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Marriage Integrity: Literature Study


In the Rite of Marriage that originated with Catholic doctrine, the indissolubility of marriage is a nonnegotiable presumption. This is clear from the form followed by all U.S. dioceses. Right in the “Sacrament of Intentions” – preceding the marriage vows –the priest asks, “(Name) and (name), have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?” Then follows the formal marriage vows articulated in turn by husband and wife: “I, (Name), take you, (Name), for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” (International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. 1). Nowhere in the Liturgy is there any proviso for changing one’s mind, getting a “second chance” in life, being barren/sterile, out of work, or discovering a new “sexual orientation” later in life.

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The presumption of the indissolubility of marriage (or at least, its vitality over the long term) is important to the emotional wellbeing of the couple, it is intrinsic to the exclusivity of the relationship that others in the community should not violate, it bolsters economic security and mutual support no matter what, and it is an anchor for the welfare of the children to be raised over at least two decades. It has also been empirically proven to be superior to informal cohabitation, since most of the latter types of relationships are transient, resulting in separation and never end in marriage. But when civil law intervened and permitted divorce in the U.K. and the U.S., the effect on both parents and children was vast.

Divorce rates may indeed have trended down, from a high of 5.3 per 1,000 population to “just” 4.0 in 2001 and 3.5 in 2008 but there is no avoiding the cumulative effect. “Between 1970 and 1996, the proportion of children under 18 years of age living with one parent grew from 12 percent to 28 percent.” (Census Bureau 4; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ /National Center for Health Statistics 1; Teachman 110). This paper holds that the indissolubility of marriage should be protected because, by choosing to divorce based on adult whimsy and capriciousness, parents inflict unnecessary trauma on children, force them to take on responsibilities the absent parent should have been around for, takes away a vital role model, trains the next generation in the idea that marriage is a transient state, and raises the risk of such poor mental health that children grow up to be dysfunctional adults themselves.

The Rationale

Parents who have undergone at least one divorce and mental health professionals themselves have tended to sweep the trauma to children under the rug by claiming that there was no statistically significant difference anyway in the prevalence of mental illness whether children still lived with one or both parents. “As if, any form of pain we inflict on our children that do not produce mental illness does not ‘count.’ The fact that many children of divorce report great suffering, and yet are within the normal range psychologically was somehow taken as evidence that the suffering did no damage, and the divorce was somehow justified” (Gallagher 1). And yet, what loving parent would seek his path in life if he realized that children admit to being distinctly lonely during all the times between visitations? Does it not matter that children feel less secure and experience more stress (Douglas 2) even when alimony and maternal earnings ensure they are fed and housed? How can adults think that assurances they still love their children even if Daddy and Mommy have just “fallen out of love” assuage the confusion and quiet alarm that is the lot of children when divorce suddenly strikes at their own family? “The pain experienced by children at the beginning of a divorce is composed of: a sense of vulnerability as the family disintegrates, a grief reaction to the loss of the intact family (many children do not realize their parents’ marriage is troubled), loss of the non-custodial parent, a feeling of intense anger at the disruption of the family, and strong feelings of powerlessness” (Eleoff 1).

The trauma children suffer differs by age, of course. The very young ones of preschool age, the consensus of scholarly literature maintains, suffer a major setback in emotional and intellectual development. There is great underlying anxiety as vulnerable young children yearn for the missing parent and fear the loss of the remaining parent as well. These free-floating fears manifest in sleep disturbances. At the next stage, grade-schoolers 6 ½ to 8 years of age compensate with evident grief and “…fantasies that their parents will happily reunite in the not-so-distant future…” (Eleoff 2) As with a death in the family, children in the early grades cannot conceive of divorce being permanent. At ages 8 to 11, thirdly, the breakup of their families finally hits home. Grief becomes more pronounced, mutates into powerlessness and anger, and impels taking sides with the parent considered “good” and against the parent at fault. The stresses and rebellion of adolescence, from 12 to 18 years of age, are compounded by moralizing about divorce and becoming extremely judgmental about one or both parents. There is at least pronounced anxiety about their chances for totally accepting love and a happy marriage of their own. If these look bleak, then teenagers fall prey to “…acute depression, suicidal ideation, and sometimes violent acting out episodes” (Eleoff 1).

