Children of Divorce: Conflicts and Healing

“Children need their parents’ stable union.”1 The numerous psychological and spiritual struggles in the child of divorce (henceforth referred to as COD) are documented both in the literature and in the experiences of mental health professionals, parents, educators and clergy. Most CODs have neither a conscious awareness of the serious emotional pain they have sustained as a result of the fracturing of their parents’ marital union, nor of the long-term negative consequences of their wounds. Their psychological conflicts will be reviewed, as well as divorce myths, the causes of divorce, the resolution of divorce wounds through growth in self-knowledge, virtues, and grace, and lastly, the need for new programs for children of divorce within the Church.

Divorce Myths
Numerous myths about divorce interfere with couples addressing their personal and marital conflicts, most of which can be resolved in clinical experience. Dr. Howard Markman, marital researcher, author and professor at the University of Denver, has written, “We believe that most divorces, and most marital unhappiness, can be prevented.”2

These divorce myths include the ideas that: Divorce will not harm the children, my spouse or me; divorce is the only solution to my unhappiness; marital conflicts cannot be resolved; what is good for me is good for our children; I will be happier away from my spouse; I can still be an excellent parent even if we divorce; my spouse is the cause of all the marital stress; trust and love cannot be rediscovered; my family background is not related to my marital unhappiness and, for Catholics, I am entitled to an annulment.

Dr. Glenn, the late, distinguished family scholar from the University of Texas, has disproved some of these myths in his research. He wrote:

The proportion of emotionally troubled adults is around three times as great among those whose parents divorced as among those from intact families. No amount of success in adulthood can compensate for an unhappy childhood, or erase the memory of the pain and confusion of the divided world of the child of divorce.3

Psychological Harm to Children of Divorce
A large number of well-designed research studies on the children of divorce demonstrate the impossibility of supporting the view that divorce does not harm children. Although it was once possible to believe that the nation’s high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and non-marital childbearing represented little more than lifestyle alternatives brought about by the freedom to pursue individual fulfillment, many analysts now believe that these individuals choices can be damaging to children who have no say in them, and to the society that enables them.

The divorce epidemic that affects approximately one million children a year has contributed to the growing psychopathology in American youth.

In the first major study of American adolescent psychopathology, published in 2010, of ten thousand teenagers, forty-nine percent of the youth met the criteria for one psychiatric disorder, and forty percent met the criteria for two disorders.4 Sociologist Paul Amato’s research on the long-term damage of divorce to children demonstrated that, if the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and approximately 70,000 fewer suicide attempts every year. Turning back the family-stability clock, just a few decades could significantly improve the lives of many children.5 Also, Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia sociologist, has written, “social scientific evidence about the connection between violence in youth and broken homes could not be clearer.”6

In the wake of their parents’ divorce, children are likely to experience a family move, marked declines in their family income, a stressed-out single mother, and substantial periods of paternal absence—all factors that put them at risk. In other words, the majority of divorces involving children in America are not in the best interests of the children.

A number of research studies are now demonstrating that from a child’s perspective, there is no such thing as a “good divorce.” In one study, children whose parents had a “good divorce” fared worse compared to those whose parents had unhappy marriages.7 Dr. Norval found that the negative effects of divorce on children couldn’t be avoided merely by the parents being cooperative.8 Rigorous analysis of the idea of “good divorce” revealed significant conflicts in the children as a result of the breakup.9

Harm to Young Adults
As COD grow up, they regularly struggle with the fear of abandonment, and of marriage in general, which results in the ending of engagements, or healthy loving relationships. These fears of marriage, and of friendship, have contributed to the marked increase in cohabitation and retreat from marriage.10 In 2012, married households were no longer the majority of the households in the U.S. In the U.S., cohabitation, not divorce, now poses the biggest challenge to marriage. In 1960: 500,000 couples were cohabitating, and in 2010, 7,529,000 couples. More than sixty percent of marriages are now preceded by cohabitation, and more than forty percent of children will spend some time in a cohabiting household. In fact, twenty-one percent of children are born into these unstable unions.11 Because cohabiting unions are much less stable than marriages, the vast majority of the children born to cohabiting couples will see their parents break up by the time they turn fifteen.

