How Focus on the Family Misled Us to Believe Divorce

Was Worse for Children Than Abuse


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 their "children and divorce" 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 the children-and-divorce articles on their website that are misleading to abuse victims. I interviewed an abused mother who nearly lost her life due to one of these articles. 


 

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.

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 the 2007 Focus on the Family article and it's references to Dr. Judith Wallerstein's somber warnings about kids and divorce.

 

The misleading messages in the 2007 article, which was posted early in Jim Daly's presidency of Focus on the Family, 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, Amy Desai, 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. A third article referencing Wallerstein's research was added to the website in August 17, 2020, this one by Angela Bisignano, Ph.D.

 

Ironically, the most well-known researchers mentioned in the Focus on the Family articles (Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Dr. Mavis Hetherington, Dr. Paul Amato, and Dr. Alan Booth) found that divorce is likely better for children in these abusive homes...not worse.

 

In the same book that Focus on the Family 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.

 

Quote 1

 

“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

 

Quote 2

“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.

 

Quote 3

“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

 

Quote 4

“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 

 

Quote 5: On the first page of Judith Wallerstein’s book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she writes,

 

“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.

 

Quote 6: In fact, by 1989, Wallerstein was already saying that divorce was a rational solution to a bad marriage. And notice that she doesn't limit it to physical abuse. (Emphasis mine.)

Although our overall findings are troubling and serious, we should not point the finger of blame at divorce per se. Indeed divorce is often the only rational solution to a bad marriage. When people ask if they should stay for the sake of the children, I have to say, “Of course not." All our evidence shows that children turn out less well-adjusted when exposed to open conflict, where parents terrorize or strike one another, than do children from divorced families.” —Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, A Decade after Divorce, p. 321-322  (Originally published 1989. Referenced Kindle edition, 2018)

 

Quote 7: Wallerstein said it's unwise for people to stay in a cruel, demeaning, or intensely lonely marriage "just for the kids":

 

But for many other people, divorce is the best solution, and staying married "for the sake of the children" (as it is so often stated) is not the wiser path. When a marriage is cruel, demeaning, or intensely lonely, divorce opens new opportunities to build a better life. The details of such unhappy marriages are often shocking. I met one couple who had not talked to each other in three years; they just passed notes back and forth. One man went to bed fully clothed every night for years, sending a not so subtle message to his wife beside him in the bed. Others brought lovers into the home when the spouse was away. In some marriages, in-laws invaded the home at all hours, leading one man to say, “She was never mine!" —Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, A Decade after Divorce, p. xxxiv (Originally published 1989. Referenced Kindle edition, 2018)

 

Quote 8: In 1989, Wallerstein mentioned the lack of comparison studies between unhappy families and divorced families. But in the 1990s, such studies became available and the gave evidence of the damage done to kids who are brought up in these distressed homes. She felt divorce was better for kids in these cases.

 

“And while we lack systematic studies comparing unhappily married families and divorced families, I do know that it is not useful to provide children with a model of adult behavior that avoids problem solving and that stresses martyrdom, violence, or apathy. A divorce undertaken thoughtfully and realistically can teach children how to confront serious life problems with compassion, wisdom, and appropriate action." —Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, A Decade after Divorce, p. 322 (Originally published 1989. Referenced Kindle edition, 2018)

 

Quote 9: In a PBS interview in 2000, Judith Wallerstein admitted to being shocked by the percentage of horrible U.S. marriages.

 

“In a PBS interview in 2000, [Wallerstein] said, “It’s hard for me to believe that 45 percent of marriages are so bad that they really need to divorce, and that’s what’s happening in this country.”  —Concerned Women for America, June 22, 2012, retrieved 10/29/2020 https://concernedwomen.org/judith-s-wallerstein-divorce-analyst-dies-at-age-90/

 

 

Quote 10: 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.

 

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

 

Quote 11:

“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

 

Quote 12:

"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

 

Quote 13: Dr. Mavis Heatherington's study was 10 times larger than Wallerstein’s. (Emphasis mine.)

“In the short run, divorce is brutally painful to a child. But its negative long-term effects have been exaggerated…“ "Twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems. But most of the young men and women from [the study] looked a lot like their contemporaries from non-divorced homes. Although they looked back on their parents’ breakup as a painful experience, most were successfully going about the chief tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives for themselves.” —E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002), p. 7

 

Further, these 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. Here's her video interview. Patricia realized that no one at Focus on the Family could help her. 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 the 2007 article or any subsequent article that mentions Children and Divorce as always negative. 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 may be helpful for people who need communication and conflict-resolution skills, but they aren't suitable for couples where there is abuse. In fact couples counseling is unethical where there is abuse according to the experts.  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," they would paint a more accurate picture.  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 Focus on the Family articles are unsafe for readers who are in these destructive marriages.

 


 

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