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To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time.[1] St. John Paul II

More often than not, the engaged couples we meet in our marriage preparation ministry were raised in broken families. They witnessed dysfunctional family dynamics growing up. Consequently, they have no idea what a good marriage looks like.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II said, “Marriage preparation has to be seen and put into practice as a gradual and continuous process. It includes three main stages: remote, proximate and immediate preparation.”[2] Marriage preparation starts in the family through the example of the mother and father to their children, continues through adolescence right up to the actual marriage. The Pope stressed that this training is “more urgently needed for engaged couples that still manifest shortcomings or difficulties in Christian doctrine and practice.” This is even more critical today when young engaged couples’ marriage preparation was the emotional trauma of their parents’ divorce.

Sadly, divorce in our culture is viewed as the solution to marital unhappiness. In fact, just the opposite is true. In the book Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons addresses common myths about the psychological benefits of divorce, its origins, the severe harm it inflicts on innocent spouses and children, and offers hope that most serious marital conflicts can be resolved, hence preventing divorce.[3]

Fitzgibbons says that research on divorce indicates “that many couples give up too quickly on their marriage.” He cites a University of Texas at Austin survey of divorced men and women that found “only about one-third said that they and their ex-spouses had worked hard enough to stay together” due to their “lack of commitment to the marriage.” Fitzgibbons says the fault for this lies with “family members, friends, mental health professionals, and sometimes even clergy who do not do enough to support the Sacrament of Matrimony.”[4]

Fitzgibbons lists the following myths about marriage and divorce, “widely promoted and believed:”[5]

  • Divorce will not harm the children, my spouse, or me.
  • Divorce is the only solution to my unhappiness.
  • What is good for me is good for my children.
  • I can still be an excellent parent even though I divorce.
  • Our marital conflicts cannot be resolved.
  • My childhood and family background are not related to my marital unhappiness.
  • My marital unhappiness is entirely caused by my spouse.
  • Love cannot be rediscovered, nor can trust be restored.
  • Good divorces are better for children than unhappy marriages.
  • I will be much happier if I divorce.

Fitzgibbons cites research by Dr. Linda Waite of the University of Chicago which debunks the myth that martial unhappiness is solved with divorce. She found that among people who rated their marriages as ‘very unhappy’, “80 percent of those who stuck it out reported themselves as happily married five years later.” She also found that the “spouses who separated were, on average, no happier than those who stayed married.” Also, spouses who did divorce and remarry were “no happier than those who stay married.” Waite concluded, “The benefits of divorce have been oversold.” [6]

Looking into the source of unhappiness, Waite found that “unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses…three out of four unhappily married adults are married to someone who is happy with the marriage.” She asserts that “if a person’s unhappiness lies in himself and not in the marriage, divorce is unlikely to make him any happier.”[7]

“Research shows that divorce rates are higher in second marriages than in first marriages,” says Fitzgibbons. “This higher failure rate may be due to the fact that the unhappy person is still unhappy, even after divorce and remarriage.”[8]

Research at Penn State confirms “that more than two-thirds of divorces involving couples with children do not involve highly conflicted marriages,”[9] says Fitzgibbons. “Research involving 2,500 divorcing people revealed that spouses are a lot more ambivalent about divorce and more reluctant to divorce than has been realized.”[10] “About one in four parents thought their marriages could still be saved,” says Fitzgibbons, “and in about one in four couples, both spouses thought so too.”[11] “Three in ten individual spouses indicated potential interest in reconciliation services, as did both spouses in three out of ten couples.”[12]

Fitzgibbons says that working “with children traumatized by their parents’ divorce is one of the most stressful and emotionally upsetting aspects of my professional life.” These children are battle worn, “severely wounded by fears, sadness, confusion, profound insecurity, and intense betrayal anger, which is usually denied, especially by sons concerning their fathers.” Children often struggle with “significant guilt, believing that they bear responsibility for the divorce. [13]

From a child’s perspective, “there is no such thing as a good divorce.”[14] Fitzgibbons cites research of the late family scholar Norval Glenn who “found that children whose parents had a ‘good divorce’ fared worse than those whose parents had unhappy marriages.”[15] Let that sink in for a moment. Children are better off in intact unhappy marriages than children whose parents had, what they term, “good divorces.”

A book from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins, examines the devastating effects of divorce on children. Innumerable studies have determined that children of divorce are disadvantaged compared to children of married parents. Torn Asunder shows children of divorce are deeply wounded. Contributor and sociologist, Paul Sullins says, that the “effect of divorce on a child is best described as a loss of being, an impairment at the level of his or her existence.” [16] Furthermore, author Andrew Root, an associate professor of Youth and Family Ministry, finds “divorce radically changes the way the young people live their lives, because their world has changed…send[ing] shockwaves back to her own being.”[17]

Theologian Fr. Antonio López says that “losing one’s place in being radically puts into question life’s meaning, that is, the unity between oneself, others, the world, and the divine source of all that is.”[18] Theologian Lisa Lickona, a child of divorce herself, describes the reaction of children of divorce: “I felt that I was being extinguished, that I would fall into that abyss and disappear from the face of the earth. I did the only thing I thought I could do, the thing most children of divorce do. I tried not to think about it…keeping one’s memories in check with diversion and distraction.”[19]

Family is supposed to be a place of love and security for children. When a family is torn apart, children question their very being and the meaning of life. How sad that we as a society place our own needs, desires, and happiness ahead of the wellbeing of our children.