Divorce has also contributed to an inter-generational cycle of divorce. Nicholas Wolfinger has found that parental divorce increases the chances of offspring divorce by at least forty percent. When both husband and wife come from divorced families, the odds of divorce are at least two-hundred percent higher. Wolfinger states: “The divorce cycle will present a grievous threat to future generations of newlyweds.”12 Also, in their own marriages, children of divorced parents are more likely to be unhappy, to escalate conflict, to communicate less, to argue frequently, and to shout, or to physically assault, their spouse when arguing.13

Spiritual Harm
Divorce also harms the spiritual lives of children. Family scholar, Elizabeth Marquardt, documented numerous cases of conflict in the spiritual lives of children of divorce.14 Some described how their bitter anger at their parents led them to deny the existence of a caring God. Divorced fathers, these young adults reported with real disappointment, were rarely moral teachers. Moreover, she notes that the COD frequently reports the sad fact that religious leaders rarely approached them, or responded to their troubled questions.

Pope Benedict XVI commented in May 2012 that children without fathers in the home have great difficulty in their relationship with God. Since “grace builds on nature,”—as it is often said in the Catholic tradition—the loss of trust arising from one’s own parents’ divorce makes it difficult to trust in a loving God, particularly if children prayed to God for their parent’s marriage. In addition, if the mother or father practiced the faith, the faith itself is often blamed for the divorce. Unconscious anger meant for the mother, or father, can be redirected toward God. The loss of trust in parents, and in God, then, regularly leads to a need for control versus trust in future loving relationships.

Understanding the Causes of Divorce
In order to address effectively the extensive conflicts in CODs caused by the divorce of their parents, it is essential to try to understand the origins of the divorce. A 2010 study of 886 Minnesotans who filed for divorce showed that not being able to talk together was identified by fifty-three percent as one of the major contributing factors to the decision to divorce. The other contributing factors were growing apart, cited by fifty-five percent, followed by insufficient attention and infidelity (thirty-four percent).15

In our clinical experience the conflicts that most often lead to divorce are insecurity and selfishness in husbands and loneliness and selfishness in wives. Many spouses unconsciously model and repeat serious weaknesses in marital self-giving which they themselves have acquired from a parent. Self-giving is the essence of marital love, and without it, other significant weaknesses that contribute to divorce will take precedence: excessive anger, controlling, and disrespectful behaviors.

The doubling of the divorce rate between 1960 and 1980 has been attributed to consequences of the contraceptive revolution. Contraceptives made marriages less “child-centered,” which then led to a weakening of marital commitment. The psychological damage from contraceptive use includes a diminished trust in God, and in one’s spouse, an increase in selfishness and anger—all of which damage romantic love, the marital friendship, and sexual intimacy in my own professional experience in working with several thousand couples over the past thirty-seven years.

In regard to what is described as “divorce clustering,” a divorce between immediate friends increases the chances of getting divorced by seventy-five percent. The effect drops to thirty-three percent if the divorce is between friends of a friend—two degrees of separation—then disappears almost completely at three degrees of separation. Also, by the time a person has a third child, the effect of a friend’s divorce status becomes insignificant; and by the fifth child it completely vanishes. These results suggest that a parent’s susceptibility to influence by peers who have gotten divorced is diminished by the protective effect of children.16

An important ten-year study of six-hundred couples who received marital counseling revealed that they were two-to-three times more likely to divorce than couples who did not have counseling.17 Dr. Wright, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida, concluded, “The counseling profession is trying to help you through the divorce, not help you repair the marriage.” In that sense, he stated, “marriage counseling is often more like divorce counseling.”18

