Marriage Resoruces for Clergy Marriage Resources for Clergy Marriage Resources for Clergy  

Marriage Articles

The Moral Experience of Children of Divorce and the Best Interests of Children

by Elizabeth Marquardt, Rockland County (NY) Bar Association Presentation, May 1, 2001

Family courts are charged with protecting the best interests of children. These courts were created to adjudicate cases of vulnerable children who did not have families to protect them or who suffered at the hands of their own families. Yet, in recent decades, the task of family courts expanded greatly in response to unprecedented social change. In the late 1960s the nation's divorce rate began to rise and, by the mid-1980s, had settled at its present rate of almost one in two marriages. More than a quarter of all children born since the late 1960s have spent some part of their childhood growing up in a divorced family, and every one of those children, either in person or represented by parents and attorneys, has come before the court. Today, family court judges spend a great deal of their time deciding complicated matters of parental custody, visitation, and support. Family courts did not create the problem of widespread divorce, but divorce has become a massive, time consuming, and often heartbreaking problem for them to address.

This problem will not go away until our society reaches a consensus about the need to reduce the divorce rate. Until that time, few solutions can be offered to the family courts, but greater understanding of the experience of children of divorce will surely help these children. There is now solid evidence that divorce produces social and economic hardships that have lasting consequences in children's lives.[1] Yet, at the same time, all of us can look around, perhaps even in our own families, and see children of divorce who seem to be fine. What about those young people? If children of divorce continue to see both parents as they are growing up, and if they leave home and seem to do well, does this mean their experience was not that different from people who grew up in intact families?

Social scientific studies produce important and needed social and economic data about children of divorce, but to this point there has been relatively little exploration of the inner lives of these children. Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist who has followed a group of children of divorce for twenty-five years, is the exception. She alone has provided us with a portrait of these children's emotional worlds.[2] Yet no one has asked about the moral and spiritual experience of children of divorce, no one has asked how these children relate to the largest questions of all, of their moral identity and value formation, of their relationship to the transcendent, of whether they see the future as something to be anticipated with hope or with fear.

Why must we ask these questions? There is a substantial literature on moral and spiritual development in young people that examines how child and adolescent experiences shape the kinds of adults these young people become. Yet this literature almost universally assumes an intact family experience, that a child grew up with a married mother and father with whom the child shared some kind of daily interaction. Yet, due to the divorce rate and the rising rate of single parent childbearing, it has now become more common for a child to spend at least some part of his or her childhood without an intact family than with one. There exists a whole body of questions that have never been applied to these children.

These are some of the questions I believe ought to be asked: If we accept that the family is the first and primary setting in which our values and identities are formed, what sort of challenge does a split, sometimes polarized, and often ever-changing family experience present for a young person growing up? If the family is the first and most profound experience that we have of the world, and if that experience was often subject to unpredictability, what kind of understanding of family and of the world do these young people have when they set out on their own? If children of divorce who stay in contact with both parents grow up traveling between those parents, each of whom has particular values, how do they shape a single moral identity out of the different moral sphere that each parent represents? Just as importantly, if religious traditions often tell children that God is like a parent, how do children of divorce understand God's presence when they routinely experience the absence of one of their parents, when to be with one parent always means not being with the other?

Although these questions may seem overly theoretical, like icing on the cake of a more important problem, I assure you they are deeply relevant to what attorneys and judges do in family courts everyday. Too often, our society mistakenly believes that the most important part of the divorce process is centered around the time of the legal divorce. Yet, while this may represent the crescendo of the divorce experience for most adults, for children it is entirely different. For children, divorce is not a brief interruption or a stressful but a gradually lessening ordeal - it is the beginning of a whole new life. When attorneys and judges meet to decide about children in divorce cases, the decisions they make will have lasting consequences, not just with regard to a child's economic and social well-being, but also in regard to a child's moral development and spiritual life. If law is the search for values, then the law must be concerned about the development of values in the lives of its youngest citizens. As more and more adults have grown up in divorced families, the way they think about and shape their values will have ever-greater influence in our society, and the law will be responding to and shaped by these new generations for many decades to come.

