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The Prophetic Task of the Churches on Behalf of Children of Divorce

Elizabeth M. Marquardt

Beginning in the late 1960s and 70s, each year this country saw a growing increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce. The number of divorces per year stabilized in the early 1980s at its present rate of almost one in two marriages. During most of those years, academic researchers and church leaders, particularly in the mainline Protestant churches, rarely delved deeply to inquire about the children's experience of divorce. While a greater number of researchers in recent years have begun to investigate this question, their studies usually rely on social and economic measures and tell us little about the inner moral and spiritual lives of children of divorce, which is the information that would be most helpful to the churches.

Among all institutions, the churches have a unique and important responsibility to understand and respond to the experience of children of divorce. First, churches have a special call to minister to children and young people, many of whom have experienced parental divorce. Such ministries will be much more effective if they are grounded in a deeper understanding of these children's experiences. Second, since most couples still choose to marry in a house of worship and have their wedding officiated by a member of the clergy, churches must respond to the consequences for everyone involved—adults, children, and society—when those marriages fail. Finally, when the churches learn about the experience of children of divorce they will also, by extension, learn what parents offer to children by getting and staying married. This information will be helpful in the long-term, preventive goal the churches must pursue in ministering to children of divorce; that is, aiding newlywed couples in keeping their marriages strong and flourishing so that fewer couples will divorce in the first place.

Over the past several years I have conducted formal interviews and held informal conversations with many adult children of divorce. I am now writing a book, titled The Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce, that will rely on new research gathered through qualitative interviews and a nationally-representative survey, and that will be shaped by my own experience as a child of divorce. The book will employ several organizing metaphors that I find helpful in shedding light on this poorly understood topic.

Before I share some thoughts from my work, though, let me say a word about the category of children that I am considering. When a child's parents divorce and the child never sees his or her father again, for example, most people agree that a tragic event has occurred. Yet, when a child's parents divorce and the child continues to see and know both parents, there are many who believe that the child is probably fine, that, in fact, his or her experience might not be too different from children living in intact families. I believe, however, that there is a great deal of difference between growing up in a divorced family and growing up in an intact family, no matter what form the divorce takes. In the following discussion, when I talk about children of divorce I am not referring to those cases that most people agree are painful for a child—such as when a child never sees a parent again—but, instead, to those cases in which a child continues to see and know both parents. With that noted, I will summarize some major themes from my work on the moral and spiritual lives of children of divorce.

With regard to their moral experience, I argue that children of divorce who continue to see both parents are like travelers between two lands. In each land they are both an alien and a citizen, both an outsider and an insider. Their alien/outsider status may be distinguished by physical characteristics ("you look like your father"), personality traits ("that's just like your mother"), and name (because the generation who are now adults usually resided primarily with their mother but had their father's last name). Their citizen/insider status comprises anything they share with the people of each land. In each land the child has a realm of experience that the inhabitants of the other land usually know little about. When the child grows up, there may be a whole thread of his or her experience that each parent knows practically nothing about.

Each land also has different rules and customs. These rules may vary somewhat or a lot, but in each place the child is encouraged, or expected, to understand and live by them. When these rules contradict each other, the child (not the adults) is expected to assimilate or negotiate between them. Unless an extreme case arises, for instance when a parent breaches a legal decision or threatens the child's safety, the child is usually left to advocate for him or herself in the daily disagreements that may arise with a parent. This experience of growing up in two worlds sets the child apart, not just from members of his or her family, but in the wider society as well—there is something "different" about the way that child is experiencing childhood.

Don Browning and his co-authors of From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate note that a marriage, in part, is a bringing together of two moral narratives. For these two narratives to coalesce a couple must have "equal regard" for each other, meaning that each must be able to "regard and empathize with the narrative identity of the other just as one regards and empathizes with one's own."2 This kind of mutuality is one of the big challenges of marriage. One definition of divorce, then, might be to say it is when a couple agrees they will no longer try to have "equal regard" for each other. Each of their moral identities will regain primacy in their own lives.

