Divorce’s Destructive Impact

The normalization and ubiquity of divorce has encouraged commitment aversion, which has had a corrosive effect on all of society.

Last year, a reader wrote in to the popular advice columnist Carolyn Hax regarding her husband who regularly refers to her by a schoolyard taunt that is a synonym for “delayed.” Her husband, she explains, claims it is all in good fun. “I am really tired of this. What can I do to get him to stop?” she asks. “Divorce him,” curtly replied Hax.

Now, granted, any husband who regularly (even jokingly) insults his wife—especially after she complains—is no man of honor. If a man on the street insulted my wife, I would demand an immediate apology; and, if an apology was not forthcoming, I would likely risk doing something foolish that would result in a smartphone-captured trending video and a trip to the jailhouse. That a husband would boorishly insult his own wife is unacceptable and worthy of censure.

But divorce? Simply because one spouse is periodically a cad? Alas, this kind of advice is regularly dished out by Hax and other pseudo-experts on relationships. Women divorce men because they leave dishes by the sink, because of their personality, or even financial stress. Men divorce women for getting too fat, incessantly nagging, or disrespecting them. And, of course, there’s the problem of infidelity, which is obviously always a terrible gut-punch.

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It’s no longer shocking to note that almost half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce—that’s been the case for decades now. Nor, among more conservative circles, is it news to hear that divorce increases the likelihood of all kinds of other problems, especially for children. Children exposed to divorce suffer disproportionately from serious social or psychological pathologies, are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school, and are more likely to become teen mothers or spend time in prison. Family instability increases the likelihood of suspensions, teenage delinquency, repeating grades, and suicides.

But I’d argue something else: the normalization and ubiquity of divorce has also encouraged commitment aversion. That shouldn’t be surprising: the marriage relationship is supposed to serve as the foundation for social stability in a world that is unstable. When children witness their parents walk away from that relationship, regardless of the reasons, it fosters instability in the very heart and mind of the child. How could a child, regardless of how much mommy and daddy tell them that they still love them, not feel betrayed by what is, frankly, a betrayal? 

Even if children cannot articulate it, they intuitively know that mommy and daddy agreed to be together. Indeed, (typically) all their earliest memories are going to tell them that commitment is normative, to be taken for granted. When mommy and daddy—whose relationship is usually the very first witnessed by their children—go their separate ways, how could this not communicate something catastrophic about, well, everything?

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised if youth exhibit an aversion to any commitment, regardless of if there is a romantic component. Consider our isolated, activist youth culture raised in the digital age. In 2020, they expressed what many older Americans found to be a surprising amount of rage toward their national patrimony, tearing down or defacing memorials not only of Confederates and slaveowners but just about every historical figure, including Abraham Lincoln. 

The popularity of the 1619 Project—which claims that our nation’s history is indelibly and systemically racist—undoubtedly has something to do with a generation who themselves feel betrayed by their immediate patrimony. If mom and dad can’t be trusted, why should they trust “dead white men” from centuries past? And without parental figures to trust, children will be more susceptible to their activist teachers, who urge them to cynically evaluate all power structures for racism, bigotry, and sexism. In truth, it was children’s experience of betrayal with their very first power structure, that of the marriage relationship, that taught them to think so.

We might make a similar observation about the fact that millennials move jobs and cities far more frequently than earlier generations. This behavior, which of course has something to do with people feeling disconnected from their families and communities, costs employers millions of dollars. It also undermines local identity and civic unity—why should peripatetic young adults care about their communities if they are going to pack up and leave? Volunteerism is on the decline, as is civic participation, a trend documented by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

Of course, it’s also true that young Americans are waiting longer to get married, if they get married at all. “I haven’t seen a healthy version of marriage,” one young adult who suffered through her parents’ divorce as a child told The Guardian several years ago. Millennials, studies have found, are “commitment phobic” when it comes to relationships. Fewer millennials are in long-term, committed relationships than any generation past, a 2015 study found. And the percentage of millennials who will marry by age 40 will be the lowest of any generation on record.

The point is that the ubiquity of disastrous marriages resulting in divorces and separations has caused far more than a proliferation of bad romantic relationships in the next generation. The lack of good modeling of commitment has bred millions of commitment-averse Americans. It’s not just that they are suspicious of committed, lifelong romantic relationships—they are suspicious that anything in life should enjoy their wholehearted devotion. Jobs, communities, friendships, all of them can be abandoned if necessary, on the flimsiest of grounds. 

So too, they have come to believe, can we dispense with our national patrimony. Our academic elites have told us that previous generations did not lovingly bequeath to us a nation of unequaled prosperity and opportunity; rather, they betrayed us through their sins and failures. The same can be said for religious institutions, whose leaders, rather than standing in the breach fighting to preserve marriage, have often cowardly made allowances for its dissolution.  

We have to stop the bleeding. We need to fight for our marriages. And I mean really fight. Go to counseling. Make concessions. Spend hours in prayer. Change

This year marks ten years of happy marriage for my wife and I—but we’ve had to fight for it. I’ve had to limit or dispense with things—extracurricular pursuits, patterns of behavior—that required sacrifice. I’m sure there will be more. But man, has it been worth it. Lord willing, we will celebrate decades more of anniversaries together. It’s not just our happiness at stake when we sacrificially hold to our commitments—but that of our children, our community, our parish, and even this nation. “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


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