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The Myth of ‘Happy Divorce’

Studies now show divorce, long viewed as one solution to marital discord, negatively affects children, especially in forming relationships later in life

By Patti Maguire Armstrong

OSV Newsweekly — Conventional wisdom once held that couples should stick it out in unhappy marriages for the sake of the children. But as the divorce rate soared, the myth emerged that kids get over divorce quickly, so an amicable separation is better than a bad marriage.

More than 30 years of research has found otherwise. Extensive studies reveal a staggering correlation between divorces and emotional wounds that last into adulthood. Divorce has been linked to many social problems, including trust issues, higher rates of drug abuse, difficulties maintaining meaningful relationships and higher suicide rates.

Myth of the good divorce

Margaret Harper McCarthy, an assistant professor of theological anthropology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., brought together 18 family and marriage therapists, professors and researchers, including some from divorced families, in her new book “Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins” (Eerdmans Publishing, $34).

“The most difficult patients I have to treat are the children of divorce”

“We wrote the book to challenge deep-seated culture doctrines,” McCarthy told Our Sunday Visitor. “These were the driving force behind the myth of the ‘good divorce.’”

She explained that there are two deeply ingrained notions that have encouraged divorce. “One is that we are what we make of ourselves; our past doesn’t matter,” McCarthy said. “The second is that to be a free, consenting adult, we need to have a whole range of options open to us. Marriage, accordingly, has to be reconceived as open-ended, something one can easily get out of.”

The problem with those doctrines, she said, is that in reality, the scars of our past become a part of who we are regardless of our age, and secondly, exiting marriage because it no longer interests us does not offer real freedom or happiness.

“The experience brought forth by children questions the dominant ideals which would decouple marriage from children,” McCarthy said. “Children of divorce, even as adults, show that their parents’ union is not negligible for them. They are forced to live in two worlds — torn asunder — because they are the physical manifestation of the unity of two people that went their separate ways.”

According to McCarthy, it’s a mistaken notion that if there is enough outside support, kids will do fine. When research only considers exterior markers for success such as college, jobs and income, she explained that it might appear children of divorce are unfazed, but looking deeper uncovers lasting wounds.


“The most difficult patients I have to treat are the children of divorce.”

Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, author and the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, (and Advisor to the Marriage Reality Movement) has made saving marriages his life mission. He has worked with hundreds of couples over the past 35 years and contributed the chapter “Children of Divorce: Conflicts and Healing” to the book “Torn Asunder.”

“Since 1974, about 1 million children per year have seen their parents divorce,” he said. “They are two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies.” Fitzgibbons stated that no amount of success in adulthood compensates for an unhappy childhood or erases the memory of the pain and confusion of their divided world.

“Before I go to work every morning, I go to Mass and put my patients on the altar,” he said. “The most difficult patients I have to treat are the children of divorce, so I’m highly motivated to protect them knowing that the suffering could be prevented if people [their parents] could just have more self-knowledge and understanding that the Sacrament of Marriage can protect and sustain their love.”