Archives: Andrew Root

A Concluding Story

Andrew Root 01.25.2011 10:07 AM

I started my posts on this site by offering a narrative my own experience; I’ll end it in the same way.  This little narrative points to the end of community, of a place for our being, that children of divorce need.  For more see the final chapter to The Children of Divorce.

Just months after my parents’ divorce was finalized, my mom moved out of our family home, a house my family had lived in since I was in kindergarten. She explained that she wanted to be closer to work. It seemed like a logical reason, and in her place I would have made the same decision. Yet I still felt at odds about it. I realized that this house, this place where I became me, would no longer be part of my life. I silently grieved that I would never be able to take my own children to this house, showing them the basement where I had played hours and hours of floor hockey, shooting a worn tennis ball into the back of a net, working out who I was as I contemplated the mysteries of the universe with stick in hand.

I suppose that even if my parents had stayed together, they more than likely would have moved to another house and eventually given some stranger the keys to the place where I became me. This felt different. It wasn’t so much that the title of house was no longer in my family’s name; it was that the family that once lived within its walls no longer existed. My parents were no longer a community of shared memory in which the life and history of that house would live on, even if we would never enter its walls again. With my mom’s move the family house I had known for twenty years seemed to disappear into the infinitely deep crack that now separated my parents. It felt like the house had not simply transferred ownership but had been negated; it had been eliminated from the universe, and my place in the world went with it.

This negation of family home for me came with none of the drama that it did for Kara. After the divorce of her parents, the suburban hobby farm where her family lived was sold to a developer, who, having no need for the house itself, allowed the local fire department to set it ablaze as a training exercise, literally reducing it to a heap of ashes. After the house burned to the ground, bulldozers showed up to radically transform the topography of these few acres, making them receptive to a new water treatment plant to serve the rapidly encroaching cul-de-sacs and suburban streets. Halfway through the destruction process, Kara’s sixteen-year-old sister, Callie, visited the site. In the early evening air, all alone, Callie climbed into the tree house that still remained nestled in the broad branches of the large tree that stood next to where the house had been. Sitting there overlooking the ugly emptiness that had swallowed her home, she could only cry. This little tree house, which had fallen out of use as the children had become teenagers, was all that remained of the family that had lived in this place.

As she sat there, between her tears and breaths she could hear the faint sound of whining. Collecting herself, she climbed down to investigate. It was a cat, and not just any cat, but their family cat, “Momma Cat,” who had lived both inside their home and outside in the small barn that had also been burnt to the ground. Standing there looking at Momma Cat, now surrounded by plowed dirt and vacant lots, she felt as lost and utterly abandoned as the cat. Without this place, without this farm, Momma Cat was simply an old stray, worthless to most. Without this place, without home, Callie—and Kara and I as well—wondered if in our parents’ divorce we had ourselves become strays, people without a place, people without belonging.

In this final chapter we turn to a question more than likely on your mind throughout the last several chapters. That question, of course, is, in knowing all of this, what can be done? I fear even broaching the question, let alone seeking to answer it. I fear to do so not only because I worry my answers may not be right, but more because I fear that in our search to solve problems, we might avoid the heaviness of the issue itself. We may think that somehow, if we do certain things, everything will be fixed. As the stories above testify, divorce for children is about much more than transition, it is about ontology; it is about having a place to belong and be, now that the union that created us has split. This is not something easily and simply mended. Yet, if anything can be done, it will have to be something that addresses this very issue. If the issue is only knowledge, then education should be our goal; if the issue with divorce is primarily social capital, then to policies and legislation is where we should direct our attention. But if divorce is an issue of lost being that is constituted in the community of biological father and mother, then the action we take for young people of divorce must place community at the center. So I contend that what children of divorce need most is not strategies for thinking correctly, but a place to belong, a community in which their humanity is upheld. If the home in which they had their being has been negated in divorce, a community beyond the family, which nevertheless embraces its actuality, is needed to ground their being somewhere. What kind of community must this be?

It must be a community that knows life and death, a community that seeks to be real in light of the unreal. It must be a community that proclaims that in its life, in its actions of being with and for one another, it participates in the fullness of God’s love for the world. It must be a community that is not constituted in functions, but like the family is based in persons, and has the goal of loving and being with one another. It must be a community that, as Loder said at the end of the last chapter, asserts and witnesses in its life that it “knows a power stronger than a mother’s love.”

