Common Wisdom: The Era of Divorce

Divorce, the American social disease that knows no boundaries of age, race, class, education, or even religious affiliation, has entrenched itself as our incurable pestilence. It has been with us so constantly for so many years that it has infected in some way virtually every American family. Everyone has some relative who has suffered divorce, and nearly everyone has some family member who is retreading with a new mate and perhaps even with new children.

Divorce is so much part of our worldview that, even though we don’t like it, we take it for granted as some-thing inevitable, like wrinkles or bifocals. Among certain circles it is considered a painful but necessary stage on the path to maturity, a badge of psychological coming of age.

Even among Catholics divorce is a fact of life, accepted as the sad new phenomenon that is here to stay. Catholics, like everyone else, reflect the general view that, miserable as divorce is, what can we really do about it? Divorce seems to be the epidemic against which there is no defense.

Some newly published studies, however, suggest that divorce has such dire consequences that it may be time to reconsider how we might forestall it. Two University of Wisconsin researchers attest that what appeared to be a slight drop in divorces earlier in this decade was misleading and that divorces and separations have been seriously under-reported. Including six percent of couples who separate without divorce, the termination rate among recent first-time marriages is now running at 56 percent. That marriages are now given a less than 50-50 chance of survival lends all the more weight to the findings of Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist who has taken a hard look at what happens to people—especially children —a decade or so after divorce.

An article adapted from her new book on the aftermath of divorce was recently published in the New York Times Magazine (January 22, 1989) under the title, “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal.” Miss Wallerstein describes divorce as having devastating effects on children, even on those who seem to be doing well. Her research indicates that “doing well” is often temporary and that, although boys may be hardest hit immediately after a divorce, girls frequently suffer delayed reactions, just at the time when they are entering their adult lives. Miss Wallerstein paints a grim and disturbing picture of children who feel abandoned and depressed, who struggle at the age of six to take care of their troubled parents, who bear the brunt of custody wars, who retreat into fantasies, who as adults cannot make commitments and themselves seem likely to perpetuate the divorce cycle. To be sure, Miss Wallerstein is not a researcher who would rule out divorce.

“When people ask whether they should stay married for the sake of the children,” she says, “I have to say, ‘Of course not.’” One assumes that she, too, is of the new school that sees divorce as inevitable. And yet one also suspects that such a concession is at heart a product more of her formation as a psychologist than a reflection of her real sentiments. The surprise is that a psychologist, convinced by the seriousness of her findings, today can write in the New York Times such a traditional statement as “The task for society in its true and proper perspective is to strengthen the family —all families. . . . Like it or not, we are witnessing family changes which are an integral part of the wider changes in our society. We are on a wholly new course . . . one that also brings unprecedented dangers for society, especially for our children.”

The point is that when the secular establishment of American society becomes convinced of the depth of a problem that more conservative scholars, such as Allan Carlson of the Rockford Institute, have been documenting for years, then the time is surely ripe for a more concentrated look at not only what may be causing the divorce tragedy but also at what may counteract it.

The time has come to pay attention to a little known statistic. There are some groups in which divorce rarely occurs. Among these groups one in particular stands out: the group who practice natural family planning. In contrast to a divorce and separation rate of about 56 percent in the general population, the divorce rate among couples who practice natural family planning is only about five percent. This five percent figure, cited in several doctoral dissertations, is considered conservative and may even be lower. This astonishingly low figure is significant. It ought to alert and encourage Catholic bishops and pastors, for surely there is some link between the low divorce rate among NFP couples and the teaching of the Catholic Church that life is sacred and that the marital act must be preserved by recourse only to observance of natural bodily signs in order to regulate births. Yet, although most NFP couples are indeed Catholic, some are not. Some are Protestants or Jews; some are enthusiasts of anything natural; some are nothing in particular, simply unwilling or unable to use contraception. But whatever their religious affiliation, their ability to stay married should be a fact that receives more publicity among clergymen of all faiths.