Since January of this year I have embarked on a two year research project to investigate the questions I just raised more fully.[3] In the first phase of the project I'm conducting two hour long interviews with 60 adults, half of whom grew up in divorced families, and half of whom grew up in intact families. When all 60 interviews are completed my colleagues and I will then field a nationally representative, quantitative telephone survey of 1,000 persons.

Based on preliminary interviews I have formed several suppositions about the moral experience of children of divorce. I suggest that children of divorce who grow up still seeing both their 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 status or outsiderness may be distinguished by physical characteristics (such as looking like the other parent), personality characteristics (such as acting like the other parent), and name (such as having their father's last name while living primarily with their mother). Their citizen status or insiderness comprises any characteristics they share with the people of each land. In each land the child has a realm of experience that the other parent knows little about. When the child grows up, there may be a whole thread of experience that each parent knows practically nothing about.

Each land also has different rules and customs. These rules may vary a little or a lot, but in each place it is up to the child to understand the rules and their variations. When the rules contradict one another, the child (not the adults) is expected to assimilate and negotiate between them. When a child has a problem with a parent, unless gross breaches occur, the child is expected to be his or her own advocate with the parent. This experience of being both an insider and an outsider in your own family sets these children apart not only in their own families but in the wider world as well. There is something different about how these children experience childhood.

What does it mean to be both an outsider and an insider in your own home? For children of divorce, parents are discrete individuals. Life with mom and life with dad really have very little to do with one another, unless those two worlds collide. Therefore mom and dad have a way of forming a polarity, a binary opposition in a child's mind. Mom's world is at one end, dad's world is at the other, and the child is circling between them - in a literal, geographic sense, and in a spatial sense within the child's mind.

Some critics might respond that this binary opposition only forms if the parents aren't doing their job well. If divorced parents learn effective ``co-parenting" in the wake of the divorce, they may be able to prevent this kind of extreme thinking in a child. While it is true that parents who try to work together can make the situation a little easier for their child, this by no means implies the situation is easy. Let's face it, parents get divorced because they don't like each other anymore and this is no secret for the child. Early moral thinking tends to begin with binary oppositions. Children first think in terms of good and bad, light and dark, big and little, and so on. For a child of divorce, then, mom and dad form another polarity.

Not only do mom and dad form a binary opposition in a child's mind, but there are different rules and customs at mom's and dad's homes. Consider what a household is. A household is more than a set of four walls. Households have particular rules and traditions and customs. Children of divorce who stay in contact with both parents therefore live in two households (and perhaps more as remarriages occur). Even if the rules do not seem to vary that much between the households, the child still has to be aware of the subtle differences between them. If you've ever traveled in a foreign culture, you know that even a simple gaffe can set you apart and get attention. For a child of divorce, if bedtime at one house is 8:00 and at the other house is 8:30, asking to watch a TV show that goes until 8:30 can be seen as normal at one house and a challenge to parental authority at the other. Even if a child does not fear punishment for getting the rules wrong, he may still want to conform in order to keep everybody happy and to fit in.

In addition, let's recall that this polarity and multiple sets of rules does not occur all at once or remain static. To be a child of divorce implies to have at one time been the child of married parents. Between marriage and the final divorce papers there is a period of separation - and before the separation there is the conflict or unhappiness that preceded the divorce, and after the divorce the process of living amid the new arrangements is only beginning. At some point in a marriage a fault line forms and widens, and over a period of months or years, perhaps even through the course of a childhood, the child is growing up with one foot on either side of a widening chasm.

We may think of a civil war being fought - it may be violent or bloodless, but it is real conflict. When a new border is drawn, the child is the ethnic group on the border who has ties to each new nation. And, just as a civil war exposes the weaknesses of a nation, the divorce process frequently exposes adult vulnerabilities that had formerly been encased in a marriage. Amid divorce the adults are in their own process of shock, grief and anger and, as absorbed as they are with their own feelings, they may forget to shield the child from some of these feelings.

