We tend not to talk about it, but we’ve all seen what it’s like: the empty Shabbos table when the kids are too embarrassed to invite anyone over; the feeling of isolation from married friends who stay away; a mother’s frantic effort to find someone to sit with her sons in shul or to dance with them on Simchat Torah; the worries about shidduchim for the older children; the nagging guilt over whether the adult children would have remained frum if it hadn’t been for the divorce.
Even if it’s for the best, even if it is absolutely necessary for the safety of the family, divorce brings with it a host of negative effects – many of which impact our children.
Recently I had the opportunity to hear about those effects firsthand from a group of Jewish women who were willing to share their stories. In a study conducted with women from Sister To Sister (a program found in Jewish communities across the United States), 120 frum women related what divorce has been like for them – and for their children of all ages. Their insights are worth sharing. (The results of the study were recently presented at a special event held by Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.)
The women ranged in age from 22 to 62, with an average of just under 38. They’d been married anywhere from only a few months to thirty-one years; the average length of their marriages was a little over ten years.
They were divorced an average of four and a half years and had an average of three children. They came from all walks of life and represented a wide range of experience and religious practice: They were rich and poor and every level of middle class; they were Modern Orthodox, haredi and chassidic.
What they had in common was that they were women, they were Jewish, they were divorced – and they were willing to share their experiences. Because of that willingness, we have the chance of better understanding the effects of divorce on frum children and doing something about those effects.
My purpose is not to suggest that divorce is never the right path; much less is it to judge anyone who has decided that the health of the family requires this drastic step. Rather, I will lay out the concrete experiences of members of our community in order to make us aware – since awareness is the first step toward action. If we know how frum children are suffering from the effects of divorce, we will be in a better position to reach out and help.
My study of Orthodox women confirmed the results of countless studies on divorce done with the general population, but it also did something more: It highlighted the specific negative effects of divorce on Jewish families.
Plenty of studies have already told us how divorce affects children. Compared with the children of non-divorced parents, children whose parents divorce tend to be less educated; leave home earlier and enter relationships with less maturity; exhibit weaknesses in problem solving and relationship building; and face a greater likelihood of becoming teen parents and getting divorced themselves.
What I learned from the women in my study is that, beyond all of these effects, there are some specifically Jewish effects of divorce – and those may be things we can do something about. Four Themes In the words of one study participant, “divorce does not solve problems, it creates new problems and situations.”
Those problems and situations are unique to each family, and each woman in the study had her own story to tell. Specifically with regard to effects on children, four themes emerged as common to most of the women’s stories: