Lives of Quiet Turbulence
For her master's thesis in divinity school, Elizabeth Marquardt wrote a paper called "The Moral and Spiritual Experiences of Children of Divorce." At the time, she found almost no data on the topic. "No one had looked," she says, "at how divorce in childhood shapes how children approach the biggest questions of all: Who am I? Where do I belong? What is right and wrong? What is true? Is there a God?"
She suspected, based on her own experience as a child of divorce, that divorce shapes how children answer these questions. So, in a project based at the Institute for American Values, she and Norval Glenn set out to learn more about adults whose parents had parted ways.
The result was a four-year, nationally representative survey of 1,500 young adults between 18 and 35, members of the first generation to grow up with widespread divorce. Senior associate editor Agnieszka Tennant looked up Marquardt recently to chat about her findings published in Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005).
How many children of divorce are there?
About a million American children each year experience their parents' divorce. Of 18- to 35-year-olds, which is the generation that I studied, one-quarter are children of divorce. The projected divorce rate for first marriages nowadays is 43 percent. For remarriages, it's about 60 percent. For the first marriages of children of divorce, the rate is roughly 60 percent.
What role does faith play in the lives of children of divorce?
They are much less religious overall than their peers who grew up with married parents. They are 14 percent less likely to be a member of a house of worship and also about 14 percent less likely to say that they are very or fairly religious. They're more likely to agree with the statement, I believe I can find ultimate truths without help from a religion.
They feel just as spiritual as their peers from intact families, but they're much less religious. If Gen X is the generation of the spiritual but not religious, then children of divorce account a lot for that generation's turn.
Doesn't divorce in particular bring out their need for God?
Yes, some of these adults turned to God and faith and the church as a home away from home, as a father they never had, in search of answers and truth they couldn't find in their families.
Thirty-eight percent of the grown children of divorce agreed with the statement, God became the father or parent I never had in real life. Twenty-two percent of those from intact families agreed with this statement. It's a 16 percentage point difference, and, in surveys of this kind, differences that large are striking. I am leading workshops for clergy around the country on this topic.
I imagine that children of divorce would also struggle with seeing God as a parent.
When I asked them if God is like a father or a parent, their reactions would tell me as much about what they thought about their parents as what they thought about God. One woman said, "God's not like a parent. God is something smarter than us." Another said, "God seems more distant, like a manager."
When they do seek God, what faith traditions do people from broken homes tend to favor?
Children of divorce are much more likely to be evangelicals than those from intact families.
Forty-two percent of all grown children of divorce identify as evangelical or born again, compared to 37 percent of those who grew up with married parents. So in America, more divorce is making more evangelicals.