Theology, History, and Children of Divorce

Andrew Root 01.20.2011 10:05 AM

We have our being in time and space; we have our being in history as a history.  My argument in this post is that divorce shakes our history as it shakes or being.  This is an excerpt from my book The Children of Divorce.

Divorce is an ontological issue because inside the crater of the family’s implosion the child remains a person, but now with no (especially in late modernity) “these people” to belong to de facto. Therefore, his “this person” is thrown into question. For the child, divorce is the breaking of our most primary cohumanity. From Barth’s perspective as well as that of object relations theory, without cohumanity (without belonging to these people) the real gives way to the unreal.

Relationships of cohumanity form what Barth calls a “little history.” Because our being is constituted in actions with and for others, we form a history, a history in which we know and understand ourselves. I know myself as belonging to these people because they have acted with and for me as I have acted with and for them. We have a history, an environment of rituals that mark who we are in time and space. Price explains Barth’s perspective like this: “[A] being can transcend its own movement only as it is encountered by an other, engaging in a reciprocal relationship in which there is mutual change at the deepest level of being. Any such historical being, therefore, does not simply have a history, but is a history.”[i]

The child is the product of the concrete historical action of mother and father encountering each other. Their most historically dynamic act (their most significant act as cohumanity) has been that which created the child. Therefore, the child, when born, enters the history of the family; the history of Mom and Dad’s action with and for each other, and now together their action with and for the child. Their action with and for each other creates for the child “these people,” who give him his being through their history. Obviously, “these people” as the unfolding of a history includes more than just a mom and dad. For a number of children who have experienced the divorce of their parents, their grandparents, whom they often assume to be a rock of solid marriage, become “the pinnacle of romance” and dependable love.[ii] But while witnessing a grandparent’s marriage can have a positive impact, it cannot solve the ontological ramifications of the broken history caused by divorce. Staal states, “Nevertheless, my grandparents’ relationship wasn’t one that provided instruction in the everyday workings of a marriage; while their courtship is part of my history, it wasn’t the union that directly produced me. With my parents’ divorce, a link in my family chain was broken, creating a crucial distance between my grandparents’ story and mine.”[iii]

[i] Price, Karl Barth’s Anthropology, 120. P

[ii] “I thought [my grandparents’] union was the pinnacle of romantic drama, a way of embracing life in the face of death. But more than that, their story gave me a sense of my own place within the family, a small link in an unbroken chain that extended from the past into the present and beyond.” Staal, Love They Lost, 28.

[iii] Ibid.

The Image of God & Children of Divorce

Andrew Root 01.18.2011 10:00 AM

A common Christian theological idea has been that human beings are made in the image of God.  But, what this image of God actually is has been up for debate.  Over the last few centuries it has been assumed to mean just as God is a rational, intellectual, being with power, so are we.  Yet, lately we’ve seen this as a theological problem that does not necessary draw closely enough from the tradition.  So in this long post I draw from this newer (older) theological understanding to examine the experience of divorce. See The Children of Divorce for more.

Theological anthropology has many dimensions, but at its core rests the question, What does it mean to be made in the image of God? “In our image we made them” (Gen. 1:26). Understanding what this image refers to has great ramifications. Certain interpretations of what the image refers to have been used to justify a number of evils in human history, such as domination of people groups and the exploitation of the earth itself. So what is meant by image of God? It often has been assumed that image is constituted in a common or shared substance between God and humanity. Just as a flu shot is a diluted form of the virus itself, so the image of God in the human person is a diluted form of God’s own essence. Thus, humanity somehow shares an essence similar to God’s; the substance that makes God, God is (at least in a diluted form) shared by us. This has led many theologians to articulate the image through categories such as intellect, will, or emotions. Humanity is made in the image of God because like God, and unlike other creatures, humanity possesses these composites. The human, it appears, is the only creature that possesses an ability to think, reason, and feel beyond instinct.  Because humanity uniquely possesses these attributes (in correlation to God’s own essence), the imago Dei in humanity is the credential to have, in service to God, and dominion (power, authority, and control) over the rest of creation. Put slightly differently, when thinking of the image of God as a substance, as a shared essence with God, the image of God in humanity becomes an individually possessed core essence. It is the bestowing of human dominion within (and over) creation. Freedom, liberty, and happiness are fundamental to this essence-based understanding of the image of God.