Too often, marital therapists fail to identify and challenge the harmful effects of selfishness upon marriage. In addition, spouses regularly are not expected to uncover and address the emotional conflicts from the family of origin, and from the years of marriage. In addition, marital therapists regularly embrace the “psychological” view of marriage where the primary obligation is not to one’s spouse, and family, but to one’s self alone. Hence, marital success is defined not by successfully fulfilling responsibilities to one’s spouse and children, but by a strong sense of subjective happiness usually to be found in and through an intense, emotional relationship with one’s spouse, and in material comfort.19

According to divorce scholar, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, divorce rates were spurred by a tendency among many religions to view marriage as the purview of psychology, rather than theology. “Mainline religious denominations led the procession to psychotherapy,” she said. “Therapists became the teachers and norm-setters in marriage, and then, later, in the dissolution of marriage.”20 Not only did marriage counseling ignore the spousal relationship, it also excluded children as stakeholders in the marital partnership. Intentionally or not, it relieved divorcing couples of their responsibilities for considering their children’s well-being.

Professor William Doherty’s views on marital therapists were similar. He wrote: “Many therapists will dismiss as a cop-out a client’s statement that he or she is staying married “for the children’s sake” or because I made a commitment for “better or worse.” These reasons for staying married are seen as excuses to avoid making a hard decision based on one’s needs.”21

It is not surprising that many couples give up too quickly on their marriages. Glenn reported that in a national survey conducted by the Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas, only about a third of divorced respondents said that both they, and their ex-spouses, had worked hard enough to try to save the marriage.22

Response to Divorce by Family, Friends and Clergy
The COD, family, friends, and clergy should be aware of important research on marital conflicts and children, particularly that of Dr. Linda Waite at the University of Chicago, which demonstrates that divorce benefits are being oversold. Her book, The Case for Marriage, supports the experiences of many spouses and mental health professionals that divorce hardly guarantees happiness. In a major study, eighty-six percent of married people with serious conflicts, who persevered in their marriages, reported their marriages as happier five years later, with the worst marriages showing the most dramatic turnarounds.23 In a later study, couples who somehow managed to endure unhappiness typically emerged five years later in good shape: “Two of the three unhappily married adults, who avoided divorce or separation, ended up happily married five years later. Just one out of five unhappy spouses, who divorced or separated, had happily remarried in the same time period.”24

There has been little response to the threat of divorce on the part of family members and friends. This is also the case among the clergy, who seldom preach about the sacrament of marriage, and related matters (especially as concern the use of contraception in marriage). Indeed, there is much denial about the harm caused by divorce. More knowledge and courage in clergy, religious, family members, and laity are needed to prevent the “divorce plague” so as to protect both spouses and children.

If divorced parents have not remarried, the COD should consider citing to their parents the Church’s teaching on divorce, particularly the Catechism of the Catholic Church that:

Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family, and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents, and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.25

They can also request that further efforts be made at reconciliation through a reliance upon their faith. Research has demonstrated that religious faith reduces the chance of divorce.26

Karol Wojtyła offered sage advice in his famous, Love and Responsibility, regarding spouses who are in a conflictual marriage:

We love the person complete with all his or her virtues and faults, and up to a point, independently of those virtues, and in spite of those faults. The strength of such a (mature) love emerges most clearly when the beloved stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without, in the least, approving of them. For the person as such never loses his/her essential value. The emotion that attaches to the value of the person is loyal.27

The faults, says Wojtyla, are on the periphery of a spouse’s goodness. If one sees this, and looks to the core of the person, most crises in marriage can be abated. Then marital trust can grow, and love be rediscovered.

