I've just returned from filming a family travel program in Iceland. Among other things, the island nation is interesting because not many people marry. They couple, have kids and when they get bored, move to another relationship. And just when you thought that was becoming the norm throughout the Western world, along comes a Time magazine cover story about the importance of marriage and the destructive nature of infidelity and divorce.
Divorce is so common that it rarely ever makes news. Marriages are so bad that we seldom raise an eyebrow to the endless stream of cheating politicians - nearly always men - who are exposed in sickening spectacles. The worst of the lot, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, was even stupid enough to refer to his mistress as his "soul mate" and then, just when you thought his foot could not go any deeper down his esophagus, said that he was "trying to fall in love" again with his wife again.
That a governor who runs an entire state knows so little about himself and cannot distinguish between infatuation and true love, that he could be so utterly juvenile as to believe that an illicit affair based on wild sex and hot nights in Buenos Aires is the equivalent of the deep commitment given to you by the wife who took your last name and is raising your four sons speaks volumes about the almost incurable shallowness and immaturity being exhibited by today's men.
And no, I do not believe that couples ought to stay together for the sake of the children. Marriage is not a prison sentence and your children are not your jailers. But that does not mean that divorce does not scar kids.
THIS WEEK I was on The Today Show where we did a full half hour on how divorce affects teens. I was eight years old when my parents divorced, and it scarred me so deeply that I thought I would never fully recover. While I have been able to work through its issues over the years, it has in fact left a lasting impact on the person I have become and is the principal reason that I have endeavored so much in the field of human relationships, trying to figure out how to keep a man and woman happily under the same roof for the duration of their lives. I was always puzzled at how so many of my friends, whose parents were divorced, were either neutral on the topic or actually happy that their parents divorced, thinking that everyone was better off.
But how could children not be scarred by divorce? The people whose love is responsible for your very existence have now drifted apart, rendering a big question mark on your life. You become a cynic who believes that life is made up of pieces of a puzzle that don't ultimately fit. You begin to question the whole notion of love. Love is the glue that keeps a man and woman together, but you never saw it function. So you begin to question if there is such a thing as lifelong commitment. No wonder then that children of divorce statistically have a 50 percent higher rate of divorce themselves.
You also become a caregiver to your parents instead of the other way around. Children and teenagers need parents to raise them. But when you witness your parents nursing such deep wounds as they fight and argue and divorce, you feel the need to take care of them and ease their pain, putting you in an unnatural situation. It is almost as if you are the adult in the home now.
You become a yo-yo, going from household to household, never really knowing where home is. Your innocence is compromised. Children have natural attachments to parents, but now you have to be more diplomatic about how much you display toward each. You don't want to hurt your mother by showing her you're closer to your father, or vice versa. You become calculating in how you show affection.
YOU NOW have to contend with all sorts of strangers coming into your life - your mother starts dating men, your father starts dating women. You don't know how to relate to them. On the one hand you want to be accepting of them because you want to see your parents happy. On the other hand, you're not looking for a surrogate mom or dad, seeing as you already love your parents.
Divorce also undermines parental discipline. So often when parents divorce the children become their principal source of affection, and nobody's going to bite the hand that feeds them. Parents aren't going to say no to children whom they are so dependent on for love.
Divorce also pushes teens to confide in friends rather than parents. The children question why their parents were incapable of working out their differences, why they were relegated to arguing and screaming at each other. When children see their parents in this way they begin to question their judgment. They then choose to go to their friends for wisdom and advice because they hold a degree of anger toward their parents. So it becomes a situation of the blind leading the blind, teenagers doling out advice to one another in place of their wiser, more experienced parents.
Once a friend who was in a very unhappy marriage called me up and told me she was making a party to celebrate her divorce. I told her that I could not attend as I would never celebrate divorce. She got angry at me and told me that she expected me to be happy for her. I proceeded to tell her that there are three areas of life: the good, the bad and the necessary. Divorce is never good, it is usually bad, but it is sometimes necessary. It's like war. You sometimes have to fight a war but it's not something you celebrate. I was happy that she was no longer in pain. The marriage had to end. But something sacred had still been lost.
During the presidential campaign last year, I strongly advocated that the major candidates embrace as part of their platform a marital counseling tax deductible as an incentive for married couples to get the help they need. Marriage is not perfect. But no institution for the preservation of human love, the sustaining of affectionate commitment, or safeguarding the welfare of children has ever been devised.
The writer's most recent book on marriage is The Kosher Sutra. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. www.shmuley.com