Yet, when a couple has a child their moral identities can never be completely separated again. The child who grows up with both of them is the bridge between the two adults' moral selves; the child lives within each of their worlds and has already begun the lifelong process of developing a moral identity of his or her own. For that reason, divorce does not end the process of negotiating the moral identities of two adults—it merely transfers the work of negotiating to the child. Two adults with resources and experience have been unable to sort it out, but now the child is asked to try.

What are some of the moral tasks children of divorce are asked to do? To begin with, children of divorce encounter their parents as discrete individuals. The child's experiences at mom's house and at dad's house have very little to do with each other, except when those worlds collide. Thus mom's world and dad's world have a way of forming a binary opposition in a child's mind. The mother is at one end of the spectrum, the father is at the other end, and the child is circling between them in a literal, geographic sense because the parents live in two places, and in a spatial sense within the child's mind because the child must negotiate the small and large differences in the moral values and behavior of each parent. Some children of divorce have told me that they dealt with this by becoming almost a different self with each parent, and they continued to struggle with this feeling of being two selves in adulthood.

Children of divorce also have a complex experience of what to most people is a very simple idea, that of home. A "home" might be defined as the private sphere where we spend most of our time, the place we can (usually) relax because we are intimately familiar with its traditions, rules, and customs. Yet, children of divorce are asked to live in not one home, but two (and perhaps more as remarriages occur). Even if the rules and customs do not seem to vary that much between the homes—for example, bedtime is 8:00 p.m. at one house and 8:30 p.m. in the other—the child still has to be aware of subtle differences. Asking to watch a television show that runs until 8:30 p.m. may be seen as normal at one house and a challenge to parental authority at the other. As a result, children of divorce become watchful observers—especially in the home in which they spend less time, usually their father's—of the differences between their homes as they seek to discover what is right and wrong at each place. They become self-conscious in the very place where people are supposed to be able to relax and let down their guard: their own home.

In addition, the divorce process can cause short or long- term alterations in the relationship between parent and child. After a divorce, the adults are in a process of shock and grief and, as absorbed as they are with their own pain, they may forget to protect their children from some of those feelings. Even more dangerously, they may turn to their children as allies. When parents expose some of their vulnerabilities to their children, many children are all too willing to step up to the plate, seeking to protect their parents from their own childish feelings as well as from the thoughts and judgments of other adults. When this protective alteration in the parent-child relationship becomes a pattern, children effectively elevate their parents' moral narratives above their own. This displacement of their own moral narrative complicates the task of assimilating their own moral identity in childhood and beyond.

Children of divorce who stay in contact with both parents are always travelers, moving between their two parents and the different worlds that they represent. When discussing their spiritual experience, another geographic metaphor—but a specifically theological one this time—might, therefore, be useful. I suggest that children of divorce who stay in contact with both their parents have an experience akin to the biblical story of the exile. This exile is not usually in the sense of being sent away, but of having to go away because of forces beyond one's control.

The biblical scholar Marcus Borg describes life in exile as "an experience of separation from all that is familiar and dear. It usually involves powerlessness and marginality...It is often marked by deep sadness and an aching loneliness." Exile is "living away from...the place where God is present."3 Children of divorce experience a kind of exile, and they experience it on two levels. The first is when they lose the composition of their original family and all that entails. The primary loss is that of two parents in the home, but they also lose some or all of the following: the family home, the larger network of extended family and friends, their neighborhood, school, friends, family traditions, and more. Further, if one or both parents remarry and divorce again, many of these losses recur.