Yet Karl Barth presents a new interpretation of the image of God, which goes beyond essence and substance. Barth’s interpretation may be more congruent with the biblical Hebraic understanding of imago Dei.  Rather than seeing the image of God reflected in these essential substances, what instead makes us human is not our capacities, but our relationships. Price puts it this way: “Barth proposes a major paradigm shift in theological anthropology: one from seeing the human being as an individual defined by innate faculties to seeing the person as a dynamic-interpersonal agent whose faculties arise only as they exist in relations to others.”[iii] Whereas all of creation is spoken into being out of nothingness by the act of God, only the human being can hear and speak to God. The image is not based in what humanity possesses, but in the fact that God acts to encounter humanity, drawing humanity into relationship with God. Stanley Grenz helpfully states, “The relational understanding of the imago Dei moves the focus from noun to verb. This approach presupposes that a relationship exists between Creator and creature and views the image as what occurs as a consequence of the relationship—namely, the creature ‘images’ the Creator. Hence, the imago Dei is less a faculty humans possess than an act that humans do.”[iv] According to the biblical text, the human is the only creature that can hear God and respond to God. The human is in the image of God, because God has elected to be in a special kind of relationship with humanity, a special relationship of speaking and acting, a relationship of I to thou.  Therefore, what makes humanity an image or reflection of God is that we are fundamentally relational beings, bound to God (as we have pointed to) and to other humans (as is the direct focus of our argument) not by instinct or pattern, but by the election of love. We are (have our being) in acting with and for each other, just as God is God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When substantionalistic categories such as intellect, will, and emotions are believed to constitute the image of God in us, then logically the image is in us (we possess it, like a pack of gum in our pocket or, better, a tumor attached to our liver). It is ultimately an individual possession. But when the image is seen as the reality of a relationship, then the individual is not only affirmed, but drawn beyond himself or herself to others (as well as to creation as a whole). To reflect the image of God is to be in community, it is to be with and for others, just as the Father is with and for the Son through the Spirit. To see the image as a substance injected into humanity that is lived out in the categories of intellect, will, and emotions is to assume that we are (have our being) outside of act (agency), that we do not need the other. Intellect, will, and emotions are individual structures that operate in epistemological categories; in themselves they are not bound in act (agency) and being (ontology). Intellect, will, and emotions are possible, after all, only in a relational environment of action. I am (have my being) not because I think, reason, or feel, but because I am bound to others who act with and for me.  This is the image of God. It is not something within us, but something that claims us. It is not something we individually possess, but something bestowed upon us by a God who acts for us by giving us the community of male and female, giving us the other to be with and for. This connects again to Barth’s understanding of the real. Reality itself is constituted not in substances and essences, but in relationships. We are real and freed from the unreal, not because we can think, reason, or feel, but because we are held in the community of others composed by the relational community of God. The imago Dei is that which is real, not because it is within us, but because it claims us and invites us into I–thou relationships with God, humanity, and creation.

But what does this have to do with divorce and the children of divorce? Read More

Theology & the Children of Divorce

Andrew Root 01.13.2011 9:58 AM

In my book The Children of Divorce I try to not only enter into conversation with social theory and philosophy, but also with theology.  My theologian argument is that we have our being—that we are made by God to be – in community.  Therefore, the conundrum of divorce is that it shatters our most primary community.

When divorce strikes, love is lost, and when love is lost so too is the unity of community in which love is engendered. Mom and Dad may individually still deeply love the child, but they are no longer a unity; they no longer represent the community of love that created the child. Jen Robinson heartbreakingly articulates the experience of watching the community of love split. She has no doubt that each parent loves her. What hurts is watching dad pack his car as the tangible sign that the community of love is breaking apart. She says, “I sat in the front yard and watched my dad going back and forth between house and car with boxes. I don’t remember now if he said goodbye, though I think he must have; what sticks in my mind is watching him start the car, pull out of the driveway, disappear down the road. I can feel the prickle of summer-hot grass on my legs, and the sadness, which would have been there whether he said goodbye or not.”[i]

