How Focus on the Family Misled Me to Believe Divorce Was Worse for Children Than Abuse

Summary: Patricia tells her story of being in an abusive marriage, and how a Focus on the Family article, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” convinced her to stay with her dangerous husband until he beat her and left her for dead. And then it got even worse.


About Me: If you're new to my blog, read this first. I'm a committed Evangelical Christian. I attend church, tithe, serve, volunteer, and lead Bible studies. I started leading Christian divorce recovery groups in conservative churches in 1998. I do not wish to make this a criticism of Focus on the Family—other than these two articles. I have donated thousands of dollars to Focus, have recommended their books to friends, and have listened to hours of Focus radio broadcasts. I have visited their headquarters and have attended Christian conferences there. And I love their bookstore. My purpose is to encourage Focus to change two articles on their website that are misleading to abuse victims.


In this interview, I speak to Patricia (not her real name) who tells her story of being abused physically, mentally, and sexually by her husband, and how a Focus on the Family article persuaded her to stay. She saw this 2007 article and tucked it into her Bible and prayed over it daily. One year later, she was beaten by her husband and left for dead. Her children watched from the upstairs window as he dragged her lifeless body out. [VIDEO and transcript below.]

 

Patricia is a devout Christian who takes the sanctity of marriage seriously. She’s also been a big fan, listener, customer, and donor to Focus on the Family since young adulthood. She trusted Focus on the Family magazines, newsletters, website, and phone counselors. She owned a bookshelf full of their books. She was a monthly donor and gave thousands of dollars.

 

But Patricia was married to a violent man, who had at one point been a youth pastor. In 2007 she received a Focus on the Family article, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” by Amy Desai J.D. This article characterized parents who divorced as selfish people who took the “quick way out.” She didn’t want that!  She loved her kids and would do anything to protect them.

But this article convinced her that getting a divorce would be worse for her children than anything, even though her kids were being beaten and molested by their own father. The article never said there would be cases where divorce might be justified. Instead it condemned divorcing parents for splitting up just because they were “unhappy.”

From the Focus article (emphasis mine):
“Many years ago, the myth began to circulate that if parents are unhappy, the kids are unhappy, too. So divorce could help both parent and child. “What’s good for mom or dad is good for the children,” it was assumed. But we now have an enormous amount of research on divorce and children, all pointing to the same stubborn truth: Kids suffer when moms and dads split up.”

 

Patricia knew she was unhappy. How could anyone be happy if they were being beaten? But she didn’t realize she was an abuse victim. And this article said that if she divorced for unhappiness, her kids would suffer. Focus on the Family had told her to read their recommended books to fix her marriage. These books shifted the burden of fixing the marriage to her. Her good example and godly life were to inspire her husband to change.

 

Despite the assault and battery and child abuse she and the children endured, Patricia decided she couldn’t divorce her husband, even though the thought crossed her mind. She couldn’t make her children suffer even more by divorcing. That’s how she read that article.

In this 27-minute video (transcript below) she tells her story about trying to submit more, be more sexually available, being more respectful, and still getting abused more. She called Focus’s phone counselors, but was never being told to call the police or possibly separate for her own life and safety.

In this video, we discuss the misleading messages in the 2007 article, which was posted early in Jim Daly's presidency of Focus on the Family. Sadly, it is still on Focus on the Family’s website. In fact, in September 2020, it was a top-ten Google® search result for Focus on the Family kids and divorce.  A somewhat similar article was also a top-ten Google® search result for Christian advice kids and divorce. These two articles, with the same byline, ignore the fact that researchers have known for more than 25 years that kids whose parents leave these toxic marriages have far better mental health than kids whose parents stayed.

 

Ironically, the most well-known researchers mentioned in the Focus articles (Judith Wallerstein, Paul Amato, and Alan Booth) found that divorce is likely better for children in these abusive homes.

 

In the same book that Focus quotes from, the author Dr. Judith Wallerstein, wrote that growing up in a high-distress two-parent family has “tragic” consequences for children in their adult years.

 

“Children raised in extremely unhappy or violent intact homes face misery in childhood and tragic challenges in adulthood.” —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 300.