Most importantly, children, family members and friends can encourage their parents to grow in the virtue of justice, which consists in the constant and firm decision to give their due to God and neighbor, and, in this case, spouses and children.28 They can state that their children have the right to a father and a mother living together, and that they, the parents, have an obligation to meet that essential need. They can request, in justice, that their parents commit themselves for at least one year to working further in trying to uncover and resolve their individual weaknesses. Parents can be requested to maintain a shared goal of supporting and preserving the children’s well-being, which may increase the chances of reconciliation for couples on the brink of divorce. Catholic CODs can also suggest that their parents try to trust the Lord more with their sacrament of marriage, as it is His love that ultimately supports their marriage.

Relatives, friends, and clergy too should consider making the same request, reminding the spouse seeking divorce of his/her marital vows, and the need of children for their parents’ stable union. They should recommend that spouses communicate with those who have healthy marriages, rather than with those who do not. They can also suggest that the couple consider seeking marital therapy from mental health professionals who do not embrace the psychological view of marriage, such as members of Marriage Friendly Marital Therapists, begun by marriage scholar, Dr. William Doherty, at the University of Minnesota.29

Fears and the virtue of trust
The psychological conflicts in many CODs are difficult to resolve without a spiritual component, as is the case in the treatment of addictive disorders.

Divorce scholar, Judith Wallerstein, in her major work on the children of divorce wrote: “Anxiety about relationships was at the bedrock of their (COD) personalities, and endured even in happy marriages.” 30 When children see their parents get divorced because they have simply drifted apart—or because one or both parents have become unhappy and left to pursue another partner—their own faith in love, commitment, and marriage is often shattered. The damage to their ability to maintain trust in a life-long love is among the serious psychological wounds caused by divorce. The result is that many married CODs lack the ability to move from romantic love and friendship into betrothed love, “the complete surrender of one’s ‘I’ to the beloved,” as St. John Paul II described it. 31 The ability to feel safe in a lifelong love is necessary for the total surrender of oneself that is essential for marital fulfillment and happiness.

We have found in our clinical experience that during the engagement or the early years of marriage, the COD can experience profound and unconscious fears of being betrayed, and of giving oneself fully, as a result of the divorce wound. These fears contribute to the present retreat from marriage, and to the decision to cohabitate which does not require complete commitment. American Sociologist Brad Wilcox reported that forty-one percent of men “report that they are not ‘completely committed’ to their live-in girlfriends.”32 These fears can result in the breaking of engagements or in marital separations.

The strong and often unconscious fears in the COD need to be faced. Spiritual direction is often important for healing. CODs report being helped in their struggle against distrust and fears (of betrayal and marriage) by meditation on the gift of one’s spouse and praying daily: “Lord, deepen my trust in you, and in my present or future spouse.” Drawing on the grace of the sacrament of marriage, they can be confident in the Lord’s support for their marriage.33 The correction of fearful cognitive distortions is also important. These include the thoughts, often unconscious, that “I will be betrayed and lose the person I love;” “What happened in my parents’ marriage will occur in mine”; “I cannot have a happy, lifelong, loving marriage;” “I cannot trust God with a vocation to marriage.” Finally, fears and distrust can be resolved through forgiveness of the parent most responsible for the divorce.

Catholic clergy, educator, and parents should do more to help youth and young adults in the long-term preparation for marriage, by preaching and teaching about the fears related to marriage in today’s divorce culture, as well as the good news that healing can occur. A specialized tract in pre-cana programs for CODs should be developed and required. It should address their fears and mistrust, and initiate a healing process. Above all, it should present them with the fidelity of the Lord’s love that will strengthen, assist, and comfort them in their lifelong vocation of marriage.

Excessive anger and the virtue of forgiveness
The divorce trauma results in strong anger in the COD, particularly towards the parent viewed as most responsible due to the belief that the parents did not engage in the hard work of trying to resolve their personal and marital conflicts. Such intense anger can be harmful to the COD, and needs to be uncovered and resolved. If the COD’s anger is not resolved, it may be unconsciously misdirected in the future at one’s spouse, at oneself in self-destructive behaviors, and at children. Knowledge of the three basic options for dealing with anger—denial, expression, and forgiveness—is essential for the resolution of this powerful emotion.34

The most effective manner for resolving this anger is through the use of the virtue of forgiveness. CODs are motivated to engage in the hard work of forgiveness when they understand its benefits in mastery over anger. Forgiveness can be given cognitively, emotionally, or spiritually. Each method of forgiveness is effective in decreasing the anger associated with divorce trauma, and a COD may find himself or herself using each of the three methods during the forgiveness process at different times.