When divorce strikes and the unity of parental love is shattered, parents often redirect their loving attention from each other onto their children. The child will never regret this, but it cannot be assumed that this solves the problem of ontological security. For the child was created and made real not from the choice of one, but from the union of the love of a relational community. Therefore, often what children grieve is not the loss of love directed toward them, but the loss of the mysterious and powerful community of love that existed before them and elected to invite them into the world. For example, nine-year-old Anne yearns for this community of love even in its division: “If I had three wishes, the first would be my parents never got divorced. Two, my parents would get back together, and three, that I’d get my own bedroom.”[ii] Read More

The Difference between Death and Divorce

Andrew Root 01.11.2011 10:54 AM

It is sometimes assumed that divorce’s impact is no different than the death of a parent.  Clearly, painful, but not unique.  Here I try to show why divorce is different because of its on impact the being of young people. The Children of Divorce.

It seems that the difference between death and divorce has something to do with ontology. Death may shake a young person’s being, as he witnesses the monster of negation take his mother, for example. But such a situation, though frightening, never throws his own being into question, as if making it only a shadow. It can suggest or reveal vulnerability: the death of a parent may witness to the reality that one day the child will also be overcome by death. But, again, it does not retroactively threaten his being as divorce does. Death looks to a future reality, an event that will happen as time unfolds for the young person. Divorce does not so much point forward as throw the foundational event of the child’s very origins into regret and question. Death promises the eventual end of his being; divorce questions if he ever should have been at all. This no doubt is a much more haunting reality. Rather than wondering if you will be remembered at all after your death, divorce asks if you ever should have come into being, now that those who are responsible for your being have negated the relationship that created you.

This also has a great amount to do with agency. As we have seen, we are given our being through action. Death (unless it is suicide, which opens up a whole other truckload of issues) rarely if ever occurs through the agency of the dying person. Disease, accident, and tragedy happen to the parent over and against their choice (action). But divorce is an action, not a fate; it may feel unavoidable, but from the child’s perspective it will always come finally by the choice of one or both parents to end the union. For instance, Natalie says, “There were days like that where I really, honestly wished she had died. Then there’d be only happy memories. I was scared of the idea of divorce when I was twelve, and I’ve never been scared of my parents dying. It never even occurred to me until the divorce.”[iii]

Because divorce is integrally connected to agency and because these actions create encounters that form community, its action weighs much heavier on the ontology of children. The child is the outgrowth of the community of Mom and Dad, of being-with. Death ends community person-to-person, but it does not negate the community of memory. The child in death must bear the reality that her dad is gone, but he remains a longed-for and missed agent in the still-existing community called family. He, even in his death, is part of the narratives and history of the community. But in divorce these narratives take on the residue of anger (or hatred), and the history is split. Now with Mom, Dad can never be spoken of, or only spoken of with frustration, suspicion, or indifference. In relation to the children, divorce then splinters a parent’s being, while death does not. Staal articulates this ontological reality when she says, “Here’s the thing, though: Time flirts with us, flashing what could have been, what should have been, what was. When a parent dies, children are at least given the pretense that they will travel through the five stages of grief in accepting the death. . . . But with divorce, there is no rubric detailing how we should act or feel, especially as we get older. Lacking the finality of death, divorce can start to mimic a film negative. We become hooked on what’s missing, where blank spaces have replaced substance.”[iv]

[iii] Royko, Voices of Children of Divorce, 198.

[iv] Staal, Love They Lost, 17.

Heidegger & Children of Divorce–point 4

Andrew Root 01.06.2011 10:49 AM

This is the final of the four posts on Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of being in relation to the experience of divorce.  For more, read The Children of Divorce.

4. I Am Whether I Am Aware of It or Not

This leads us to Heidegger’s final point about Dasein: “Dasein is delivered over to its being.”[i] What this means is that Dasein is based on how we live and how we act, rather than what we know. In short, as Blattner says, “we cannot avoid the question by not thinking or talking about it.”[ii] We can be sure when a divorce occurs that a child is greatly impacted by it, whether it appears to be affecting the child or he or she refuses to discuss it. Because it strikes children at the most practical level of their existence, the level of their biological caregivers—their source of being—it strikes at the heart of their being, their Dasein. As eighteen-year-old Martin says, “No matter what anybody says, divorce will always affect you more than most people realize. Divorce is one of those things that’ll affect you for better or for worse, even though I might not admit it fully to myself.”[iii] Marquardt and Norval Glenn’s study concurs with Martin’s words, highlighting nicely Heidegger’s point. “Our study showed that children of divorce, even those who appear to be fine and successful later in life, are much more likely than their peers from intact families to share profound and moving stories of confusion, isolation, and suffering.”[iv]