 

“I am not against divorce. How could I be? I’ve seen more examples of wretched, demeaning, and abusive marriage than most of my colleagues. I’m keenly aware of the suffering… I’m also aware that for many parents the decision to divorce is the most difficult decision in their lives; they cry many a night before taking such a drastic step. —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. xxxix

 

“And I am, of course, aware of the many voices on the radio, on television, and in certain… religious circles that say divorce is sinful… But I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children.” —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. xxxix

 

“Many judges who deal with such families do not understand that merely witnessing violence is harmful to children; the images are forever etched into their brains. Even a single episode of violence is long remembered in detail. In fact there is accumulating scientific evidence that witnessing violence or being abused physically or verbally literally alters brain development resulting in a hyperactive emotional system.” —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 90 

 

On the first page of Judith Wallerstein’s book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she says, “On the positive side, many young adults who weather their parents' divorce are extremely successful in their own careers, having learned how to be independent, resourceful, and flexible…. they are decent, caring adults who manage to build good marriages in spite of their fears.” p. xiii

 

Wallerstein wrote The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce in 2000, more than twenty years ago. I am perplexed as to why Focus on the Family, which claims to give reliable advice under the command of Jim Daly, would post articles quoting Wallerstein in order to send a false message that divorce leads to bad outcomes for children.

In 2003, four years before this Focus on the Family article was published, Judith Wallerstein authored another book on kids and divorce.

When asked when is the “best” time to divorce, she wrote (emphasis mine):

 

“The trouble is, there’s no simple answer… If there’s chronic violence at home, the answer is ‘the sooner the better,’ unrelated to the age of your child. By violence I mean physical attack—hitting, kicking, throwing objects—or chronic threats of physical violence. Exposure to violence has serious consequences for a child’s development that may last well into adulthood. They fear for your safety. They fear for themselves and their siblings. If there’s repeated high conflict in your marriage, accompanied by yelling, screaming, and pounding the table, then I’d also say the sooner the better... In some high-conflict homes, serious differences between the partners are a recurrent theme in everyday life.”
—Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, What About the Kids? (New York: Hachette Books, 2010), pp. 127-128.

 

Two other researchers quoted in these two Focus on the Familiy articles are Dr. Paul Amato and Dr. Alan Booth. But they don't believe all divorce is tragic for kids either.

 

“Our results show that if conflict between parents is relatively high, offspring are better off in early adulthood if their parents divorced than if they remained married.” — Paul Amato, Laura Spencer Loomis, Alan Booth, "Parental Divorce, Marital Conflict, and Offspring Well-being during Early Adulthood, 1995, p. 895

 

"This result is consistent with the notion, advanced by a number of observers, that children are better off in divorced single-parent families than in two-parent families marked by high levels of discord..." Paul Amato, Laura Spencer Loomis, Alan Booth, "Parental Divorce, Marital Conflict, and Offspring Well-being during Early Adulthood, 1995, p. 911

 

Further, these two Focus on the Family articles ignore the massive 19,000-participant ACE Study in 1998 that shows that children brought up in a home experiencing or witnessing physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, or violence to a parent, substance abuse, mental illness, or criminality may have lifelong health effects evident when they reach adulthood.

 

Is there any good news in Patricia's story? Yes, this dear sweet woman, Patricia, finally got away and is now divorced. Patricia realized that no one would help her. No one suggested that she separate to get to safety from her violent spouse. They kept dangling hope, if only Patricia could be perfect.

 

She finally found relief and safety through divorce. She is at peace with God, peace with herself and her children. Her children are much happier now, even thriving. And they no longer live in daily fear since they got a life-saving divorce to escape a treacherous home.

 

 

NOTE: It's been more than 12 years, and Focus on the Family has never fixed these articles. It would only take a few minutes to do. Just add a disclaimer to describe what abuse is, give examples, and suggest that this article is not meant for abuse victims. Marriage intensives such as Hope Restored are great for people who need communication and conflict-resolution skills, but they aren't suitable for couples where there is abuse. If these articles simply mentioned that nearly half of divorces in the U.S. are for very serious reasons, not just for boredom or feeling "unfulfilled," it would be more accurate.  This article does not even hint that divorce for abuse might be a good option. Nor does it say that divorce is better for kids than staying in these abusive homes. Part of the problem is that Focus on the Family offers only three condoned reasons for divorce (sexual immorality, abandonment by an unbeliever, and pre-conversion divorce), implying that any other type (for example, divorce for domestic violence or chronic emotional abuse or severe addictions or neglect) is unbiblical (e.g. prohibited or sinful). Yet LifeWay Research (the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) shows that nearly 3 in 4 Protestant pastors accept abuse as grounds for divorce and do not call it a sin. These two Focus on the Family articles are unsafe for listeners who are in these destructive marriages. Please fix them, so that dear sweet people like Patricia can get free.

 

 

Transcript (lightly edited)

 

[Gretchen Baskerville]: Hello, my name is Gretchen Baskerville and I’m the author of The Life-Saving Divorce: Hope for People Leaving Destructive Relationships. I started leading divorce recovery groups in churches in 1998. So in 20 years of ministering to women and men, I've heard a lot of stories; and one of the most frequent is how often pastors, Christian marriage authors, and Christian family organizations downplay severe abuse in what they preach write and post online. They don't realize that their words have real authority in the minds of their audience.

