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Betsy Kneepkens: We shouldn’t be ignoring children of divorce

Nearly every topic, syndrome, or condition that exists has been overly studied. As a culture, it seems when we want to move a particular agenda, those change agents can find a study that supports their cause even though there are a number of other studies that do not. Once a group finds the data that backs up its cause, it uses this supporting information to influence politicians, journalists, and granting organizations to go after what that group is looking for.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

On occasion, though, there is thorough research done with findings which are consistent, but that information learned is not widely disseminated. In other words, scientists repeatedly come up with the same results each time, but that knowledge is overlooked and minimized. I believe these studies are dismissed because listening to the result would require our larger community to make difficult choices and act differently than we prefer to do.

What I am specifically speaking about is the legacy of divorce on children. The topic brings angst in nearly everyone that it is mentioned to. I don’t want to write about it, people don’t want to read about it, and we certainly don’t want to address the problem.

When 50 percent of marriages end in civil divorce and so many of those families have children, you quickly learn that no one is immune to the consequences that a broken apart family has on the lives of those the situation touches. I say “broken apart” instead of simply “broken” because most intact families are broken, because we all have the wounds of sin. It is when broken falls apart that we have the legacy of divorce that is so painful that as a society we want to ignore it, even though research repeatedly tells us that divorce has a devastating effect on children.

In too many marriages, the situation is unsafe due to alcohol and drug abuse or physical, sexual, or emotional cruelty. In each of these cases, to protect children and the spouse, one must remove the individual or individuals who make the situation unsafe. Although there are negative effects on children from this, there is really no other option for a parent.

For many more, the tenets of the marriage break down and the solution seems to be divorce. Often only one of the spouses want dissolution, and because of no-fault divorce the civil union is doomed.

Keeping married couples unified is at the heart of what we need to do for children, but for the sake of this article I am trying to illuminate how we are not solving the legacy of divorces because we don’t really want to address the topic.

Most of the time you can observe the change in a child after their family is broken apart. There is no particular expected behavior, but that child is changed and almost never for the good. When working with college students for nearly three decades, with the exception of abusive situations, I never heard a student say they were better because of their parents’ divorce. Rather I regularly heard that this event, and life after, was the most devastating time of their lives.

There are numerous adult children of divorce who still carry the pain, the suffering, and the wounds of their home broken apart by divorce. These adults have anxiety about commitment, conflict, struggle to accept or believe success is possible, and so many more life-altering conditions. With the exception of abusive situations, we have to stop saying that divorce is for the kids’ sake. It just is not the case.

Because we have chosen not to talk about or get real about the consequences of divorce on children, we have created a vacuum where we are starting to let folly reign within the silence. What I mean is that comedians are using the situation of broken apart families as a punchline to gain laughs. Or there are even commercials that are running, using the hardship of divorce on children as the plot line, as if it is something to laugh at in an effort to sell a product.

How sick and painful is that? Recently during an NFL game, an insurance company had an advertisement where a mom introduces a man, the insurance salesman, to her sons. The sons’ comment to the mom as she introduces this man to the boys was “don’t make me call him dad.” From my perspective, ads like this minimize the wounds and fear a child has in the situation. These advertisers are saying their feelings are a big joke.

Imagine the number of children of divorce who watch this kind of stuff and feel they are being slapped in the face by this disparagement and wounded again. Because we are not culturally seeking ways to support children in these crises, the populace has decided to normalize the dreadful condition.

Do I have the solution? I have ideas, but I think changing the premise of broken apart families might start us on a different approach. If, as a society, we reorganized the way we approach the severing marriages, we might find different ways to act and communicate. If the resolution of parenting was the primordial focus, even before legal matters of divorce were determined, perhaps we might reorder the importance children feel in these situations. When we better accept that children are the gift of a combined creation by mother, father, and our Creator, we might change some of our conversations around our children. If, when anything sacrificially happens, it happens for the sake of the children, we might make children believe they are a significant.

This is not an easy subject to talk about, and it shouldn’t be. Many might think, “Who am I to say?” And I say somebody has to say something or we get nowhere. The lifetime consequence divorce has on children is impacting every aspect of our communities. Scientists have studied this problem, and we are certain of the outcomes. Not until we start getting real about the subject, start talking about the larger impact divorce has on society, will we be able to move children and adult children of divorce to a better place or create a place that they never have to go to.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.