Too often in the discussion of how to help children of divorce the focus is on how these children can be healed by intervening in their lives through social, educational and psychological help. According to Andrew Root this is fatally flawed and very short sighted. In his book The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being, Root persuasively argues that divorce rips through the soul of a child and has its greatest damage on their being.
Root argues that the identity of a person is shaped by the community in which they grow up in. The family unit (made of father and mother) is the foundational community (the community within community) in which a child’s identity is shaped. When that biological community is torn apart so is the child’s identity. The result is that the children of divorce experience a true identity crisis. Root states:
The child is because of the union of his or her biological parents. Without them he or she is not. When divorce, separation, or extended absence occurs the biological parents say, possibly with words definitely with actions, that they desire for their union to no longer be. But the child is the result of their union; the child has his or her primary being in relation to the community called family. (p. xvii)
The sociological development of divorce
While divorce itself is not a recent social phenomenon, the current rate at which divorce occurs is. Root provides a short history of the basis for marriage as the cause for the rise of divorce. In the pre-1600′s marriage was for the purpose of mergers. Mergers between families would bring together property, power as well as tradition. This is how virtually all marriages worked until this point in human history around the world. The job of the parent was to raise children who would continue these three things (p. 7).
From the sixteenth to eighteenth century, marriage shifted from being merger-centered to labor-centered. Once economies became money-based, “marriage was about who could provide the spouse with an adequate labor-mate” (p. 11). Now children were seen as employees in the family business, often going to school in order to receive an education to improve the family business.
In the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, the basis of marriage shifted again, this time from labor to intimacy. “No longer did parents choose a child’s spouse, nor were people choosing spouses for their ability to work. Rather, marriage was based solely on the couple’s individual feelings of attraction and desire” (p. 16). Marriage is now centered on the self. It is no longer an obligation to another but a choice.
In the present day, the basis of marriage has come full swing from seeking mergers, which was for survival and the sake of others, to seeking self-fulfillment. It is here that the final brick was laid in the foundation for a culture of divorce. When marriage is all about the self and one’s fulfillment, there are no boundaries to keep individuals in the marriage union. Now, both the future of the child and the marriage are at risk every day. The child is “no longer the seal of a merger or a necessary laborer but is the tangible realization and monument of the love of their father and mother” (p. 23).
Modernity and the subjective formation of marriage
So what has the nature of marriage become in the present day as a result of this shift in the basis for marriage? With the rise of modernity and the focus on the self and the future, people have now divorced themselves from their spouses because of a divorce of thought and practice from the past. This loosening of the self from all constraints has had several effects on marriage and children. Since the future is uncertain, people need to be mobile—and so do their marriages. If a marriage does not move you into the future, the self then wants you to leave it.
Traditions of the past no longer determine people’s identities because the focus is on the future. This has changed our being and acting in the world into things that are based on “risk and trust” (p. 30). Marriage is now a risk an individual takes for himself and his future, one that requires trust in the other partner for future self-fulfillment. For children, their existence is the result of a past decision of the parents to form a union, and their future is dependent upon that union lasting. If the future of the parents’ marriage is on shaky grounds, the child’s future is as well. After divorce, parents may be able to move on freely and form a bond with another, but the children are “not able to leave, for his or her being and acting in the world are wrapped up in this now condemned structure called family, this union of one biological parent with another” (p. 35).
Since there is no security in the future, the self within a marriage must seek to define its own identity. Thus, to protect ones identity, one must be open to move from the relationship at any time. Shaping and protecting the self is now a constant exercise of reflexivity between the self, perceived future and those around you. It is here that Anthony Giddens has identified the development of the “pure relationship” which provides the “intimacy and support needed to carry out the reflexive project of the self in an unknown future” (p. 38).
This new make-up of marriage and self-identity has drastic effects on the children created from these love-based marriage unions. While adults can simply recast their identities within the confines of a new relationship, children of divorce are left torn between the broken relationships of the two people in whom their identity is shaped. Now we see how the break-up of a marriage is the break-up of the identity of a child’s being. The children of divorce truly have an identity crisis.