 

[Baskerville]: They don't realize how highly people regard their message. There have been people who've been killed, or in the case of Patricia's story today nearly killed, because of what these leaders say. When people hear this message (that they are either supposed to put up with abuse a little longer; or that most abuse claims are exaggerated; or that divorce is so destructive to kids that staying in an abusive marriage is the better option), they take it to heart. These messages are pure poison. They kill people. And those who spread these false messages are unsafe for abuse victims.

 

[Baskerville]: Today I’m interviewing Patricia. Now that's not her real name and this is just a portion of her full interview. I asked her to tell her story about how a Focus on the Family article influenced her to stay in a brutally violent marriage with a husband who had already committed adultery and been arrested twice for physical abuse. Sadly, today that misleading article is still online. Researchers have known for decades that abuse is far worse for kids than divorce, not the other way around, and we know that kids whose parents got out of those highly toxic homes were far better off than kids whose parents stayed married.

 

[Baskerville]: Now we're jumping into the interview where Patricia talks about listening to Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family when she was a young adult. Like me she's been a big fan of Focus, visited their headquarters, and had a bookshelf full of their books. She called [them] for marital advice; told them about the abuse; and was a monthly donor who gave thousands of dollars. But they never recommended divorce—or even separating for her own safety—and while she believes that some of Focus's advice is very helpful, she wanted the world to know about this dangerous article. So here we go.

 

Before we jump into this article, talk to me a little bit about how you felt about Focus on the Family all your life.

[Patricia]: I listened with eagerness because it seemed like he [Dr. Dobson and his successor Jim Daly] knew how Christian families should be, what they should do, and what they needed to be godly you know and to be healthy and successful. And so I eagerly listened and kept listening and then . . . bought their materials, used their materials, and I even used their counselors …

 

[Baskerville]: And when you say used their counselors, you mean called them in times of difficulty in your own marriage?

 

[Patricia]: Yes, yes, yes … spoke to them multiple times during some of those seasons of great difficulty. They would even refer — once at least—they referred me to a counselor that they recommended. And that counselor had the same advice and would encourage me to use the materials that they published—or put out and endorsed. So they were a very huge part of my life. We also donated monthly, and that was during seasons where my husband wasn't a Christian even and he would donate money to them. Their materials gave him material to accuse me and abuse me and our children with, and equipped him to have more power, more covert power over the kids and [me] in Jesus’ name you know. I look back now and I especially—with where he is in his life now—it is clear he used to those things…

 

[Baskerville]: Just for clarity you experienced physical abuse? And severe enough physical abuse that law enforcement would get involved? Is that safe to say?

 

[Patricia]: Yes, sexual abuse for both me and my children.

 

[Baskerville]: Both you and your children? And law enforcement knows about those?

 

[Patricia]: Yes, serious, big investigations.

 

[Baskerville]: So, when you called, did you actually tell Focus on the Family about the criminal behavior?

 

[Patricia]: Yes.

 

[Baskerville]: So, what did you they say when you told them that?

 

[Patricia]: I could not go to a therapist, right? I could not reach out to anyone because of the threat. He had made it very clear to me: “You talk, I will kill you.”

 

[Baskerville]: So you're basically saying Focus on the Family [online or telephone advice….] was the only option for you?

 

[Patricia]: Yes, that was it. And looking back now, he may even have known through phone records possibly that I called them, but he would not have been surprised. I could have been ordering materials or talking to them about a problem with one of my kids. And he was really never alerted to the fact that I was calling Focus on the Family, because they were that such a big part of our lives, right?

 

[Baskerville]: So he didn't worry that [Focus on the Family] would give any advice to you like “Call the police,” “Get a divorce,” “Get separated from this violent man”… a man who's so violent law enforcement has had to get involved numerous times?

 

[Patricia]: Yes.

 

[Baskerville]: Wow. What advice did they give you? Did they tell you to separate and get to safety? What did they tell you?

 

[Patricia]: Things like—these are not word-for-word okay? So, using some [of] my language here—but they encouraged me, obviously, to buy resources. We had bookcases full of their resources for us as parents, for our marriage, or for our children. Every “Adventures in Odyssey.” Honestly, I’m not kidding, and even the pictures on our wall came from the Focus on the Family store in Colorado, so we were totally steeped in it. Hundreds of dollars’ worth of their books; and we donated a lot of money. We’re talking thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars [in donations].