A cognitive past forgiveness exercise is recommended in which the COD thinks of himself/herself at a younger age and reflects, “I want to try to understand and to forgive my parent whom I believe was most responsible for the divorce.” The parent most often identified is the father, and the most common reasons uncovered are his selfishness or anger. In this forgiveness work, many Catholics discover that they cannot forgive on their own, and are helped by giving their anger to the Lord in prayer, or by taking it into the sacrament of reconciliation. For most CODs, the forgiveness process will go on periodically for many years because of the severity of the trauma, if not periodically for the remainder of his or her life.

The resolution of anger is aided by a request for forgiveness directly from a parent who did not work sufficiently to save the marriage. Naturally, difficulties can arise in the face of a parent who initiated the divorce; a parent who denies the pain and harm that has been caused, and who, therefore, does not see the need to ask for forgiveness.35 An approach to such a parent can be to draw attention to the denial of the harm caused by his or her selfishness.

In a pre-cana tract for CODs, it would be good to address the need to work on forgiving the offending parent, as well as family members, and others, for not supporting the marriage as they should have.

The benefits of forgiveness include not only a decrease in anger, but also a reduction of sadness and anxiety, and an increase in self-esteem.36 Forgiveness is truly good news for the COD. Clergy and Catholic educators could help them by preaching and teaching about its value in the healing of wounds from the past that can cast a shadow over the future.

Sadness and the virtue of hope
In Marquardt’s study, CODs were three times more likely as those from intact families to agree with the statement, “I was lonely a lot as a child.”37 Judith Wallenstein reported that male CODs were less likely to enjoy close bonds with their fathers.38 The other source of loneliness/sadness is for the parent who is not present in the home, most often the father. CODs regularly report struggles with sadness because of the loss of the experience of comfort that is present when parents love each other. They report sadness from an excessive and inappropriate sense of responsibility in their efforts to help a distressed parent. Some have stated that they had to become their own parent. St. John Paul II’s words apply to numerous CODs: “Many feel imprisoned in a deep inner loneliness.”39 The COD loneliness-unhappiness wound contributes to the high divorce rate in these adults. It is difficult to resolve this trauma without a spiritual plan that includes the theological virtue of hope. And no love from a friend or spouse can make up for the one lacking from the family of origin.

God the Father spoke of his concern about loneliness in Genesis 2: 18 when He stated that, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And it is He, the Origin, Who assures that at the depth of our being, we are not alone. Marquardt confirms this in her research, that a growing relationship with God helps to fill a void created by a tension with the father who had left the family.40 Growth in trust, and in self-giving to one’s spouse can decrease marital loneliness, and growth in the virtue of hope can diminish the wound from the parents’ divorce. Hope is a virtue that helps in the struggle against sadness and discouragement. It promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one’s life. This virtue helps to keep one’s heart open to be more loving, and to receive love. It sustains spouses during times of stress, and strengthens them to fight against loneliness. Hopeful thinking arises from the belief that God calls his children to happiness, and sustains them with his love. It can diminish deep discouragement, build confidence, and strengthen the belief that a happy marriage is attainable.

Hope and faith can enable CODs to recognize their powerlessness over their emotional pain, and turn it over to God. In spiritual direction, hope has helped to create an openness to receive the spiritual love that comforts and protects against loneliness. Meditations that are reported to be helpful in working with a spiritual director center on St. Joseph as another loving father who was always present, Our Lady as another loving mother, the Holy Family as one’s other stable loving family, and the Lord as one’s best friend and brother during painful experiences of the past.