Divorce and the ontology of a child
If marriage gives ontological security to the children then divorce destroys it. Children rely on the stability of the marriage in the present as well as the future but divorce destroys that stability, severely damaging their identity. In a world where marriage has no hope for a stable future, the children (whether knowingly or not) have to place their trust in something unstable. Here, Root relies heavily on the psychological work of Anthony Giddens, the work of James Loder and his four-part constitution of a person’s inner being as well as Martin Heidegger’s work on what he called the Dasein. Some reader may have difficulty following the psychological depth presented here but those who can will find it helpful, even if they don’t agree with everything presented. Essentially, the experts Root explores all say that divorce divides the child at the center of his being (ontology) and this is the most destructive aspect of divorce.
Divorce, being & theology: where do we get our ontology?
The point of The Children of Divorce is to show that divorce strikes children at the core of their being. But what is the basis for this? To answer this, Root relies on theologian Karl Barth and his well-known theology of God’s being as act (p. 69). For Barth, we know God because He has revealed himself to us in acting. God has acted to create man and, therefore, we find the basis for our being in the act of God. We relate and identify our being with others because God is a relational being in Himself through the Trinity. “Because the trinitarian God encounters God-self as a relational reality, humanity, as in the image of God, also finds its being through the act of relational encounter” (p. 70). God has created us in His image out of the self-relationship of the Trinity. Thus, we exist for, in and out of relationship with God. We do not exist outside of relationship.
The reader can see how this theological perspective has huge implications for the children of divorce. Because the identity of a child is wrapped up within his or her parents’ marriage relationship, divorce now makes children question their own existence. What brought them to be no longer is. For the child, “divorce is not just the end of marriage, but the end of the child’s community of being, which forces her to live between two worlds. But now these two worlds are held together at all only through her person, which is disorientingly backwards” (p. 83).
Though the theological and foundational basis for our ontology is rooted in the triune nature of God as a relational being who created man in and for relationship, this is the not the only factor that shapes a child’s identity. Here Root jumps into the field of object relations psychology. One place where a child’s identity is shaped is in the male/female distinctions. “Because we are acted upon by mother and father, these male and female realities are burrowed into our being” (p. 105). Healthy child identity development requires both male and female input.
In addition, and somewhat surprisingly, the environment in which a child grows up contributes to the identity development of a child. This environment consists of the culture of the family, the culture in which the family lives and how much of both actually work their way into the identity of the child. Things as seemingly small as furniture, can shape the identity of a child. The influence of environment is evidident after a divorce occurs and one parent takes items with him or her that the left-behind child held dear, such as a table or chair.
Finally, the act of mirroring between the child and the parents is a developmental factor for the formation of a child’s identity. As a child’s identity develops he reflects back and forth with the behaviors of the parents. This relating to ones parents reflects our being back to us and shapes how we are to see ourselves, them and the world. “What happens most often in divorce, and what makes it so painful, is not that the mirror is providing a dehumanizing image, but rather that it is providing a needed true reflection and yet it is all of the sudden shattered. In the separation the mirror has broken apart; the child must now negotiate between multiple mirrors in multiple locations” (p. 110).
Is there any help for the children of divorce?
So if the relationship in which children form their identity has been broken, resulting in an identity crisis, and if the biological parents never rejoin the union which brought the children into existence, is there any hope for these children to recover? Thankfully, Root does not leave us without direction. In short, Roots answer is the community of the church. The children of divorce need a “community in which their humanity is upheld” (p. 121). The community of the church is where “the children of divorce need to solidify their shaken ontology” (p. 121). As Root has argued throughout the book, divorce undercuts the four areas of ontological development: mirroring, the ability to balance autonomy and belonging, routine and bracketing out anxiety (p. 123). If these have been broken, the church is the only place that can fix them. In this final chapter, Root walks through how the church can pick up where broken families have left off in bringing back these four dimensions of ontological growth to the children of divorce. He also provides helpful tips for the youth worker, parent and friends of children of divorce.
The Children of Divorce is a must-read for anyone who is a child of divorce, or works or knows children of divorce. While the book is repetitive at times, Root weaves a complementary dance throughout the book between theology, psychology and history to bring the best of each field to the table. The result is a balanced approach and clear picture of what happens to the children of divorce as well as of what can be done to help. Most of the direction for helping is aimed at those who interact with children of divorce, and more needs to be said directly to the children of divorce themselves. Page after page is full of great insights and historical analysis and reveals a depth of understanding and passion. I give this book five stars!
Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is well connected in the professional youth ministry world. He is the author of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (a finalist for Outreach magazine’s outreach book of the year) and has published many articles and chapters.
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