 

[Baskerville]: So here you are: You are the submissive wife; you've worked so hard to be agreeable; to keep the children quiet; [you’ve] minimized yourself, you’ve waited on your husband hand and foot. So, in the midst of this demeaning, debasing relationship, you ran across this article from Focus on the Family. Could you tell us what caught your attention about it and what you did with it and how it affected your life?

 

[Patricia]:  I have [the article] right here, because there's a few things I wanted to read to you.

 

[Baskerville]: When you first saw this article back in 2007…. it was so powerful to you, you stuck it into a special Bible passage. Tell us about that.

 

[Patricia]: Things were not good in in our marriage and things were not good even with the kids. He was abusing the children as well. [Things] were at a heightened level. There was no way I could not consider divorce even though I believed I would go to hell for it. But I know this is going to sound crazy, but I wondered at that time: if I sacrifice myself to go to hell maybe it'll save my kids’ lives.

 

[Baskerville]: Oh, wow.

 

[Patricia]: That’s the desperate situation we were in. It was the first time I had really contemplated that I might need to do this; and so when I saw this article and read it… [There's one line] in particular: it says, “They are also more likely to suffer child abuse” [and then this about] “Child abuse and mother's boyfriends.” So basically, they are saying that if you divorce your children are more likely to suffer child abuse. The other thing I want to point out is ….

 

[Baskerville]: And here you were you were living with child abuse every single day!

 

[Patricia]: Yes. Now I didn't think I would get remarried, [but this was] a heightened fear that I had.

[Quoting from the article:]

“This is disturbing news given that cohabitating couples have more breakups greater risk of domestic violence.”

 

[Patricia]: And again, not that I thought I would cohabitate, but I didn't know, given my husband's serial adultery, if he would. And so that would put my children in greater risk even greater risk of violence.

 

[Baskerville]: So here you were thinking: I’ll never remarry and I’ll never cohabit, but if we divorce, my husband surely will cohabit because he's already a serial adulterer. And despite the [felony criminal] abuse that's already in our home, that's [already been reported] to law enforcement, this article is implying to me—or I’m inferring from it—that this new abuse after divorce … will be even worse than what we're already experiencing, right?

 

[Patricia]: Yes. And there's so many things [in this article]. Just the opening paragraph! [You know that most abuse victims don’t even know they are] being abused, right? And as crazy as that sounds, at that point in my life, I didn't know. I didn’t know for certain that I was being abused and this is why: I knew what he was doing: beating me and my children. That was extremely evident. But I was being told by Focus on the Family if I would just submit more, give more sex, obey more, if I would whatever more, [my marriage would be good]. And I could not have done more. I worked as hard as I possibly could to be a submissive, godly wife. We had sex when I had a broken back and was pregnant in the late stages.

 

[Baskerville]: Unbelievable!

 

[Patricia] …And not just once a day, several times a day. There is no way I could have given him more sex. I tried with all my heart to be respectful, to be what I thought God was asking me to do in 1 Peter 3. I didn't know I was being abused. I thought it was me. [I thought] if I just did more… if I just could get it right, then we wouldn't be unhappy.  Because [of this quote from the article]:

“Many years ago, the myth began to circulate that if parents are unhappy, the kids are unhappy, too. So divorce could help both parent and child. ‘What’s good for mom or dad is good for the children,’ it was assumed. But we now have an enormous amount of research on divorce and children, all pointing to the same stubborn truth: Kids suffer when moms and dads split up.”

 

And Focus on the Family doesn't make any distinction between divorces that are for really life-saving reasons: divorces for serial cheating, physical abuse, emotional abuse, serious addictions, abandonment, severe neglect, and even sexually selling your children.

 

[Baskerville]:  Wow not even that! Right! Focus’s article doesn't make any distinction between life-saving divorces and all other divorces. You and I, being devout Christians, we do believe in the sanctity of marriage and we do believe that there are frivolous divorces. But you needed a life-saving divorce; I needed a life-saving divorce. We weren't quitters who took the easy way out. We were not looking for the grass-is-greener divorce. This was not a “I’m bored” divorce, or an “I miss the party life” divorce. We wanted and hoped and dreamed of a godly marriage; but that's not what we got. So when you read these words, suggesting mom and dad just wanted to split up and didn't really care about the kids, how does that make you feel?

 

[Patricia]: Well, I didn't want to do that! I didn't want to do that to my kids, let alone my marriage, right? I really did not want my kids to suffer needlessly, because they were already suffering so much. It was this kind of spinning of divorce in a Christian realm that kept me in.

 

[Baskerville]: What happened next?

