Unlike the experience of divorced former spouses, a child’s suffering does not reach its peak at the divorce and then level off. Rather, the effect of the parents’ divorce can affect children for years to come. 1) For instance, an Australian parliamentary study tracked children whose parents divorced in 1946, and tested them two and three decades later. Even 30 years after the divorce, negative long-term repercussions still clearly affected the income, health, and behavior of many of the grown children, and increased their risk for depression.2) As Paul Amato writes, “Though some adults and children adjust relatively quickly to divorce…others exhibit long-term deficits in functioning.”3) Children’s well-being over the long term is determined by circumstances both prior to and after their parents’ divorce.4)
Divorce has a profound intergenerational effect. One study showed that “ever-divorced grandparents live significantly farther away from the parent and grandchild…report a weaker relationship with the parent…and are more likely to be part of a family system where both generations have divorced (13 [percent] vs. 3 [percent]).”5)
Paul Amato and Jacob Cheadle studied the long-reaching effects of divorce across three generations and found that “[d]ivorce in the first generation (G1) was associated with lower education, more marital discord, weaker ties with mothers, and weaker ties with fathers in the third generation (G3). These associations were mediated by family characteristics in the middle generation (G2), including lower education, more marital discord, more divorce, and greater tension in the early parent-child relationships.”6) This study demonstrates that parental divorce has consequences for children and subsequent generations. Amato and Cheadle also reported in this study that “[p]arental divorce doubled the odds of divorce” in the child’s own life.7)
Of special note is the finding that children of divorce are less likely to think they should support their parents in old age.8) Compared to children of widowed parents, children of divorced parents are less likely to support their divorced father in his old age but just as likely to support their divorced mother.9) This finding portends a monumental public cost problem for the frequently-divorced baby boom generation as it becomes the dependent elderly generation in the first half of the 21st century.
The family is the building block of society, and marriage is its foundation. Divorce has pervasive weakening effects on children and on all of the five major institutions of society—the family, the church, the school, the marketplace, and government itself. However, this foundation is growing weaker as fewer adults marry, more adults divorce, and more adults choose single parenthood or cohabitation.10) Society’s major institutions (family, church, school, marketplace and government) all have a great interest in reducing divorce to almost zero, for it weakens each institution by weakening the human capacities of each laborer, citizen, worshiper, and student that it touches. Leaders of these institutions must shoulder their responsibility to end the culture of rejection. Policymakers, pastors, and academics all bear the responsibility to motivate them in that direction.
American children today are weaker than children of previous generations— intellectually, morally, emotionally, and physically, and our human capital is decreasing.11) Moreover, the American nation today is socially weaker than in the past, and the America of tomorrow will be weaker still. For instance, few are willing to point to divorce as a major contributor to the economic problem. Americans in the media and in politics are comfortable pointing at a failing educational system or at teenage unwed mothers and the deleterious effects they have on children and society, but no one likes to dwell on the pervasive and broad negative effects of divorce.