Why NFP couples remain married is a fascinating question. One priest speculated that, at least among Catholics, the NFP couples are those who from the beginning are most faithful to Church teaching and so would never contemplate divorce. Another priest once suggested to me that because they have to communicate about their fertility cycle, NFP couples communicate about everything else. These reasons are no doubt true. But yet I do not think they are the deepest reasons. My own theory for the stability of NFP marriages stems from the right order of natural family planning itself. The plain fact is that NFP enables people to live in tune with their natural created order. Without erecting any mechanical or chemical barriers between husband and wife, without medically or hormonally altering the fertility of either husband or wife, a couple is free to use the instrument of their own reason to read the signs of their fertility in each cycle and to determine whether they will act during their natural fertility or during their natural infertility. They see both their natural fertility and infertility as a gift of God. Their freedom is to act or not to act. Their freedom is not to interfere artificially with the act itself. Such interference would destroy the sacred meaning of the act, which is meant to be a total self-giving of the spouses. As Pope John Paul II has explained so brilliantly in his writings on conjugal love, interference is a lie told with the body. That is, although the spouses intend to give themselves one to the other, their bodies act in contrary fashion, by refusing to give and receive everything of the other person, including the other’s fertility. This lie with the “language of the body,” as the Pope terms it, violates the fundamental order of our sexual nature. Thus it cannot but diminish the love intended between the spouses. Repeated time after time, it attacks the very fruitfulness of the couple and causes them to lose their respect for their own gift as God’s instruments to bring new life into the world. It is not surprising that sex in a contraceptive marriage often becomes stale and repetitious; thus the popular culture, in its promises to “put romance back into marriage” or to describe “new ways of sexual intimacy,” finds ready takers in contraceptive marriages.

There could be nothing farther apart than contraceptive and natural marriages. One way of life closes out and thwarts fertility. The other way recognizes and welcomes fertility; it works according to the body’s natural rhythms. No one who lives with NFP would deny that a natural life entails self-discipline and sacrifice. And yet the sacrifice, because it respects our created order, brings joy. Most NFP couples discover, in fact, that a natural life parallels the dying and rising of Christ Himself. If the time of abstinence is a dying to self, then the time of coming together is a sort of rebirth or resurrection. NFP couples do not complain of staleness. Even though their life requires some discipline, most find joy in their genuine living for each other and in their gift of true and unhampered total giving to each other. I do not know of one NFP couple who would give up their life to take up a contraceptive one. After living naturally, most people are repelled by the thought of contraception.

A young priest recently wrote to me asking for information on the symptom-thermal method of NFP. He knew of my volunteer work with the Couple to Couple League, an international organization that teaches natural family planning, headquartered in Cincinnati. Ever more, he said, he finds that in hearing confessions and in counseling couples, he runs up against his own ignorance about natural family planning. This ignorance, I think, is the biggest problem of clergy in counseling married couples and those about to be married. Priests do want the marriages at which they officiate to be permanent bonds. Surely nothing can be more demoralizing than to see a young couple at whose wedding one has officiated split up later, or to watch a middle-aged couple divorcing after 30 years of marriage and wandering off in search of new mates.

Natural family planning has come of age. No longer is it the haphazard rhythm method. It employs our much enhanced knowledge of fertility. It can smooth married life, whether the aim is to achieve pregnancy or to postpone it.

Pope John Paul, on October 24, 1988, talked to the bishops of the Cincinnati and Detroit provinces during their ad limina visit. In his address, “Humanae Vitae and Morals,” he said,

This twentieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae challenges us once again as pastors to intensify our efforts to present Christian marriage as a vocation to holine88, and to help couples understand the role of the Christian family in the life and mission of the Church. We are called to provide engaged and married couples with the fullness of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, conjugal love, and responsible parenthood. We must emphasize the sanctity of human life as a precious gift from God that needs to be protected and fostered, while making greater and more systematic efforts to offer instruction in the natural methods of family planning. Natural family planning enables couples to understand God’s design for sex, and invites them to dialogue, mutual respect, shared responsibility, and self-control. Our people need to have prayerful confidence that God will bless and sustain them in their efforts to lead lives of holiness and to be witness to His love in the modern world.

Unstable marriages and divorce are destroying not only men and women but their children and grandchildren. The Catholic Church, encouraged and guided by Pope John Paul, offers a solid antidote to decaying family life. That the old teaching of the church on sexual matters has sprung anew, aided by modern natural family planning, is a sign of hope. It behooves us to pay attention.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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