lyrics Papa Roach Broken Home


Read More

Heidegger & Children of Divorce–point 3

Andrew Root 01.04.2011 10:43 AM

This is the third post that draws from Heidegger’s theory of Dasein to examine the impact of divorce on children.  Mind spins when you think about Heidegger? I’ve offered a music video that I think illustrates my point. This is an excerpt from my book The Children of Divorce.

3. I Care about Who I Am

But this point stretches even deeper, for Heidegger contends “that the most basic form of self-awareness is my awareness of who I am to-be.”[i] This is the third trait of Dasein: the fact that our being is an issue for us, we care about being, we care about who we are and who we will be. Nonhuman creatures have being, but not Dasein. Their being is not an issue for them; they simply are. Because my dog does not (as far as I know) reflect on his being, he is unshaken ontologically if we move houses or even if he goes to live with another family. I may think it concerns him, but more than likely this is only my own being (my Dasein) projecting my feelings of his absence onto him. As hard as it is for me to believe, he does not care about me, only that I feed him and throw him the ball to fetch. Though he may undergo a period of adjustment, if he must live with another family, my dog doesn’t stop and think, “Well, who am I and who will I be, now that I don’t live with Andy?” But we humans do! We care about who we are, and our being seeks coherence. Dasein searches to know why and what it is, so identity formation itself is the operation of Dasein. Our being matters to us.

Divorce impacts Dasein because it throws identity up in the air. The child now must figure out who he or she will be in the future, and who he or she will be in the light of the broken union of those responsible for his or her Dasein. We have seen above how squarely Giddens places identity as an issue in late modernity, and how ontological security can be achieved only by finding some continuity in your biographical narrative. But here Heidegger pushes us to see that this need for identity is based not on cognitive or moral realities, but on practical ones. This means that even if we can think rightly about the divorce of our parents or accurately place blame (“It is my mom who destroyed our family”), we remain deeply shaken. What is at issue is how one practically lives, for Dasein is encompassed within agency, within acting in the world.

When the family is divided and now lives in separate worlds, as Elizabeth Marquardt has beautifully described it, the child must take on two distinct practical forms of action (agency). These two distinct forms of acting have the ramifications of forming two distinct, and at times inconsistent, ways of being. Jen Robinson, when discussing her transition between her parents’ two worlds, even says “I was a different person.” “At first, my mother would arrange not to be home when Dad picked us up and dropped us off, and I was glad. It was uncomfortable for me to be around them at the same time. I was a different person with each of them; each knew things about me the other didn’t. . . . it was obvious that they would not have seen each other if they hadn’t had to because of me.”[ii]

In a real way divorce seeks to do the impossible to the child: it seeks to divide Dasein, complicating the construction of an identity that includes the whole of your biographical narrative. This has the further ramification of pushing the child to wonder if Dasein, your being there, can be anything other than a shadow, for Dasein now lacks the ability to provide coherence in practical action in the world and cannot answer the child’s question of who he or she will be in the future. Marquardt says about her own experience, “Over time we came to see each parent’s home as a shadow of the other. Our divorced parents each lived in, and were aware of, only their own homes, but we were connected to both places.”[iii]

The power of this reality can be seen in the experience of Stephanie Staal. Now that her mother had moved out and her vanity and dresser were empty, her dad needed to rework their house. As he reworked their shared practical space, his being was upheld, as he was able to use the space to free his being from the pain of failed marriage. But as Staal articulates so poignantly, she experienced these transitions as the disappearance of her own being.

