relatively few questions
about the experience of children of divorce.  At most, we have assumed that
divorce affects children during the first months or years after their
parents part.  We have failed to recognize that their parents' divorce
shapes the spiritual journeys of people throughout their lives.  Ministries
that have assumed a two-parent, intact family structure may not work well
for people who did not grow up in such families.  In order to welcome young
adults - to teach, counsel, and comfort them - the church must do a better
job of understanding and including their distinctive experience and
perspective.

     Over the past several years I have conducted formal interviews with
adult children of divorce and held informal conversations with many more.
During these discussions I often ask them to reflect on specific biblical
passages, such as the parable of the Prodigal Son or the commandment to
honor one's father and mother.  Frequently the responses of children of
divorce differ greatly from the way religious leaders approach the same
texts.

     At a Protestant seminary one student whose parents were divorced told
me that the parable of the Prodigal Son held little resonance for her.  She
said, "I was always kind of the dutiful one - the one traveling distances to
be sure I saw my mother, traveling distances to be sure I saw my father."

She had friends for whom the story meant a great deal because "they feel
like they've gone away and rejected their families and come back.  But my
family didn't even give me anything to reject.  There wasn't a stable enough
thing to go away from or come back to." An evangelical Christian told me
that he sees his father in the role of the Prodigal Son, leaving the family
to seek his own fortune elsewhere.  This child of divorce saw himself in the
role of the father, waiting at the doorway for his loved one to return.

     When I asked the ministry student to reflect on the Fourth Commandment,
she shook her head and said, "It means nothing to me.  I don't have any
concept of my parents as authority figures.  I don't know if this was
because of the divorce, but I came to know them as completely fallible human
beings." A young man who is Roman Catholic told me, "If you want to be a
believer and you're a kid of divorce, you really have to reflect on that
one.  You have to ask, are they honoring each other? Did they honor you? Did
they even ask you before they decided to divorce?" Another Catholic told me,
"I have a hard time with that one.  I honor my parents because I love them,
but there are things they do that I don't believe in, there are things they
do that make me very angry, things I can't honor."

 A young man who considers himself spiritual but doesn't identify with any
particular faith tradition said, "Well, in theory the commandment makes a
lot of sense to me.  But if your father and mother are not honorable people,
then they don't deserve to be honored.  My father doesn't think about the
people who rely on him.  He made a commitment to a spouse.  He had a child.
And then he didn't find a way to honor his commitments to them."

    Clearly, children of divorce bring a complicated feeling of loss to
their encounter with biblical texts.  Those who continued to see both
parents after the divorce in a sense still "had" their parents, but family
life was forever changed.  After divorce children lose easy, unplanned
access to at least one parent, and can almost never be with both parents at
the same time.  A reunion with one's father always involves a parting with
one's mother, and vice versa.  As a teenaged boy told Newsweek, "When you're
a child of divorce, you're always missing somebody." Divorce often strains
and sometimes even completely severs the child's relationship with at least
one parent, often the father.

    Children of divorce also experience many other kinds of loss.  Often
divorce means moving to another house, neighborhood, or community.  Children
lose their homes, neighborhoods, friends, and favorite places.  Divorce
changes children's relationships with their extended families and family
friends, whom they may see much less frequently or not at all after the
divorce.

    One adult told me about the strong relationship he had had with his
father's secretary and her daughter before his parents' divorce, recalling,
"they were really like an extended family." But after the divorce, "they
were uncomfortable and didn't know what to do, and they just disappeared."
Since remarriages end in divorce more frequently than first marriages do,
the child may also lose the world that comes with a new marriage -
stepparent and siblings, home and new routines.

Grief, the natural human response to loss, is hard for people to navigate
alone.  Children, especially, need people to help them understand and name
the confusing mixture of emotions that grief produces.  The grief
precipitated by the changes brought by divorce continues to surface during
subsequent stages of children's lives - at the beginning of adolescence, at
the time of leaving home, during courtship and marriage, at the birth of one's
own children and so forth.  One young woman whose parents divorced when
she was two told me that she first cried about that divorce when she was 22.
She was imagining her wedding day and wondering whether her father would
walk her down the aisle.  When she considered asking both her mother and
father to walk with her, she found herself overwhelmed with tears.

    Children of divorce often also experience anger, another natural
response to loss.  Anger is a threatening emotion.  Most people fear its
potential to wreak havoc and to hurt people.  It is an emotion that we seek
to regulate as adults and that few adults will tolerate in children.  The
anger children feel about their parents' divorce is further complicated by
the vulnerability of those parents and the children's desire to protect
them.  One young man said, "I was definitely initiated into adulthood in a
way that was totally inappropriate, and if I had been really aware of what
was happening, I would have been, like, this sucks." When I asked him if he
had expressed his feelings, he said, "At times, but I was also really
protective of my parents.  I just did not spend a lot of time complaining
about them." Not surprisingly, many children of divorce suppress their
anger.

