I begged her not to marry him. Our family members pleaded—all to no avail. She would have none of it. She claimed we were being negative, blind to all of his wonderful attributes. Only recently, after eight years of a tense and tumultuous marriage, after giving birth to three beautiful girls now ages 7, 6, and 5, and after he reconnected with his junior high flame on Facebook and filed for divorce, does she now see what we all saw back then.
This week, a dear friend who lives across the country contacted me to tell me that her husband left her in February without any explanation. She's reeling. They'd been married 20-plus years, and she didn't see it coming. No one did. To top it off, in the next week or so, her two daughters will graduate, one from high school and the other from college. These young women are now forced to negotiate important milestones in the midst of the dissolution of their Christian family.
Strangely, these sad stories came while I was reading The Children Of Divorce: The Loss of Family As the Loss of Being (Baker Academic), by Andrew Root, professor of youth ministry at Luther Seminary.
Root's book is meant not to chastise or heap guilt on parents who have divorced, but rather to help the Christian community understand the ramifications of divorce from a child's perspective. The child need not be under the age of 18 either; Root's thesis is that no matter the age, divorce, even "the good divorce," has profoundly negative effects on a child's ontology, or sense of being. Root writes that "even in instances when divorce was a great gift to one or both parents, it was a silent nightmare to a child. What I am asserting is that divorce … leaves major marks on children, marks that reach all the way to the core of their being."
Throughout the book, Root, himself a child of divorce, carefully and successfully supports his thesis. By weaving together arguments from Scripture, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, as well as his own experience and that of other children of divorce, he makes it crystal clear that divorce imperils a child's very being. However, he is careful to say that this doesn't necessarily apply to those fleeing a marriage due to abuse.
As I read the book, I thought of the classic film Back to the Future. In a series of twists and turns, Marty McFly finds he has interfered with his mother and father's first meeting and therefore marriage. Throughout the movie, as the likelihood of his parent's marriage grows dim, so does his and his siblings' existence. In one scene, Marty and Doc Brown examine a photo of Marty's family only to discover that Marty's brother is vanishing. Doc exclaims, "Just as I thought. This proves my theory. Look at your brother." Marty replies with, "His head's gone. It's like it's been erased." Then comes the memorable line from Doc: "Erased from existence."
This scene captures well the thesis of The Children of Divorce. Because of the tragic loss of the primary community, that of biological mother and father, children of divorce feel as though they are disappearing from existence. The divorce-induced existential void produces lost souls who feel less real, souls who feel like they are "sliding into non-existence." Root reflects:
… the family serves as one of the last organic communal realities of belonging and corporate purpose that allow children to discover their selves. In the security of the love of the marriage union that shared the child's very biological material, they are blanketed and safe to develop and understand their selves. What is there for the self … when there is no place to belong, when a family narrative is shattered, and purpose is disconnected from the community of one's being?
While there is no easy fix, Root believes that the church as community is what "children of divorce need to solidify their shaken ontology." The church bears witness to a Savior who bore suffering and death and was raised to new life. It is thus uniquely equipped to stand with children of divorce in their brokenness, offering a place of listening and belonging. Here, Root has more than programs in mind; he believes that the church in its very life together provides a "these people" that children can be real with, and the confidence that they themselves are real.
In the last chapter, using Karl Barth's framework for being-in-encounter, Root suggests four actions churches can take to "make us, and our neighbor, real":
- Seeing and Being Seen. We must see children of divorce and, crucially, allow ourselves to be seen. We must "allow young people to come close to us and see our feelings of compassion for them or, even more important, our own unique journeys of pain and suffering."
- Speaking and Listening. Root observes: "By listening to and allowing young people to speak, the congregation, through its life, offers young people the chance to (re)construct their stories." A drive by "Hello, how are you?" and pat on the back won't do.
- Routine as Mutual Assistance. Whether it's worship, coffee hour, youth group, or regular service projects, dependable routines are probably the "most essential component for ontological security." Root states, "Within the routines of the congregation, people find a place to stand and be in time and space. We attach and then know ourselves in relation to these routines."
- Bracketing Anxiety by Acting in Gladness. Congregational life provides a stable and dependable environment for children of divorce and thus can "assuage" their anxiety. However, these relationships cannot be rigid. An "ability to act in gladness" is what brackets anxiety.
Root rounds out the chapter with practical tips for how children/youth ministers, parents, and friends can embody these actions. May we heed his timely advice. By doing so we'll become the communities of belonging these children so desperately need.