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  • What is our collective obligation, if any, to a child whose parent is contemplating divorce? Tweet This
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A recent exchange on this site about the suitability of a new “shared parenting” presumption in family courts (see my original post, and then responses by shared parenting advocates, Richard Warshak and Linda Nielsen) highlights a more fundamental concern in U.S. family law and psychology today. A revisionist view of marriage often underlies modern principles of family law, the therapeutic approach of counselors, and the breadth and depth of divorce research.

Professionals in these fields wield great influence over the lives of individuals and families. Each is guided, as we all are, by a set of philosophical assumptions—or worldview—regarding the nature and value of marriage, the significance of divorce, and the source and meaning of happiness.

Sometimes, as with scholarly work on divorce, this influence is indirect and occurs gradually over generations. Other times it has urgent, practical implications for spouses and families. Abandoned men and women routinely find themselves dragged into family courts, and even to mandatory therapy. In these situations, many realize that their worldview is not only at odds with the “professionals,” but could cost them their children, their livelihood, their home—even their freedom.

In the area of marriage and sexuality, worldviews rest on simple assumptions about human nature and relationships. For example, what is the meaning and purpose of our sexuality, if any? What is marriage? Who determines its meaning and value: God? The courts? The individual? What is the purpose of family law? What is our collective obligation, if any, to a child whose parent is contemplating divorce?

Some view no-fault, unilateral divorce as a problem which discourages fidelity and causes long-term harm to families and societies. Others see it as a sign of social progress. Within academia, counseling, and family law, those in the former group seem more likely to acknowledge the differences between consensual and non-consensual divorce.

If our society aims to discourage avoidable divorce (most divorces are among low-conflict marriages), then such distinctions are critical. Our culture and our courts should support spouses willing to uphold marriage under the difficult circumstances many couples face.

There is a need for more qualitative research on individual differences in adult and children’s experiences of divorce, as much variability exists within the population at large. To date, men and women who resist divorce—and especially those who don’t move on to new relationships—have received virtually no scholarly attention at all. I have written here before about why and how such research could be of benefit.

We’re only beginning to understand the extent to which divorce shapes the psyche of children into adulthood. Leila Miller’s new book, shared here last week, suggests that for many children of divorce silence becomes a survival skill: silence in the pain of the holiday shuffle, in the midst of unwelcome parental recoupling, and above all in the face of “childish” fantasies of parental reconciliation.

Quantitative measures seem ill-suited to capture the struggles such children face over the course of a lifetime in the areas of self-worth and awareness, self-confidence, sense of purpose, moral conscience, and relationship to God. In other words, they fail to capture dimensions not just of human functioning, but also of human flourishing.

A legal expectation of shared parenting makes it harder for an abandoned spouse to protect his or her child(ren) from the moral, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical harm caused by repeated and prolonged exposure to an adultery partner.

In his response to my article, Dr. Warshak rightly notes that much of what social scientists know about divorce and its aftermath is based on averages. Perhaps the experiences of men and women who view the marriage bond as indissoluble—who resist divorce—no longer fall within the average range of the American experience of divorce.

But the qualitative distinctions between this subgroup of the divorced and those willing to desert their marriage partner matter. And they should matter most to those who are more interested in solving the problem of generational divorce than in protecting and facilitating the desire of adults to recouple.

Both in his response to my post, and in his book, Divorce Poison, Dr. Warshak either glosses over these differences or claims they don’t exist, writing: “reducing infidelity to the adulterer’s moral flaws overlooks the fact that when a spouse is unfaithful in a marriage, often (but not always) the marriage itself was in trouble and the affair was the symptom of the underlying problems. That is, both spouses contributed to the marital problems.”

But this perspective fails to account for a critical distinction between having marital problems —something every spouse experiences—and choosing to be unfaithful, which is not a relational phenomenon at all. Both spouses always contribute to an imperfect marriage, and every marriage is imperfect. But only individual spouses choose to be unfaithful, just as it takes only one spouse to secure a divorce.

For most who take seriously their marriage vow, the notion of mutual blame for one spouse’s infidelity is not only offensive but misses the point entirely. For many who are abandoned because of infidelity, such behavior constitutes abuse of a singular kind—the kind that should render a presumption of shared parenting problematic.

Parents who have been abandoned owe it to their children to explain that the behavioral choices the abandoning parent has made and continues to make are disordered and harmful (insights children have intuitively, but which adults often try to dissuade them of). Such messaging might easily be considered “poisoning” by many within the family law industry today.

I argue that a legal expectation of shared parenting makes it harder for an abandoned spouse to protect his or her child(ren) from the moral, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical harm caused by repeated and prolonged exposure to an adultery partner. This is not a fringe concern —in an analysis of NSFH data, extramarital affairs occurred prior to or during over 70% of divorces. Notably, this high rate of affairs characterized both high and low conflict marriages. And while I wish I could celebrate headlines like this one, I have yet to encounter a spouse in a non-abusive marriage who left the marital home and filed for divorce without being actively involved in an affair.

Unfortunately, the notion of “value neutral” infidelity is often sustained and promoted by the very profession whose stated purpose is to help married couples get through hard times. According to a survey of marriage therapists within the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, 38% acknowledged they themselves had either had an extramarital affair or were the victim of one. (I think I’d want to know which camp my marriage therapist fell into, wouldn’t you?)

Rather than addressing the substantive, moral implications of adultery—their own and their clients’—for their professional work, authors of an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology prescribe the following: “the counselor should take a neutral stance toward extramarital affairs and view the affair as neither good nor evil, but a fact of life.”

Such a position is clearly grounded in postmodern notions of morality as subjective and self-actualization as the ultimate good. One can agree or disagree with this worldview, but let’s not pretend it’s somehow more objective or science-based than the view of permanent, monogamous marriage as not only good for individuals and society, but necessary for them.

Let me conclude with a very practical implication of this adult worldview for children of divorce, as illustrated in what is meant to be a teaching moment in Divorce Poison (emphasis mine). The reader is presented with a family situation in which:

the mother became pregnant in the course of an extramarital affair and decided to leave her husband and three sons to move to another city and marry her lover. Naturally, the children know what their mother has done. And they are liable to blame the divorce on her behavior. But even in this situation, the information can be conveyed to the children in a manner that does not encourage them to reject their mother. Without condoning the mother’s behavior, the father can explain to his sons that he was not able to make their mother happy enough to stay in the marriage.

Amidst confusion and grief, three boys are left to ponder over the course of their childhoods: what’s wrong with their dad? What’s wrong with them? How will they manage to keep the loved ones who remain in their lives “happy” in order to prevent further abandonment? In years to come, we may expect three men who, despite their love for both parents, are insecure and cynical about the prospect of marital fidelity, distrusting of women, and wary of investing in long-term relationship commitments.

According to one worldview, self-sacrifice for one’s marriage and family prevails. In the competing worldview, self-interest reigns. Children of divorce deserve to know that the former view, which they naturally intuit, is worth holding.

Dr. Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children. A non-resident scholar at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR), she writes and speaks on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment. 

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.