Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Children of Divorce and Same-sex "Marriage"

I'm reading the NY Times bestseller from 2000, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study by Judith S. Wallerstein (with Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee) (Hperion, 2000) and a thought just occurred to me.

I've puzzled often over why same-sex "marriage" (SSM) seems to be sweeping through the Western world and gaining support especially from young people. Why now? Why such apathy about defending something as fundamental to civilization as marriage? I understand the energy and anger of the homosexual activists who seek validation as persons for their "life styles." I understand the motivation of adults who wish to put their own gratification above family respsponsibility and so endorse a general permissiveness. But why do others so readily acquiesce in the demands of the extremists? Why has the response of so many been basically a shrug? And, in particular, why are younger Evangelicals more open to SSM than say abortion, an issue on which the Christian view is equally counter-cultural?

Here is the link that just occurred to me. A full 25% of people in the US (I assume as similar rate for Canada) under the age of 44 are children of divorce. The Wallerstein book is a longitudinal study of about 130 families over a 25 year period. The youngest at the time writing (late 90's) was 28 and the oldest was 44. This is the first study to look at the effects of divorce on children as they grow up (they were interviewed every 5 years) and in particular on their adult lives.

What the book found is that the point of greatest impact on the children of divorce is their early adulthood - the period in which they are seeking a marriage partner and marrying. Two myths challenged by Wallerstein are: 1) that children are happier if the divorce makes their parents happier and 2) that the point of greatest impact on children is at the time of the breakup.

With regard to the first myth:

"Children in postdivorce families do not, on the whole, look happier. National studies show that children from divorced and remarried families are two to three times more likely to be referred for psychological help at school than their peers from intact families. More of them end up in mental health clinics and hospital settings. There is earlier sexual activity, more children born out of wedlock, less marriage, and more divorce. Numerous studies show that adult children of divorce have more psychological problems than those raised in intact homes." (p. xxix)

With regard to the second myth:

"Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move to center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo. A central finding to my research is that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them. They carry the template of this relationship into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment. Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether." (p. xxv)

If Wallerstein's research is right, would it not make sense if the ambivalence that so many younger Evangelicals feel toward the defense of traditional marriage as a social issue is rooted in their general ambivalence toward marriage in general caused by their own personal life histories? If so, what are the implications of this fact for the future of marriage? Would not the issue perhaps better be framed as a loss of hope, than as rebelliousness?

I certainly do not sense a spirit of 60's rebelliousness in the students I teach. There is an almost pathetic longing for happiness - in whatever way people can find it. They are the opposite of utopians. They tend to be subdued emotionally, cautious in love, and strikingly lacking in conviction that people can change for the better. I see a streak of conservativism in these students, but not much optimism, self-confidence, or trust. These are just my observations.

I'd appreciate feedback, especially from those in their late teens to early thirties, about the possible link between a generation shaped by the experience of divorce and a tentativeness about defending traditional marriage as a social issue.


David said...

My parents divorced when I was 17. Apparently my mum thought that I was old enough to cope, and that I would be happier if they parted. She was wrong on both counts. Their divorce affected me deeply. On the plus side it gave me a few years to get closer to dad as he came to terms with it, but mostly the effect was negative: suicidal thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, abandonment, meaninglessness, etc. My education was set back a good 10 years as well.
In no way did their divorce soften my own attitude to marriage. I am now at the stage where I realise that human love for one's wife is not enough, and that to love her like Christ loved the Church requires supernatural aid. Loving her is as much a choice (if it isn't what would be the point of making a vow?) as it is an overwhelming affection and desire for her.
Incidentally, my parents remarried each other back in 2002, and I was the best man. If that isn't an answer to prayer I don't know what is!

Craig Carter said...

That is a great story of redemption and growth through tragedy and suffering. Your wisdom is hard-won.

ivh said...

Since you asked, I support same-sex marriage because I believe gays and lesbians are no different from heterosexuals in their ability marry and commit themselves to a life together. I see marriage as a serious, lifelong commitment, and am thankful that my parents have had a long and prosperous marriage. I am not someone who has personally experienced or been affected by divorce, and I don't understanding divorce and same-sex marriage as belonging to any similar category.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Carter,
I think the book makes some interesting observations, and your analysis is no doubt accurate that the divorce-culture has brought about a gernal watering-down of marriage itself. It seems wise, however, to also add that even though 25% is a huge number, it is not the majority. Though divorce in one's background may affect his outlook on SSM, it does not explain fully why there is such a nonchalant attitude overall toward SSM. Certainly, there are many, many factors streaming into the river of this cultural attitude, of which divorce is one.

Craig Carter said...

You are undoubtedly right about that. It might be more accurate to say that both divorce and SSM (as well as cohabitation, pre-marital sex, never marrying, having fewer than the replacement rate number of children) all stem from a deeper source, namely, the indvidualism and hedonism that characterizes our society. This individualism and hedonism are in turn manifestations of the modern emphasis on the will of the autonomous self as supreme.

My main concern is not to isolate SSM as if it were an issue separate from, and unrelated to, more general social trends away from monogamous, procreative marriage as the expected norm for most people.