Almost one out of every two U.S. marriages fails. Although divorce is on the rise among those who have been married many years, 60% of U.S. divorces involve children living at home; one million children each year experience the divorce of their parents.
America also shows high remarriage rates, with second marriages ending even sooner than first marriages. Approximately 90% of all U.S. adults marry at least once. Thirty-eight percent will divorce; 79% of these will remarry. Forty-four percent remarrying will divorce again. No major religious group is exempt from these trends. The U.S. has a higher divorce rate than any other country.
Divorce brings great pain to children, especially those between the ages of 6 and 14. Nevertheless, the anxiety produced by perpetual family conflict must be recognized: divorce can come as a relief to those caught in the middle of destructive family patterns. The causes of divorce include mismatching of partners, romantic and unrealistic expectations, personality disorders, emotional problems, poor communication patterns, loss of friendship and respect between partners, lack of tolerance, the high value placed on self-fulfillment in modern times, and guilt.
Until the mid-1970s, researchers tended to contrast broken homes with intact families. But Masken and Brookins (1974), in their study of delinquency in girls, concluded that family closeness and agreement are more important in preventing delinquency than the divorce factor itself. Still, Hoffman (1971); Hetherington (1972); and Marsella, Dubanoski & Mohs (1974) show that adolescents demonstrate a loss of personality and morals when a father is absent. At the same time, it must be recognized that there are healthy “divorced homes” as well as hurtful “intact families.”
From 1960 to 1982, the number of single-parent homes increased seven times as fast as the number of two-parent families. Only 16% of U.S. households have a traditional father as sole breadwinner and mother as full-time homemaker with at least one child at home. One out of six children now lives in a single-parent household; about half of all children will live in a single-parent household at some time in their lives. Fifteen percent of all children start life without a legal family. Approximately 2% of white children and almost 9% of black children live with neither parent. Twenty-five percent of all U.S. children grow up in poverty, and most of these are the children of a female head of household.
Studies show that divorce most damages children between the ages of 6 and 14. The year following the divorce is usually the most difficult adjustment period for children. Among adolescents, girls are generally more adversely affected than boys. Specific damages to either sex are usually in the areas of self-esteem and relationships; yet, the healing process can bring additional sensitivity and maturity. How well these children cope with divorce depends upon the way their parents handle the situation and upon their own inner resources. The pain of divorce often leads parents to pressure their children into taking sides. Consequently, adolescents may feel a great deal of guilt for their parents’ separation or the responsibility to bring about a reconciliation.
Since the family is the bulwark of a society, those who are alarmed by the increase in divorce but have never been divorced themselves may oversimplify the problem. The reasons for the rise of America’s divorce rate are complex and each situation is unique. Religious institutions need to lead the way in affirming marriage rather than attacking those who suffer the pain of divorce. Of course, divorce for convenience or for frivolous reasons is worthy of criticism. Society should esteem responsible marriage and singleness, acknowledge the necessity of divorce, and plead for the healing of the broken-hearted.
A much broader definition of family is emerging. In terms of separating the traditional or nontraditional family group, it is necessary to consider stages of separation and divorce:
The too-busy, absent parent in a family that may never divorce.
The family in conflict or without loving support, which may never come to divorce.
The separated, but not divorced, family unit.
The family that is in divorce proceedings.
The healing or settling family, after divorce.
The single parent family, the combined family, and the family with a stepparent.
Kids need to know that there are places to go for support, that they do not need to carry the burdens of the family alone, and that they must get on with their own lives.
Parents need peer and often professional support in what can be a crisis more severe than death. They must learn to balance their own needs for healing and growth with those of their children. It is difficult, but necessary, for an injured spouse to remember that his or her children need a relationship with their natural mother or father.
Teachers need to be aware of children who are in crisis; divorce can be an unknown trauma that greatly affects a student’s life and work.
Youth leaders can play an important supportive role for teenagers who are going through the pain of parental divorce. The many dimensions of their hurt must be understood and alleviated.