National Edition

How divorce affects young adults' religiosity

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

"They question their own being because they lose a primary community — the marriage that brought them into this life," said Root, who wrote a book about his struggles, "Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being." "It’s philosophical, but it resonates at a practical level for many people."

How deeply it resonates depends on the spiritual state of the youth before the divorce, according to research by Clemson University sociologist Melinda Denton, who has developed a typology that identifies five areas of an individual's religious engagement ranging from "abiders" (youth who are very religious) to "atheists." (See the accompanying chart for a description of each type.)

Her research, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and included in the Families Shape Faith project, found that divorce causes youth to shift from one level of religiosity to another. In particular, one pattern Denton noticed was that highly religious teens were more likely to become less religious due to divorce, while youth who are marginally religious can become more religious in the wake of divorce.

Reasons for these changes range from the profound to the practical. Denton explained that some teens may withdraw from religion because it doesn't answer their questions triggered by divorce, while others seek it out as a way to cope with feelings of loss. For other teens, weekend visitation schedules with each parent may be the reason their religious participation declines.

Whitney, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her parents, changed from an involved churchgoer to a bystander in a congregation that took sides in her parents' breakup. A distrust of adults developed within the 15-year-old as she saw people draw conclusions about a situation they knew little about.

"I appreciated adults who would just listen instead of coming in with an assumption of what went on," she said. "I felt a lack of concern for myself."

The Families Shape Faith report describes Whitney's experience as a "second silent schism" that children can experience through divorce. The first "schism" occurs when the breakup ruptures what one scholar called the "domestic church" at home. The second connection to break is with a congregation and even a life of faith itself.

Root said that happens when clergy and a congregation fail to recognize church as a place where youth expect to find answers and solace at a time of family crisis.

"Churches have the potential to be places of healing for young people because they are fundamentally and theologically communities that children of divorce need where they can tell their stories of pain and be embraced with a feeling of hope and healing," he said.

For Whitney, that second schism closed four years after her parents separated, when a friend reached out and brought her to a new congregation that she said didn't judge her by her family background.

"I felt needed and around others in the same situation, and I felt like I fit better," she said. "I was put to work and felt my bishop cared about me and could answers my questions."

The parents

Rachel's birthday is on New Year's Day. But when she turned 18, she found no cause to celebrate her adulthood or the new year. She and her father had reached an impasse: Either she abandon her Mormon faith or she could no longer live with him. Religious differences played a role in her parents' divorce five years earlier and it pained her father to see his oldest daughter stay involved in a faith he vehemently opposed. Rachel was hurting, too, as she packed her things at her father's home and wondered if she would ever see or hear from him again. "It was heart wrenching," she recalls seven years later. "There was nothing more important at that point in my life than to please my father ... my inability to please God and him was difficult." But Rachel chose God and left.

Rachel, who also asked that her last name remain confidential, is among the exceptions to Denton's research, which found most highly religious youth withdrew from religion because of their parents' divorce. The reasons for withdrawing vary, but among them is that their parents dodged religious doubts, questions and concerns raised by the divorce.

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