When you think of the nearly one million couples who divorce each year in America, it’s easy to forget that each of those divorces represents the end of hopes and dreams … the end of a family. The people live on, but the family relationships are altered forever. As novelist Pat Conroy noted, “Divorce represents the death of a small civilization.”

This is especially true when children are involved. Many parents mistakenly conclude that their children are resilient enough to make it through a divorce easily. But researcher Judith Wallerstein, in her ongoing study of a group of children whose parents were divorced, discovered that the emotional trauma remained vivid even when those children became adults.

“I did not expect the experience to endure so fully for so many with high drama, passions, vivid memories, fantasy relationships, jagged breaks in development, intense anger, and profound discrepancies in quality of life,” Wallerstein writes, “nor did I anticipate the problems that so many young people would encounter upon entering young adulthood. Although I thought I was being realistic, nothing prepared me for what I found.”

An unwilling witness

Research statistics can sound clinical. But when I think of divorce, I remember one of the more memorable letters FamilyLife has ever received. It came from Dave Johnson, a police officer in San Jose, Calif. His letter told of one night when the dispatcher directed him to the scene of a family disturbance:

I could see a couple standing in the front yard of the home. A woman was crying and yelling at the man, who was standing with his hands in the pockets of his greasy overalls. I could see homemade tattoos on his arm—usually a sign of having been in prison.

Walking toward the two, I heard the woman demanding that he fix whatever he had done to the car so she could leave. He responded only with a contemptuous laugh.

She turned to me and asked if I would make him fix the car. The other officer came forward, and we separated the couple to find a solution to the problem.

I began talking to the man, who told me his wife was having an affair and was leaving him. I asked if they had gone for counseling, and he said he wasn’t interested. He said he was interested only in getting back his “things,” which he said she had hidden from him.

I asked the wife about his things and she said she wouldn’t give them to him until she got one of the VCRs. She said she wanted only one of the three VCRs they owned.

The other officer walked over to the wife’s car and looked under the hood to see if he could fix the trouble. The husband walked over, took the coil wire out of his pocket, and handed it to the officer. He then told his wife that she could have a VCR if he could have his things. She finally agreed and went into the house. (I found out later that his “things” were narcotics he was dealing in.)

As the wife entered the house, I noticed two little girls standing in the doorway, watching the drama unfold. They were about eight and ten years old. Both wore dresses and each clung to a Cabbage Patch doll. At their feet were two small suitcases. My eyes couldn’t leave their faces as they watched the two people they loved tear at each other.

The woman emerged with the VCR in her arms and went to the car where she put it on the crowded back seat. She turned and told her husband where he could find his things. They agreed to divide their other possessions equally.

Then, as I watched in disbelief, the husband pointed to the two little girls and said, “Well, which one do you want?” With no apparent emotion, the mother chose the older one. The girls looked at each other, then the older daughter walked out and climbed into the car. The smaller girl, still clutching her Cabbage Patch doll in one hand and her suitcase in the other, watched in bewilderment as her sister and mother drove off. I saw tears streaming down her face. The only “comfort” she received was an order from her father to go into the house, as he turned to go talk with some friends.

There I stood … the unwilling witness to the death of a family.

Whenever I read this letter I am reminded that every effort I make to preserve my marriage and my family is worth it. And I wonder where those two little girls are today. Have they followed the same pattern set by their parents? Or have they found a way to break that destructive legacy through the power of a relationship with God?

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