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The victims of divorce: Statistics and stories of hurting children

Family conflict, quarrel, misunderstanding.
Family conflict, quarrel, misunderstanding. | Getty Images/Liubomyr Vorona

At the end of 1993’s "Mrs. Doubtfire," Robin Williams, in the persona of the elderly female title character, explained divorce to the children: 

Some parents, when they’re angry … get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people and much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore doesn’t mean that they don’t love you

The scriptwriter and director weren’t the only ones to embrace this wishful thinking about divorce then or even now. We hear all the time that children are resilient and that they are better off with happy parents than married ones. But the evidence is overwhelming that this way of thinking about marriage and divorce is just wrong. No matter the reason, divorce is especially costly for children, something adults are quick to minimize and ignore. 

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2019 paper in World Psychiatry summarized that divorce and separation are associated with higher risk of academic difficulties, lower grades, higher school dropout rate, conduct and substance use problems, and depression. Children of divorced parents are also “more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, live in poverty, and experience their own family instability.” They are also more likely to have mental health struggles and to be institutionalized for mental health struggles.  

Despite Mrs. Doubtfire’s assurances, the destructive effects of divorce apply even if a child’s mother and father are “amicable” after the split. Writing for the Institute for Family Studies, Harry Benson explained, “It’s how [children] perceive the divorce that matters, not how the parents think they perceive it.” This is why “the whole idea of cooperative parenting makes so little difference to children.” 

No-fault divorce proceeded the myth that “the kids will be fine.” But they are not. Kids of divorced parents are wounded and often for life. Katy Faust, children’s rights advocate and author of Them Before Us, recently provided an up-close and personal look at the effects of divorce on children in an article for The Federalist. Responding to a piece at The Cut that profiled nine women on “the moment they knew their marriage was over,” Faust documented “9 Children on the Devastating Moment They Learned Their Parents’ Marriage Was Over.” While acknowledging that “the marriage challenges adults face are often weighty,” Faust says what both The Cut and our culture tend to ignore is “the life-long cost divorce inflicts on children,” many of whom “feel their parent’s divorce is one of the most devastating events in their life.” Each of the nine stories are told by adults looking back to their childhood. 

One said, “I couldn’t reconcile the fact that half of me is mom, half of me is dad, and if they hate each other, how can they possibly love me completely, as they can see the other person they hate in me?” 

Another recalled: “Deep grief filled my little body as I mourned not having access to my dad Monday to Friday. I cried myself to sleep Friday to Sunday when I couldn’t have access to my mom.” 

Another young woman shared: “Even though I was an adult, I was absolutely devastated. I felt like everything I understood about the world and how I was raised was completely shattered, like a glass thrown against the wall.” 

Another confessed: “I was completely numb, and I went into a spiraling depression. I started cutting myself and eventually attempted suicide.” 

Parents who understandably want everything to be OK for their children will only make the pain worse by pretending there is nothing to mourn in a divorce. There is. Ongoing pain testifies that divorce is always a tragedy that results from sin by one or both spouses. It destroys a family that God intended to last for life. Divorce is also an attack, even if unintentional, on the identity of children who originate from that union. The first woman who Faust interviewed articulated this sorrow and confusion well by asking, how can mom and dad still love me when they no longer love each other?  

To be clear, divorce, like the amputation of a limb, is sometimes necessary. The Bible permits it in cases of abuse, unrepentant infidelity, or other grave and persistent sins by a spouse. However, an amputation points to the fact that both something horrible has happened and is, in and of itself, something horrible to go through. This is why it is such an apt analogy for a divorce. 

Unlike an amputation, the most damaged victims of a divorce are not the limb itself. It is time to stop pretending that divorce only affects adults when the statistics and the heart-wrenching testimonies of children prove otherwise. We must not ignore these victims. Rather, we must consider their needs and put them above our own. 

Originally published at BreakPoint. 

John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics.  
Shane Morris is a senior writer at the Colson Center, where he has been the resident Calvinist and millennial, home-school grad since 2010, and an intern under Chuck Colson. He writes BreakPoint commentaries and columns. Shane has also written for The Federalist, The Christian Post, and Summit Ministries, and he blogs regularly for Patheos Evangelical as Troubler of Israel.

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