Not that I blame him, then or now, for systematically dismantling the home I had always known. He needed to blast the slate clean, to remake the house as his and his alone; he certainly didn’t need daily reminders of what no longer existed. We were, however, in two different places on this matter—while he was almost forty and eager to distance himself from the past, I was thirteen and felt every change as an irrevocable loss. I felt like I was fast disappearing into the distance, set loose as the ties to my past were cut one by one. I believed there was a safety in objects, that they represented concrete markers of my history, my identity, my place. Without them, the home that wrapped around me was at once familiar and foreign, and I wandered through the disconcerting patchwork of rooms, trying to figure out where I fit in.[iv] Read More

Heidegger & Children of Divorce–point 2

Andrew Root 12.23.2010 10:32 AM

This is the second post that draws from Heidegger’s theory of Dasein to examine the impact of divorce.  This is an excerpt from my book The Children of Divorce.

2. I Am How I Live My Life in the World

Second, Heidegger states, “Dasein comports itself toward its being.”[i] What this odd phrase basically means for Heidegger, here following Kierkegaard, is that a person as Dasein is more than his or her self-consciousness. He or she is more basically how he or she lives his or her life in the world. “[Heidegger] argues that our fundamental experience of the world is one of familiarity. We do not normally experience ourselves as subjects standing over against an object, but rather as at home in a world we already understand.” Blattner continues, “We act in a world in which we are immersed. We are not just absorbed in the world, but our sense of identity, of who we are, cannot be disentangled from the world around us.”[ii] This is what Heidegger means by being-in-the-world.[iii] Accordingly, being and agency are closely (and indelibly) related, as we have seen throughout this chapter. And of course, when a divorce occurs what is often most painful for the child is that it radically changes the way he or she lives his or her life. But following Heidegger we must push further than the usual conversations on divorce and assert that it reaches all the way to the ontological level. “As one man put it, his parents’ divorce made him feel ‘existentially well traveled.’ As travelers, [children of divorce] learned to adapt, adjust, speak a new language, adopt customs according to different lifestyles.”[iv]

The changing of the homes, for instance, is not as much an issue of social capital and lost privilege as it is a strike on the child’s being, for she is inside this location, acting with these very people.[v] When Dad no longer lives here, in a real way his being is different, for he lives in space and time in a different manner. If he were only a roommate, say, a cousin living in the basement who (finally) finds his own place to live, she would experience the cousin as different in his new space; this may be weird, but not ontologically significant. But when the one who moves to another place is her father, the one responsible for the origins of her own being, she experiences his very being differently, and this sends shockwaves back to her own being. Dad is only to be with her, for she comes from him and cannot know herself outside of his own being. And now his being is different in relation to her own. Read More

Heidegger, Dasein, and Children of Divorce

Andrew Root 12.21.2010 10:25 AM

Martin Heidegger’s philosophy provides some interesting thoughts on the driving issues of divorce for children.  In the next four posts I’ll articulate the four major points of Heidegger’s theory of Dasein and how they relate to divorce.  To keep this from being too obscure I’ve embedded a music video that I think highlights each point.  These all come from my book The Children of Divorce—here is number one.

1. My Being Is Mine

There are four closely related traits of Dasein.[i] The first is that “Dasein’s being is in each case mine.”[ii] Whereas Western philosophy had constituted existence in the cognitive awareness of the self (epistemology determining existence), Heidegger believes that Dasein is more fundamental than simply our ability to cognitively reflect on it.  This is why, as I stated above, the issue of divorce is not simply about knowing correctly, for being precedes knowing. Blattner explains that “Heidegger believes that you have an experience of yourself that is more basic than your cognitive awareness that all your experiences are yours.[iii] This explains why many people, even if their parents divorced or separated before they were cognitively aware of them as together, still feel the burden of their parents’ broken union later in their own lives. If it were only a cognitive issue, it could be solved by simple psychology or social opportunity, and you would assume that the ending of marriage before the child’s awareness would leave no marks on the child’s person. But this seems not to be the case. Instead, as often seen with adopted children, there is a longing deep within the child to find the origins of his or her being. Heidegger’s point is that we are connected to our being, or experience it as our own, outside of our ability to cognitively examine and express it. If this is true, then we must begin to understand divorce’s impact not only as social/psychological but as ontological as well.

Lyrics- Blink 182 “Stay Together for the Kids”


[i] These four traits are taken from William Blattner’s Heidegger’s Being and Time, 33–41.

[ii] Ibid., 33.

[iii] Blattner, Martin Heidegger’s Time and Being, 35.

