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  • A comprehensive look at divorce must consider the perspective of abandoned but committed spouses. Tweet This
  • The perspective of abandoned but committed spouses can offer insight into the causes of low-conflict divorce. Tweet This

In spite of recent optimism, it seems the divorce crisis continues.  A 2014 report in the journal Demography provides evidence that the divorce rate has doubled over the past two decades among people over 35. The same report indicates that while divorce rates are declining among Millennials this is most likely because they are choosing cohabitation over (or at least before) marriage. These findings underscore the urgency of recent calls to explore new conceptual models of how and why divorce happens—in particular, models that account for variability in process and outcomes, identify mediating and moderating variables, and focus on factors underlying divorce among low-conflict marriages.

A current debate within the Catholic Church might provide the framework for such a model.  The debate concerns the question of whether the Church should relax its long-standing teaching that Catholics who civilly divorce and remarry without first receiving a declaration of nullity cannot receive Communion. Much can be said about the merits of this proposal but one unanticipated outcome of the discussion has been greater awareness of a class of spouses who are striving to live out the Church’s teaching that marriage is permanent and exclusive. Some who have remarried without annulments choose to live as “brother and sister” in order to continue to receive Communion. Others, divorced against their will, choose a life of sacrifice in order to remain faithful to their first vows.

Our narrative about how and why divorce occurs seems incomplete to many who have experienced its effects.  The desire to probe its deeper, underlying causes seems weak in a culture that generally views divorce as a doorway to new beginnings. We know a great deal from social science research about average differences in outcomes between family members who experience divorce and those who don’t.  We know that, on average, divorce harms children across a wide array of adjustment indices, that around two thirds of divorces occur in marriages that were not characterized by conflict, and that the most common reasons for divorce today revolve around normal problems that occur in most marriages (e.g., “growing apart”). We know that children of divorce who marry are themselves more likely to divorce.

But we know very little about individual variation in the process of divorce and its generational transmission: who is doing what, and why, and how, at the level of the family. We know virtually nothing about the differential psychological, economic, moral, and spiritual impact of divorce on children with an abandoned but still committed parent—a parent who rejected the divorce, sought to save a low-conflict marriage, and remained committed to the marriage even after a civil divorce.

In my experience as a psychologist, and as one who helped start a program to strengthen marriages and prevent divorce at a large, suburban church, I have become aware, over time, of many low-conflict marriages in which one spouse has an extramarital affair, employs “no-fault divorce” laws to abandon his or her still committed spouse, and then cohabits with or marries the affair partner.  What these spouses leave behind is often devastating: adults and children trapped in anguish, confusion, disbelief, fear, and helplessness.

Given that roughly 80% of all divorces are filed unilaterally it seems reasonable and prudent to identify how many of these divorces fit this description. It would also be useful to learn how regular exposure to the affair partner over time—a routine practice often replete with emotional and physical danger—impacts a child whose other parent resisted the divorce and continued to teach that marriage is permanent and exclusive.

A collaborative effort to identify and describe factors that influence the divorce process through the perspectives of abandoned but still committed spouses might reveal behaviors and characteristics that mitigate some of the negative consequences of divorce among low-conflict marriages.

One might predict, for example, that men and women who resist moving on to a new partner in a culture that generally shows contempt for such restraint might also demonstrate a strong commitment to a religious faith (although certainly this need not be the case)—an attribute associated with positive outcomes in adults and adolescents, a willingness to sacrifice in the face of hardship, and emotional and spiritual maturity.

These parents—religious or not—may be uniquely disposed to provide regular, close monitoring and caretaking of the children’s physical, emotional, and moral development, as well as clear, age-appropriate messages to the children about how and why families are hurt when one spouse abandons the other (in contrast to the “we love you honey, we just don’t love each other” approach, the effectiveness of which is highly questionable).

If some or all of these predictions hold, we might ask what distinct impact these parental attributes have on the children. Are they more likely than other children of divorce to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice in marriage as adults?  Are they more likely to choose marriage over cohabitation, or to have successful, permanent marriages? Are the children, having experienced the stark contrast between two pathways following an unwanted divorce, more likely to become advocates in the wider culture for faithful, lifelong marriage?

Other mediating and moderating factors influencing the divorce process might be identified as well. For example: the frequency with which parents of abandoned spouses step in as surrogates for the spouse who left a low-conflict marriage—sacrificing their retirements and resuming the  unexpected emotional, physical and financial burden of parenthood.  What are their observations about how and why the divorce happened?

In what ways do family court judges support or undermine the efforts of an abandoned spouse to protect their children from destructive behaviors of the abandoning spouse (e.g., repeated exposure to pornography due to lack of monitoring)? More broadly, do modern family courts, in their emphasis on adult rights, routinely undermine the traditional belief systems families held prior to the abandonment?

This research might also help to clarify who actually benefits from a spouse’s moving on to one or more sexual relationships.  Divorcees are increasingly choosing to cohabit rather than remarry—a distinctly precarious situation for children.  Nonetheless, children of divorce whose parents do remarry have a significantly higher chance of getting divorced in adulthood compared to those whose parents never remarry.  And yet, moving on to a new partner is frequently described in social science research as predictive of “well being” (especially for those who initiated the divorce).  Perhaps it is time to supplement this rather self-interested view of “well being” with one that represents the perspective of the family left behind.

Finally, this line of investigation could inform not only our understanding of how to provide practical and meaningful help to abandoned spouses and their children, but also insight into the behaviors and attitudes that impact the likelihood of spousal abandonment among low-conflict marriages. For example, we know that family and friends’ support for marriages influences marriage satisfaction and risk of divorce, and that the risk of divorce is transmitted through social networks.

To what extent is the process of spousal abandonment influenced, positively or negatively, by family members, peers, marriage therapists, family court officials, and churches? Do the parents and siblings of one who has an affair and threatens to leave his or her spouse condone and enable that decision, or do they try in concrete ways to prevent the divorce and defend the marriage bond? What about marriage therapists? Priests and ministers?  Answers to these questions would strengthen existing long-term strategies to increase the odds of success for future marriages, to dampen the impact of factors and experiences that further the divorce cycle, and to educate and equip individuals at every level of society to help protect marriages.

We need new conceptual models of divorce. We also need role models for marriage. This is where social science and society could benefit from the seemingly narrow conversation taking place within the Catholic Church. The nation, and our young people in particular, need to see that fidelity to the marriage vow—even under the most undesirable and difficult of circumstances—is possible. Not only is it possible, but it may prove to be the strong foundation we need to turn the marriage crisis around.