    Left unrecognized and unacknowledged, this grief and anger lead to
despair and contribute to the higher rates of clinical depression, suicidal
thoughts and actual suicides among children of divorce.  One young man
remembers that in the years following his parents' divorce, "I really
thought about suicide a lot.  There was a lot of angst and pain and I didn't
know how to deal with it.  I really seriously just thought about turning it
off."  Even young people who are neither clinically depressed nor suicidal
may feel isolated by their grief and anger.  They experience childhood
differently than do children from intact families, but no one thinks to ask
them about their experience.  As they grow older, children of divorce often
feel set apart and very much alone.  This makes it especially important to
welcome them into the church.

    A theological metaphor that richly describes the complex experience of
children of divorce is the biblical story of the exile.  As divorced parents
are swept up into rebuilding their lives, their children often feel
relegated to the margins.  As parents take on new jobs, lovers or spouses,
their children lose the attention they may once have had from their mothers
and fathers.  Like the Israelites grappling with exile, children of divorce
experience a baffling range of emotions.  Yet the biblical story does not
stop with exile.  God promises a return home, a deliverance from isolation,
a restoration of wholeness.  How, then, might children of divorce experience
this journey?

    How might the church welcome and aid them? Following are some practical
suggestions for how to reach out to and include this generation of young
adults more fully in the life of the church.

    -PREACHING AND TEACHING: The understanding that different family
experiences produce different interpretations of biblical texts should mark
preaching and teaching.  There has been very little discussion of family
issues, especially divorce, in liberal Protestant churches.  Many of these
churches are afraid to talk about divorce for fear of alienating divorced
people.  Yet it is fully possible both to emphasize the importance of
marriage and to affirm the experiences of single and divorced parents.

    -COUNSELING: While some marriages are so destructive that they must be
ended for the safety of those involved, many low-conflict marriages may be
saved.  A recent study based on national data demonstrated that about a
third of divorces arise out of marriages characterized by violence or abuse,
and the children of those marriages did better after those divorces.  But
two-thirds of divorces arise from low-conflict marriages characterized
mostly by boredom and unhappiness, and the children of those marriages did
worse after those divorces.

    An array of marriage-education courses exist to guide couples in
rediscovering or strengthening intimacy and enjoyment in their
relationships. (A full listing of these courses may be found at
www.smartmarriages.com.) Recommend these opportunities in premarital and
marital counseling sessions and make sure that members of your congregation
know where to find them.

    Be aware that children have a fundamentally different experience of
divorce than adults do.  The adult who has decided to end a marriage may see
divorce as liberation and a chance for a new beginning.  But children
inevitably experience divorce as loss, since it means the end of their
families and familiar ways of life.  If parents must divorce, encourage them
to maintain as much continuity as possible for their children, perhaps by
raising them near grandparents and other extended family and by maintaining
strong connections to family friends.

    Also, encourage the parents to stay connected to the church.  Among the
many disruptions of divorce, church attendance is often a casualty.  Be
careful not to subsume the child's perspective under that of the adults and
to give the child the special support that she or he needs.  Also, remember
that a person whose parents divorced five, ten or more years ago may still
need special attention.

    -LITURGY: Some churches are trying to develop liturgies and prayers that
can be used at the time of divorce.  While these efforts are well-intended,
they are often woefully neglectful of the children's perspectives.  For
example, the Book of Worship in the United Methodist tradition contains a
prayer to be used at the time of divorce that ends with the words "in the
name of the One who sets us free from slavery to the past and makes all
things new." This sentiment may reflect the experience of some adults, but
children do not experience the breakup of their families as being "set free
from slavery to the past" nor do they long to have their families "made
 new."

    More appropriate might be a liturgy in which parents vowed to remain
loving, involved parents to their children.   However, a liturgy for the
time of divorce might be intimidating rather than comforting to children.
Often we are eager to write new liturgies to rectify the church's inadequate
response to some issue.  But when vulnerable people, especially children,
are involved it might be wise to make sure we understand their experience
before we develop new liturgies for them.  Nevertheless, we might wish to
consider formulating liturgies for adult children of divorce, or perhaps
adapting existing rituals to more adequately reflect their experience.

    -REACHING INTO THE COMMUNITY: Children of divorce may have lost their
faith traditions when their parents' marriage ended.  They may never have
been part of a faith community.  Or they may have fallen away from the
church because they did not find their experience addressed there.  But they
constitute a substantial part of the young adult population.  Those who have
experienced the loss of vital relationships know how important and
sustaining close relationships can be - with other people, with their
communities, with God.  In what specific ways can congregations show these
children of divorce that the church recognizes and welcomes them? Churches
that acknowledge these young people's experiences and reach out to them can
become places of wholeness and healing for them.
 

Elizabeth Marquardt is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American
Values in New York City and a candidate for ordained ministry in the United
Methodist Church.
 

Copyright 2001 Christian Century Foundation. Reproduced by permission from
the Feb. 21, 2001 issue of the Christian Century.  Subscriptions: $42/year.
(36 issues), from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097.  Web
link: www.christiancentury.org
 

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