Last week, we discussed the decline in marriage and the exponential rise in cohabitation. Divorce is contributing to this retreat from marriage. Research shows that the adult children of divorce are “89 percent more likely to divorce, compared to adults raised in intact families.” Additionally, children of divorce who marry other children of divorce have an even higher risk of ending up divorced.”[20]

Sadly, the adult children of divorce are emotionally troubled proportionally three times that of adults from intact families. These troubled adults are at a greater risk for suicidal thinking, particularly men, again three times that of men whose parents did not divorce.[21]

Divorce not only affects spouses and children, but also has negative consequences for extended family and friends. Divorce has a rippling effect on social construct, leaving many wounded individuals in its wake. So, how can we build up marriages and families to divorce-proof them ?

First, we need to give couples, both engaged and married, a better understanding of God’s plan for marriage. This is the mission of the Calling Couples to Christ Apostolate. The Catholic Church is the only institution in the world that has consistently defended the indissolubility of marriage, abiding by the words of Christ: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt 19:6). The Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament which gives the couple the grace to live out their vows “until death separates.” Couples need to tap into these graces and eliminate sin in their lives that blocks God’s action in their lives. The Church knows well that “without his help man and woman cannot achieve the union of their lives for which God created them ‘in the beginning.’”[22]

Secondly, we highly recommend that married couples form community with other like-minded, committed couples, living Christ-centered marriages.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up. (1 Thess 5:11)

If you are not already part of a community where you can find support, start one. It is not hard. Here is a simple way to build community with other couples seeking to grow in their love of Christ and each other in their marriages:

Start a couple sharing group:

  • Invite four or five other couples.
  • Meet once/month – take turns hosting in your homes.
    • Share a meal – this can be a simple potluck or you can take turns cooking the meal.
    • Fellowship – spend time just catching up with the other couples.
    • Study – there are several programs already designed for group study. Choose one and take turns leading the discussion. (Couple Bible Study, Theology of the Body, Covenant of Love, Symbolon, Beloved, etc.)
    • Prayer – take time to pray together as a group, interceding for your needs and the needs of your families.
  • Get together as families too! This can be as simple as a picnic, a trip to the zoo or picking apples. You could also consider a family retreat or an extended camping trip.
  • Be sure to plan events where the children interact with their peers while the parents enjoy adult activities. Children need to build friendships, too!

Scripture gives good advice on why it is important for married couples to fellowship with other like-minded couples:

Iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

Lastly, search out a marriage coaching ministry if your marriage is stuck and in need of a tune-up. We serve as marriage coaches for the Archdiocese of Detroit. Other coaching ministries that we are aware of are Marriage Missionaries and The Alexander House. Coaching is not counseling but a peer-to-peer ministry of support and encouragement. Couples are guided through sessions addressing such topics as God’s plan for marriage, forgiveness and healing, family of origin issues, and conflict resolution.

The world is so in need of healthy and holy examples of marriage lived well. St. John Paul II famously said, “The future of the world and the Church passes through the family.”[23] You owe it to your children, and society as a whole, to have an exemplary marriage because marriage is an image of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. There is no more noble calling. With God’s grace, you can have a joy-filled and loving marriage.

Praying God will bless your marriage so you may be a blessing to others.

[1] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) (November 22, 1981), §20, internet: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html (accessed November 14, 2019).

[2] Ibid., §66, emphasis added.

[3] Richard P. Fitzgibbons, M.D., Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 220.

[4] Ibid., 221.

[5] Ibid., 224.

[6] Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 148.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Fitzgibbons, 223.

[9] Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 220.

[10] Fitzgibbons, 224.

[11] Ibid.

[12] William J. Doherty, Brian J. Willoughby, and Bruce Peterson, “Interest in Marital Reconciliation among Divorcing Parents”, Family Court Review 49, no. 2 (April 2000): 313-321,

[13] Fitzgibbons, 224.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Norval Glenn, “How Good for Children Is the Good Divorce?”, Propositions 7 (April 2012): 1-7.

[16] Margaret Harper McCarthy ed., Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 38.

[17] Ibid., 100.

[18] Ibid., 123.

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] W. Branford Wilcox, “The Evolution of Divorce”, National Affairs 37 (Fall 2018), internet: https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce

[21] Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 74.

[22] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition (Washington, D.C.: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), 1608.

[23] Familiaris Consortio, §79.