The second level of exile occurs through the smaller, continual experiences of parting and homecoming that happen when a child remains in contact with both parents. These are the journeys between the parents, whether they happen daily, weekly, every few months, or once a year. There is a kind of elemental wholeness that a child experiences when he or she is with both parents, a wholeness that can only be compared to that which we experience in intimate relationships as adults. Yet, when one's parents are individuals, not a unit, one can never experience that elemental wholeness again. To be with one parent always means not being with the other. Because every parting is a reunion, and every reunion is a parting, the experience of exile remains an often hidden, but nevertheless constant, experience in the life of a child of divorce.

Exile is characterized by loss, but loss brings with it other emotions, including anger, grief, and fear. While all children experience these emotions at some point, the multiple, shifting losses in the lives of children of divorce cause them to experience these emotions with a high degree of frequency and intensity. Further, because the lives of children of divorce have not been well understood, they tend to experience these emotions in isolation, which makes the feelings more intense and potentially dangerous.

In this case, however, the metaphor of exile can provide hope, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition exile is not the end of the story. God promises a return, a deliverance from fragmentation to a state of wholeness. The church, therefore, is uniquely situated and, indeed, called to offer hope to children of divorce. For example, the church has a theology of exile and return. Those who have experienced the separation and fragmentation of their families can find new life and hope in coming home to God. The church has a theology of humanity as God's family. Those who have lost dependable relationships with family members may find comfort in a theology of God as a parent or friend who never fails. The church has a human community of connection and accountability. Those who feel isolated can find relationships that abide in good times and bad in a family of faith. The church also has rich pastoral traditions that offer rituals and acknowledgment of the emotions that many children of divorce feel, including loss, grief, anger, and fear.

The task of the churches is to draw upon these and other resources to invigorate ministries to children of divorce in the context of their ministries to all young people. Clergy and lay leaders need to gain more understanding of the experience of children of divorce and educate themselves about family changes in our society today. Preachers and teachers must consider biblical texts in light of different family experiences and encourage their congregants to do the same. (Please see my article in the Christian Century magazine [Feb. 21, 2001] on this topic.) Pastoral counselors must learn more about the distinctive experiences of children of divorce and listen for the impact of their experiences throughout the life cycle. Finally, all church leaders must advocate for children within and outside the church who are affected by divorce, just as they must seek to strengthen marriages so that fewer divorces happen in the first place.

In the present culture, speaking up for children of divorce is a prophetic task. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead showed in The Divorce Culture, many adults today interpret a defense of children of divorce as an attack on adults' freedom to divorce.4 For several decades, the mainline Protestant churches have followed the culture in seeking to avoid offending or hurting single and divorced parents. As a consequence, they have been largely silent on the experience of the children. Yet, in doing so, the feelings of adults have been accorded far too much deference, while children—the most vulnerable participants in the divorce process—have been portrayed as resilient.

Without question, all divorces are painful and parents are genuinely hurt, angry, and scared in the aftermath. Churches must minister to adults in the midst of their suffering and loss. At the same time, with regard to no other family crisis would we say that the children's experience should be minimized in order to protect the feelings of the adults. It should not be any different, then, for children of divorce. Churches must show compassion for parents in their ministries to children of divorce, but as defenders of the vulnerable and voiceless in society—which these children certainly are—the churches are called to hear and to share the truth.

Elizabeth Marquardt graduated from the M.Div. Program at the Divinity School in August of 1999. She received funding to work on a project on the moral and spiritual lives of children of divorce from the Lilly Endowment, and co-sponsorship from the Institute for American Values in New York City and the Religion, Culture, and Family Project at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The following essay is derived from Ms. Marquardt's research on this project.


  1. Judith Wallerstein's research has been the rare exception in examining the ongoing psychological experience of children of divorce. Her work provides the fullest portrait we have of the inner lives of children of divorce and is particularly valuable in understanding how these young people struggle to achieve intimacy in adulthood; however, it does not address questions of moral and spiritual identity. Her most recent book, co-authored with Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, is The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2000).
  2. Don S. Browning, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Pamela D. Couture, K. Brynoff Lyon, and Robert M. Franklin, From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 282-289.
  3. Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 125-127.
  4. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

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