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Unraveling the Impact of Divorce on Children

Barron Harper | May 30, 2024

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Barron Harper | May 30, 2024

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

The renowned child psychologist Dr. Ali-Akbar Furutan, writing in his book Mothers, Fathers and Children, maintains that children of divorced parents suffer irreversible psychological damage. Do they?

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior, and it evaluates how people are affected by their surroundings, which impacts how they behave. Because the home environment exerts the greatest influence on most of us, it’s not surprising that Furutan writes: “The foundation of morals, the manner of behavior and the social life of children are based on the family structure.”

To what extent a child of divorced parents suffers psychological damage can be difficult to measure. Parents, caught up in the emotional crisis of their failing marriage, may not appreciate how their unnatural and even hostile behavior impacts their children. Even where the parents, prior to separating, strive to maintain a semblance of civility, the child cannot help being affected by the atmosphere of estrangement, distance, and disunity in the home. According to Dr. Furutan, the psychological development of the child is arrested when the security of the home is shaken by discord or divorce, by prolonged absences of a mother or father, or by the unsuitable associations and behaviors of either parent.

RELATED: Divorce: The Baha’i Year of Waiting as a Healing Process

Symptoms of divorce-driven psychological damage in children can trigger aberrant behavior: rebelliousness, resentment, and insecurity. Longer-term signs can sometimes emerge as imprudent behavior, teenage pregnancy, criminal activities, and substance abuse. In fairness, though, some children of divorced parents can recover from the marital and family crisis to lead fairly normal and well-adjusted lives. 

According to Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, every child evinces great potential within a loving, cohesive family unit: 

Every child is potentially the light of the world … wherefore must the question of education be accounted primary importance. From his infancy, the child must be nursed at the breast of God’s love, and nurtured in the embrace of His knowledge, that he may radiate light, grow in spirituality, be filled with wisdom and learning, and take on the characteristics of the angelic host.

Baha’u’llah himself also wrote

Man is the supreme talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. … Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.

This begs the question: what potential is lost when parents divorce? In an age when society is beset by worsening random shootings, political corruption, climate change, racial discrimination, and economic dislocations, stabilizing marriages offers a path to a gradual recovery. The very progress of society depends on the words, actions, care, and attention of mothers and fathers toward their children.

The democratically-elected global leadership body of the Baha’is, the Universal House of Justice, wrote:

… parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mold their children’s moral character. For they exercise indispensable influence through the home environment they consciously create by their love of God, their striving to adhere to His laws, their spirit of service to His Cause … and their freedom from the corrosive effects of backbiting.

A colleague of Dr. Furutan’s, himself a long-standing child educator, pointed out in a talk that the atmosphere of the home is polluted by the poison of backbiting. It originates, he said, in unresolved issues that fester in the heart and estrange the couple. 

The Baha’i teachings say that conflicts between husband and wife should be resolved through Baha’i consultation. On the subject of conflicts lingering in the heart, family psychiatrist Dr. Agnes Ghaznavi, writing in her book Sexuality, Relationships and Spiritual Growth, explains: 

Most people are not familiar with the secret workings of their feelings and emotions. Most of all, they are not aware what happens to negative emotions and how destructive they can be if kept in one’s heart without expressing the hurt or disappointment, the sadness or anger. If these feelings are repressed (kept in the heart) they create havoc in our emotions and our energy store … The only way to clear the heart of negative emotions is to explain their nature to one’s partner.

Urging a couple to preserve their marriage in a letter written on his behalf, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, advised in 1952: 

We often feel that our happiness lies in a certain direction, and yet, if we have to pay too heavy a price for it in the end we may discover that we have not really purchased either freedom or happiness, but just some new situation of frustration and disillusion.

In a letter to a couple whose marriage was fracturing, the Universal House of Justice gave this sound advice, saying that it is:

… most essential for your husband and you to understand that marriage can be a source of well-being, conveying a sense of security and spiritual happiness. However, it is not something that just happens. For marriage to become a haven of contentment it requires the cooperation of the marriage partners themselves, and the assistance of their families.

RELATED: Teaching Children to Be Hopeful About the Future

Baha’is attempt to make their marriage fortresses for well-being, happiness, and security. That isn’t simple or easy — it requires loyalty, patience, and most of all, sustained love, as this talk attributed to Abdu’l-Baha’s describes:

The bond that unites hearts most perfectly is loyalty. True lovers once united must show forth the utmost faithfulness one to another. … Let not the ephemeral incidents and accidents of this changeful life cause a rift between you. When differences present themselves, take counsel together in secret, lest others magnify a speck into a mountain. Harbor not in your hearts any grievance, but rather explain its nature to each other with such frankness and understanding that it will disappear, leaving no remembrance. … No mortal can conceive the union and harmony which God has designed for man and wife. Nourish continually the tree of your union with love and affection, so that it will remain ever green and verdant throughout all seasons and bring forth luscious fruits for the healing of the nations. … And, when God gives you sweet and lovely children, consecrate yourselves to their instruction and guidance, so that they may become imperishable flowers of the divine rose garden.

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