[Patricia]:  You know this article came out around January 2007. And in January 2008 is when I was beaten so badly. My husband came in from work and our littlest child was sick with respiratory illness. And this particular child had always struggled with just nosebleeds in general. When she would get a cold, her nose would bleed. And sorry to be gross, but it was blood and crud, but she had woken up from her nap that way. And I was in the process of cleaning her face very gently and trying to get it all cleaned up. And she was screaming as a little child does when they're sick they're not feeling well. She had just woke up and didn’t want to have her face cleaned. She was screaming and he walks in the door and hears her screaming you. I’m washing her face and he said, “How dare you torture my child!” And that's when it began. My oldest took all the other kids upstairs, and sang songs to them, and closed the door. They put furniture in front of the door. They knew what was going to happen. [He beat me severely indoors.] He dragged me outside. [My oldest] heard the front door open when my husband dragged me out the front door. Then he kicked me and beat me more outside. Then he dragged me to a wooded area that was kind of behind and down the road from our house. My oldest daughter saw him do that. It was darkish, getting dusk, so she could see some of it. But anyway, he thought I was dead, which is why he dragged me to the wooded area. That Focus on the Family article was still in my Bible and I wept over it so much. [Patricia chokes back tears.]  I’m getting teary, sorry. And I would read that article over and over again and say, “I can't. I can't leave, because divorce is going to damage my kids more.”

 

[Baskerville]: So, this article said to you, loud and clear, that no matter what you were going through, divorce would make it even worse for your kids?

 

[Patricia]: Yes. And they said that in here (this article). And how could I do that to my kids? I could never do that to my kids.

 

[Baskerville]: And we know it now, but you didn't know this back in 2007, and I didn't know it either, but there were studies as early as 1995, 1998, and 2003 showing that researchers already knew that it was far better for kids to get them out of these abusive homes—either moderately abusive or highly abusive like yours. So after your husband beat you severely, so much that he thought you were dead, and dragged you out the front door, dragged you down into a gully and left you there, you still felt based on this this 2007 article from Focus on the Family that you could not possibly divorce because that would be even worse for your kids?

[Patricia]: Yes.

 

[Narrator] Now I want to interrupt this interview for just one minute because we're close to the end and I want to give a quick history of what happened next. Patricia stayed with her violent husband because she believed this article, that divorce would destroy her kids more than abuse. In hopes of fixing their marriage, she agreed to a five-day marriage intensive at the National Institute of Marriage in Branson, Missouri. She agreed to another 5-day marriage intensive two years later. They cost more than $5000 each time. The therapists never once discussed the abuse, even though they had requested—and were given—the police and medical records. [Despite the intensives, the abuse continued.] Finally, she agreed to one last intensive. The therapists never suggested she separate from her husband. She was terrified of her husband, who continued abusing her and the kids physically, mentally, and sexually. Patricia finally took it in her own hands, and decided divorce to save her and her children's lives. Now let's hear the rest of her story.

 

[Baskerville]: [Several years ago, you and the kids fled and got a divorce.] Was divorce worse for your kids than your marriage?

 

[Patricia]:  No! There were parts of the divorce and there was a period of time in the divorce (because of the way the judge ruled) that was very damaging to the kids. However now that we are on the other side of that and they no longer see their dad and are safe from him (at least some of them), they are thriving! They are intelligent. My youngest daughter is a year-and-a-half ahead in high school. They are thriving! Do they have moments? Sure! Do they have hardship? Sure. Some of them have physical damage from abuse that they will always live with. But we have gotten therapy. They have done the hard work and they are thriving.

 

[Baskerville]: Are they are they happy that you divorced?

[Patricia] Oh yes! YES, YES, and YES. From the oldest to the youngest! YES. And they knew when we fled. They said to me, “We have to keep running,” because they knew their lives depended on a life-saving divorce.

 

[Baskerville]: I am so glad that you have some peace, that you have some safety, that you are free from that chaos. I know enough of your story to know that it hasn't been easy, but that your lives are much better.

 

[Patricia] We are happy! We laugh! We enjoy life as much as we possibly can, given [the injuries we received]. We enjoy one another, and we you know we are okay, and we are at peace with GOD and ourselves and each other.

 

[Baskerville]:  Well thank you so much for sharing your very powerful story. I pray that people who need life-saving divorces will hear this and realize that there is life on the other side. And that for 8-in-10 kids of divorce, they have no lifelong serious problems. I’m just so glad the Lord is restoring the years the locust ate.

 

[Patricia] Thank you so much and thank you for what you're doing [Music]

[END of transcript]


In the next video, we'll hear Patricia describe her experiences with the National Institute of Marriage in detail.

 


 

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