Beyond the intensity of emotional deprivation children feel, adults are particularly insensitive about the fact they leave their children to fend for themselves. “Unlike bereavement or other stressful events, it is almost unique to divorcing families that as children experience the onset of this life change, usual and customary support systems tend to dissolve, though (sic) the ignorance or unwillingness of adults to actively seek out this support for children… A study in 1980 found that less than 10% of children had support from adults other than relatives during the acute phase of the divorce” (Eleoff 1). Where are close family ties when they are needed most? Clans are no longer close-knit because of the propensity for pursuing career paths all over the country. What about Grandpa and Grandma? The same self-centered attitude that propels parents to divorce has also consigned the weakened or incapacitated elderly to nursing homes. Or if still active, grandparents become hostile parties to the divorce and are therefore not inclined to offer uneasy, dismayed grandchildren the emotional security they need.

Beyond the emotional hurt and turmoil, children suffer a diminished quality of life after the divorce. Even as young graders, for one, they do more household chores, take on some of the responsibilities of the vanished parent, and otherwise attempt to fill the roles of support and shoulder to cry on for their mother traumatized by the divorce. It is an earnest effort but far beyond their physical and emotional capability. Citing a check-up assessment at year 10 of a 15-year longitudinal study, Wallerstein and Corbin revealed how one in seven children bore the burden of psychological support for the remaining parent. Children cannot expect satisfaction of their own needs for succor and intimacy for having to switch roles with anguished mothers. At least during the immediate post-divorce period, takes on the extra burden of “staving off depression and other threats to parent’s psychological functioning” (79). Farther down the road, Wallerstein pointed to such long-term consequences as apprehension about being unsuccessful themselves in love and marriage when their turn comes. Specifically, “…up to 66% of the women between 19-23 … had a resurgence of anxiety, fear, guilt, and anger that they had suppressed for many years … tended to resurface when the adolescent and young adult women were attempting to make major life decisions … (like) marriage (Wallerstein and Corbin 92).

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In sum, this admittedly brief survey of the literature on marriage and divorce in America today finds uncommon agreement that divorce does impact children and in a variety of damaging ways.

Before the last century, divorce was unknown among Christians save for the scandal of Henry VIII that led to the schism of the Anglican Church. But divorce became available in America in modern times as a dissolution of the civil marriage license and at least a partial escape from economic obligations. In the process of legalizing what is fashionable, two post-World War II generations grew to adulthood believing that the sacred covenant husband and wife forge with each other does not have to last a lifetime. It is an illusion for divorcees to believe that paying alimony absolves them of all responsibility for the depression, insecurity, self-loathing and social promiscuity they inflict on their children. Man alone among all animals was created with the conscience and fortitude to choose the right course of action to maintain familial ties and defend their offspring from avoidable trauma, even at the cost of enduring a marriage that is no longer as ecstatic as during the honeymoon years. Since children need both mother and father to sustain stable and loving family life, couples do need to stay together for the sake of their children.

Were divorcing parents to face frankly the full effect that breaking up the family unit has on their children, they would take marriage counseling more seriously and ponder a great deal about tearing up their marriage license capriciously. Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, the floodgates have been opened to “no-fault” divorce, divorce lawyers dancing all around the “psychological incompetence” rule, and a continuing increase in the numbers of children living in single-parent homes. Marriage, it has been said, is no bed of roses. And yet, the myth of mature, responsible adults committing to cherish each other and their offspring for a lifetime has been shattered. If only for the sake of their vulnerable children, couples would do well to redress their imagined slights and hurts, stop acting like Tiger Woods on multiple extramarital flings, and remember with what love they entered into marriage. Surely, there is a reason why mankind has sanctified and secured the integrity of the marriage bond for centuries; the strongest reason of all is the children who look up so trustingly to their parents.

Works Cited

Census Bureau. “2003 Statistical Abstract of the U.S.” 2004. Web.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ /National Center for Health Statistics. “FastStats: Marriage and Divorce.” 2009. Web.

Douglas, Emily. “The Effects of Divorce on Children.” 2009. University of New Hampshire.

Eleoff, Sara. An Exploration of the Ramifications of Divorce on Children and Adolescents. Philadeplhia: The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, 2003.

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Gallagher, Marie. “Why Marriage Matters: The Case for Normal Marriage.” Testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and property rights hearing: “What is needed to defend the bipartisan defense of marriage act of 1996?” 2003.

International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. “Rite of Marriage.” 1969. Web.

Teachman, Jay D. “The Childhood Living Arrangements of Children and the Characteristics of Their Marriages.” Journal of Family Issues 25 (2004): 86-111.

Wallerstein, J.S. “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal.” The Psychiatric Times: Medicine and Behavior 8 (1989): 8-11.

Wallerstein, J. S., and S. B. Corbin. The child and the vicissitudes of divorce. In The scientific basis of child custody decisions. eds R. M. Galatzer-Levy, and L. Kraus, 73-95. New York: Wiley, 1999.

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