Adults who grew up in divorced families have told me they were their parents' ``therapist," or ``best friend", or ``confidante", or ``peer" and more. The ramifications of having a peer relationship, rather than an adult-child relationship, with one's parents are many. It is clear that children of divorce who see their parents as vulnerable often feel called in turn to protect their parents - from their own (that is, the child's) feelings, from the other parent, and even from the thoughts and judgments of others. Seeing the vulnerabilities of both parents can also make the child feel she has to keep secrets or avoid talking to each parent about certain issues that involve the other parent.

Therefore, children of divorce end up leading two lives that are connected only within themselves. As they grow up they have two sets of memories, two or more (if there are remarriages) worlds of people and places known, two strings of reference points in adulthood that each involve only one parent. The child's value system thus evolves in two different, almost completely unconnected experiences. The child can end up becoming a different moral self with each parent.

The sense of being a different self with each parent becomes quite clear when I ask adults from divorced families how they felt when their parents were in the same room together after the divorce. These adults invariably tell me that the situation made them quite uncomfortable as children. They were uncomfortable less because they were afraid their parents would fight - most divorced parents would be civil and even friendly with each other in public - but more because, as one young woman told me, ``When they were in the same room together I didn't know who to be." This young woman explained that she was one self with her mother and stepfather, another self with her father and stepmother. When everybody was together, she experienced not joy or satisfaction in the brief union of her family, but a fundamental crisis of identity. In fact, I have yet to talk with an adult child of divorce who says they were ever felt calm when their two parents came together in the years after the divorce. When your moral thinking and basic identity have evolved based on the supposition that the two most important entities in your life are separate and mediated only inside yourself, you experience a profound loss of control when those two entities collide.

When we look at it this way, we see that children of divorce are handed an exceedingly complex task. Their parents have decided to part, but the child who grows up with both of them is the bridge between the two adults' moral selves. Divorce does not end the process of negotiating the moral conflicts of two adults, it merely transfers the work of negotiating to the child.

Like many researchers, I came to explore these questions because of a formative experience of my own. My own parents divorced when I was young and each subsequently remarried two more times before I left home. For the last six or eight years I have been seeking to understand this experience, not just to understand the kind of person I am today, but more importantly to comprehend how a whole generation of my peers was affected by a radically new social experiment. I seek to understand this phenomenon not to say that I and others like me are victims, nor to create a new identity politics category called ``children of divorce." Neither am I interested in victimizing my own parents or any other divorced parents. Indeed, I love my parents and in some ways I was their biggest defender when I was growing up. But as I got older, over and over again it became apparent that people I met assumed I'd had a certain kind of childhood - an idea of childhood based on an intact family experience - and many of their assumptions simply did not hold. When I began to consider how common my experience was, yet how little understanding there seemed to be about it, I began to ask more questions. Although divorce, once done, is difficult to undo, much can be done for children of divorce if we better understand what they are going through and how the divorce shapes their entire lives.

I say divorce is difficult to undo, but this of course gives rise to another question, which is whether divorce ought to happen less often in the first place. Should divorce happen less often? I believe yes. But, hear me say this as well: Should divorce be made illegal or impossible to obtain? Absolutely not. There are plenty of cases in which divorce is the kindest and most compassionate way out of a situation in which adults and children are suffering. I also am not qualified, nor do I think anyone else is, to say whether any one particular marriage should stay together. In the end, only the two adults involved in the divorce can decide that.

If the divorce rate is to be reduced, my hope is that it will be reduced by, as one social critic puts it, a ``change of hearts and minds."[4] When the divorce rate began to rise, very little was known about its impact on children. Indeed, the completely untested but commonly held wisdom of the time was that divorce was better for children, because when parents got happier, children would too. Yet time has shown, and studies have documented, that divorce does not necessarily make adults happier and that, when it does, the very things that make adults happier after a divorce - such as a new lover or spouse, or a more demanding but fulfilling career - can make children more unhappy, because they have less access to their parents than they did before.