Selfishness and the virtue of generosity
Many popes have described selfishness as the major enemy of marital love. In our clinical experience, it is the leading cause of divorce. Selfishness turns spouses in upon themselves, thereby seriously damaging their ability to give themselves cheerfully and fully in marriage. Also, CODs can unconsciously model this selfishness as a trait learned from one or both parents, making it difficult to maintain a lifelong marital commitment. Recovery from modeled behaviors is very challenging. Current neuroscience has offered the opinion that modeling occurs through the mirror of the neuron system in the brain in which the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, in this case a selfish parent.41

A daily commitment to grow in the virtues of generosity, self-denial, sacrificial giving, and loyalty can help in the resolution of selfishness that undermines the ability to maintain a vowed commitment. Faith helps to break this powerful, negative, parental legacy. Working with a spiritual director, a COD can ask for healing from unconscious modeling after a selfish parent (even while being thankful for personality strengths acquired from him or her). Also, the sacrament of reconciliation can be valuable in breaking the powerful hold of selfishness in the personality.

Confidence weaknesses and gratitude for personality strengths
A graduate student from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family wrote, in an insightful paper on identity crisis in the children of divorce, that: “Just as the Holy Spirit makes no sense without the Father, and the Son, so, too, does the child’s identity become, in a way, incomprehensible without his father and his mother. What gives the child his identity is the love of his parents.”42

The lack of confidence in male CODs, in particular, arises from the lack of a close father relationship, and the loss of a respected role model, which in turn inhibits their ability to attain success in education, and relationships. A 2013 study revealed that male children raised in single-parent households tend to fare particularly poorly, with effects apparent in almost all academic and economic outcomes, (Autor & Wasserman, 2013).43

Growth in the virtue of gratitude for one’s own God-given gifts and character strengths can help to heal the weaknesses in confidence caused by parental divorce and paternal absence. Growth in faith in spiritual direction has specifically helped CODs to appreciate God the Father, or St. Joseph, as another loving, affirming, and protective father which strengthens confidence. Slowly, character strength can grow,44 and the anxiety and sadness associated with insecurity decrease.

John Paul II wrote that children “are a living reflection of their (parents) love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity, and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother” and that “parental love is meant to become for the children the visible sign of the very love of God.”45 The fracturing of the sacramental marital union profoundly harms children. However, the wounds of the COD do not have the last word in the lives of those traumatized by divorce. Children of divorce are not meant to be prisoners of their past. The major emotional conflicts of fear, anger, sadness, and insecurity can be uncovered, and their influence minimized by growth in virtues, and in theological virtues. In regard to the latter, Dr. Paul Vitz, professor at the Institute for Psychological Sciences, has written: “There is no reason why at least some of the effects of theological virtues could not be part of psychological science, and integrated with their philosophical and theological understanding.”46 Finally, to reject the possibility that Christ, through his Passion, can heal divorce wounds is “to empty the Cross of its power.”47

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Torn Asunder: Children, the Myth of the Good Divorce, and the Recovery of Origins, (2016). McCarthy, M (Ed.) Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons ***