Even up until last fall, when Time magazine featured the work of Judith Wallerstein and other scholars of divorce, the media continues to frame the question as this: Should unhappily married couples stay married and miserable for the sake of the children?[5] For decades, the answer has been no. But the question itself needs no longer to be asked that way. Such a question assumes that when married people are unhappy, first, their unhappiness it at the level where they are fighting openly, frequently, and with great hostility in front of the children. Second, it assumes that when a marriage is unhappy there is no possible direction for that marriage to go but down.

In recent years, though, new and highly respected social scientific research has shed light on this question. In a nationally representative, longitudinal study, the sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that about one third of divorces ended high conflict marriages, characterized by frequent fighting, violence, or abuse. When these marriages ended, children did better because they were freed from a tense and dangerous family situation. However, two thirds of divorces ended low conflict marriages, characterized not by violence or frequent fighting but by unhappiness and boredom on the part of one or both spouses. When these low conflict marriages ended, children did worse after the divorce because they were not aware of significant problems to begin with.[6] One day, usually with no warning, their family simply fell apart and life changed forever after that.

Another interesting piece of evidence has also come to light. The demographer Linda Waite, who analyzed data from the National Survey of Families and Households, and her coauthor Maggie Gallagher wrote in their recent book, The Case for Marriage, that when people involved in a self-described unhappy marriage decided to stick out their marriage and were interviewed again five years later, 86 percent of them now said their marriages were very happy or quite happy.[7] As these authors wrote, just as good marriages can go bad, bad marriages can go good. And in fact, a number of researchers, educators and therapists loosely affiliated with a growing so-called ``marriage movement" are finding ways that marriages indeed can be improved and become happier without couples resorting to divorce.

So the question no longer is whether people should stay unhappily married for the sake of the kids, but what kind of unhappiness are they experiencing, and what are the resources this couple can turn to if they hope to improve their marriage? There are increasingly more groups around the country that offer marriage and relationship education and intervention designed for high school and college students, for engaged couples, and for troubled marriages.[8] Community leaders should consider becoming familiar with these resources and making sure couples in their community know where to find them.

In closing, I would like to note a point made by Carl Schneider, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. Professor Schneider has written that, years ago, family courts were not afraid to raise moral issues.[9] The courts at that time frequently used a language of right and wrong - what is right for the child, for the family, and for society. Increasingly, though, the courts lost this language, and it was replaced by a therapeutic ethic that asked not what is right, but what is healthy. Yet, while a therapeutic perspective has much to offer, too often this response was overly focused on the perceived best interests of the adults - what would make the adults healthier and happier, with the idea being than when adults got happier their children would too.

As we have seen, it is not that simple. Adults have one experience of divorce, children have another. Family courts are asked to respond to all of these interests, but their responsibility is especially to those who have the least voice in society, the ones who cannot always speak for their own best interests, who are of course the children. Family court judges struggle every day to decide the best interests of children. In years past, they had only a scattering of research and the best guesses of adults to draw upon. Now, there is a generation of young adults who grew up intimately familiar with divorce. They are beginning to speak about the ramifications of decisions made by their parents and judges decades ago. It is my hope that their wisdom will be drawn upon in bringing attention and solace to this new generation of children.


[1] These studies include Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Andrew J. Cherlin, Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[2] Her most recent book is Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2000). Dr. Wallerstein's suggestions for family courts are found on pages 311-314.

[3] This project is co-sponsored by the Institute for American Values in New York City and the Religion, Culture and Family Project at the University of Chicago, and is funded by the Lilly Endowment.

[4] Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

[5] Walter Kirn, ``What Divorce Does to Kids: New research says the long-term damage is worse than you thought. Should unhappy parents stay hitched?" Time Magazine, September 25, 2000

[6] Amato and Booth, 220.

[7] Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 148-149.

[8] A full listing of these classes and much more information can be found at

[9] See Carl E. Schneider's essay in Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America, edited by David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996)


Institute for American Values
1841 Broadway, Suite 211
New York, NY 10023
Tel: (212) 246-3942
Fax: (212) 541-6665


to top of page


Marriage Resources for Clergy
© July 2015