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican, 2003), n. 2381.
  2. Howard J. Markman, Scott M. Stanley. & Susan E. Blumberg, Fighting for Your Marriage: Enhancing Marriage and Preventing Divorce, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), p.2.
  3. Norval D. Glenn. in Elizabeth Marquadt, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of the Children of Divorce (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), p.xx.
  4. Kathleen R. Merikangas, Jian-ping He, Marcy Burstein, Sonja A. Swanson , Shelia Avenevoli, Lihong Cui, Corina Benjet , Katholiki Georgiades & Joel Swendsen , “Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49, no. 10 (2010): 975-6.
  5. Paul R. Amato, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” in The Future of Children 15, no. (2) (2005): 88-89.
  7. Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of the Children of Divorce (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), p. 193-198.
  8. Norval D. Glenn, “How Good for Children is the Good Divorce,” Propositions 7 (April, 2012), p. 3.
  9. Paul R. Amato, Jennifer Buher-Kane, J. & James Spencer, “Reconsidering the ‘good divorce.’ Family Relations 60, no.5 (2011), 511-524.
  10. Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox & Kelleen Kaye, Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America. (Charlottesville: National Marriage Project, 2013)
  11. W. Bradford Wilcox, B. et al. Why Marriage Matters, 3rd Ed. (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011), p. 1.
  12. Nicholas Wolfinger, N. Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in their Own Marriages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 74.
  13. Pamela S. Webster, Terri L. Orbuch, and James S. House, “Effects of Childhood Family Background on Adult Marital Quality and Perceived Stability,” American Journal of Sociology 101 (1995): 404-432.
  14. Marquardt, Between Two Worlds, pp. 135-168.
  15. Alan J. Hawkins, Brian J. Willoughby & William Doherty, Reasons for Divorce and Openness to Marital Reconciliation, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 53, no.6 (2012): 453-463.
  16. Rosemary McDermott, James H. Fowler & Nicholas A. Christakis, (2009). Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years. (Available at SSRN:, 2009).
  17. Steven L. Nock, Laura A. Sanchez & James D. Wright, Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), p. 112.
  18. Cheryl Wetzstein, Interview of Dr. James Wright, Washington Times 9/14/2008.
  19. Brad Wilcox, The Evolution of Divorce, 2009.
  20. Barbara D. Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1996), pp. 48-49.
  21. William Doherty, Soul Searching  (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p.31.
  22. Glenn, Between Two Worlds, p xxii.
  23. Linda Waite & Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Broadway Books, 2000), p. 148.
  24. Linda Waite, Don Browning, William Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Lou. & Scott Stanley, Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages (New York: Institute for American Values, 2002), p. 6.
  25. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2385.
  26. Nock, Covenant Marriage, p. 112.
  27. Karol Woytyla, Love and Responsibility (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), p. 135.
  28. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1807.
  29. Marriage Friendly Marital Therapists,
  30. Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis & Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 300.
  31. Karol Woytyla,, Love and Responsibility, p. 96.
  32. W. Bradford Wilcox, Men and women often expect different things when they move in together. The Atlantic. (2013, July, 8.
  33. Robert Enright & Richard Fitzgibbons, Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (Washington, DC: APA Books, 2000), p. 143-44.
  34. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, “The Cognitive and Emotive Uses of Forgiveness,” Psychotherapy, 23, no. 4 (1986): 629-633.
  35. Julie J. Exline, Roy F. Baumeister, Brad J. Bushman, W. Keith Campbell & Eli J. Finkel, “Too proud to let go: narcissistic entitlement as a barrier to forgiveness.” J. Personality and Social Psychology 87, no.6 (2004), 894-912.
  36. Gale L. Reed & Robert Enright, “The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse.” J Consult Clin Psychol 74, no.5 (2006), 920-29.
  37. Marquadt, Between Two Worlds, p.139.
  38. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, pp. 300-1.
  39. John Paul II, “Offer Forgiveness and Receive Peace.” XXX World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 1997, p.1.
  40. Marquardt, Between Two Worlds, p. 150.
  41. Luigi Cattaneo & Giacomo Rizzolatti G. “The mirror neuron system.”Arch Neurol. 66, no.5 (2009), 557-60.
  42. Nichola Fonte, Nicholas Fonte. “The Identity Crisis of Children of Divorce” Unpublished, 2008, p.5.
  43. David Autor & Melanie Wasserman, “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education” (Washington, D.C: Third Way Next, 2013), p. 7.
  44. Christopher Peterson & Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  45. St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 14.
  46. Paul C. Vitz Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths. R. Cessario (ed.) Sophia Institute Press (2013) p. 296.
  47. 1 Cor 1:17 RSV.
Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD About Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD

BS from St. Joseph's University; MD from Temple University School of Medicine, Dept. of Psychiatry, Hospital of the University of Medicine, and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center.

Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, located outside Philadelphia, and has worked with hundreds of Catholic marriages and families over the past 40 years. He coauthored Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (American Psychological Association Books, 2015), in which he addresses the importance of a treatment plan to uncover and address excessive anger in marital conflicts and divorce. In September 2019, they received the Benedict XVI Foundation Expanded Reason Award for research in association with the University Francisco de Vitoria, Madrid for Forgiveness Therapy. His book Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Marriages was published in 2019 by Ignatius Press.

Over the past 38 years, Dr. Fitzgibbons has consulted with priests from many dioceses and religious communities. He has authored articles in The Priest on identifying and resolving emotional conflicts in priestly life and has given conferences on these topics in many dioceses. He coedited an issue of the Catholic Medical Association's Linacre Quarterly (August 2011) on the crisis in the Church, and has served as a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy. His website is He has spoken twice to the spiritual directors of American and Canadian seminaries on the origins and healing of transitory same-sex attractions and in many conferences for seminarians.


  1. What advice or help do you offer to someone who is married to a person who stubbornly holds onto the very harmful behaviors of anger that leads to a grave unfairness and abuse, addictions to alcohol and pornography, and who is generally very unhappy as they isolate and withdraw from the wife and the children? Someone who will not admit that they are unhappy, and to whom the wife cannot really even talk to them about anything more meaningful than very surface things or else about objects mostly? To the point that the wife, over a period of at least 8 years has been enabling the hurtful, damaging behaviors to continue because of either anger or the threat of anger on the part of the man, to the point that the wife is just doing what the Bible tells to do, that wives are to submit to the authority to their husband (even though the husband is taking great advantage of his authority, and not loving the wife as the Bible does instruct husbands)? Because she is afraid of his anger and outbursts? Are the children being harmed as much as if the parents were at least separated (with no other partners, new boyfriends, etc, in the scenario at all)?

    • Dear Jeannie,
      I hope the chapter on the angry spouse chapter from our marital website may be helpful to you,
      I will communicate further with you through your email.

      • Thank you for sending the link, and I have been reading many of your chapters and have tried talking to my husband and even showing him your writings and chapters. He seems to just continue saying that he isn’t unhappy. On the other hand, he will at times talk about his depression and has been taking anti-depressants for years, and yet he still stubbornly won’t admit that he is unhappy and defensively says he isn’t unhappy. He uses anger to get his way, I think so that he can continue with all of his habits so that he doesn’t have to change anything. Our kids have had their feelings hurt many times sometimes deeply, even saying that, ‘My whole life, Daddy has yelled at me and been mean to me.’ Yes, they do love their father but they have also been very hurt at times and my fear is that this type of life has already become ‘normal’ to the kids, that they expect it will continue because that is just the way it is. I have tried serving many corrections, going to counseling for years, and going through marriage encounter as well, even though we are not catholic. We are practicing Christians, however. But my husband listens in church and then continues acting in sin, and seems to have no intention to stop such sinning, his attitude seems entirely defensive and he is unable to either look at himself or unwilling to give up what he does know is sin. He has a way of denying to himself, I believe. I have seen the damage done to our kids, they are both 8 years old (twins) and I think if I were to separate for a while, ideally I should have done it already by the time they were 2 years old rather than waiting until now. I do not think there is any other way that my husband will choose to make some important changes. The Bible says not to associate with people who do not have control over their anger, and that a person who does not have control over their anger is like a house with its doors and windows blown out. I guess I should have read the Bible more carefully before marrying him, almost fourteen years ago. My error and sin is in being too submissive as a submissive wife. Strange how it can end up that I am doing what Christian wives are instructed to do, and yet I have badly missed the mark. Thank you for the work you are doing, Dr. Fitzgibbons, it is important and necessary.