Divorce: Not Fear but Anxiety

Andrew Root 12.16.2010 10:21 AM

In this excerpt from my book The Children of Divorce I argue that because the issue of divorce is one of ontological security it pushes the children NOT into fear, but into anxiety.

What floods the child is not exactly fear but anxiety. Upon witnessing the divorce, the child may never fear for protection, food, or basic care. But there is a difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is often based in epistemology and structures; for example, I fear snakes, and I fear that the failing housing market will not rebound. But anxiety cleaves onto shaken ontology; it is the chanting of the void; it latches onto something deep within me; it attaches to my very being.

Divorce thrusts the child into anxiety because it strikes the dependability of the social unit that is responsible for his or her being. It thrusts a division within the child’s own identity. The child is cared for and need not fear for his next meal, for example, but he is anxious, for the very union that is responsible for his existence has regretted and aborted its unity of being. He is because they are. But now the they is not and will never be again. What then is the meaning of his existence when the they is now divided? Who is he? And is there not the anxiety of the feeling of division within him? Anxiety nestles deep within him, whispering questions to his very existence. His being and acting in the world lack coherence.  Loretta experiences the anxiety of non-being palpably when she remembers, “Dad was saying things like ‘I never, ever loved your mother. I don’t know why I didn’t get out of this sooner.’ . . . and that was really painful, because it was like he was saying, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’ That was the implication behind that.”[i]

Whether or not children hear words like Loretta did, the divorce communicates such a reality, and this very communication reverberates throughout our being, disorienting us. Non-being floods the cracks of the broken family, and the child is left, not primarily with questions of social capital, but with questions of being. The questions surrounding the child address who the child is and where he or she belongs (and even whether he or she exists at all), and how to “be” and “act” in the world now that the ontological security of the family has become insecure.

[i] Royko, Voices of Children of Divorce, 63.

Divorce as Ontological Insecurity

Andrew Root 12.14.2010 10:16 AM

In my book The Children of Divorce I argue that the driving issue for young people is ontological in nature. Divorce throws children into ontological insecurity. I explain this in the excerpt below.

The self’s quest for ontological security is at the heart of human action in social life. It defines not just how we are in the world, but our identity—who we are in the world. Listen to the deeply ontological statements about identity expressed by Stephanie Staal as she powerfully speaks for a generation of young adults in her powerful autobiographical book The Love They Lost:

Divorce strikes at the heart of our identity. No matter how hard we try, we can’t escape the fact that we are, according to the rules of biology, the product of both parents. But when the two people who created us then break the vows of love that once held them together, we can’t help but feel displaced [ontologically insecure]. The rationale behind our discomfort is not so hard to grasp: If our parents no longer love each other, and on some level we belong to both of them, where does that leave us? We lose our sense of continuity, the comfort of family as anchor, and in its place we are usually left with the disturbing fact that we can’t even picture our parents as a couple, let alone believe they were ever in love.

She is shaken because deep in her unconscious self she trusted in the dependable social community of biological father and mother. Because this confusion happens at the ontological level (and the fundamental level of biological mother and father), it is not something that will simply go away after the shock has subsided. Rather, as an ontological reality it becomes an experience that is imprinted on the child’s very being. As Helen Lynd puts it, once trust in dependability is lost, “we have become strangers in a world where we thought we were at home. We experience anxiety in becoming aware that we cannot trust our answers to the questions, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where do I belong?’” Staal articulates this, “When I waved good-bye to my mother on that autumn afternoon thirteen years ago, I knew even then that day would mark the end of my childhood more than my first date or going off to college ever could. I no longer had a mother, at least in the everyday sense of the word, and as a teenage girl, the implications of this loss were staggering. I felt as if I had stepped through a looking glass, and from the other side everything looked wavy, warped, and completely surreal.”

Divorce as an Ontological Issue

Andrew Root 12.02.2010 8:38 AM

The driving argument in my book The Children of Divorce is that for the child the experience of divorce may be most primarily an issue of ontology.  I started to wonder about this after the experience of my own parents’ marriage—the book is really about my journey.  Here is a little taste…

For some time after our parents divorced, my wife Kara and I flinched whenever the phone rang. It was always nothing so threatening—a telemarketer, a classmate, a friend. But we had been shell-shocked; the phone calls of our parents’ infidelities and pending doom of their marriages had shaken us deeply. Just as fireworks on the Fourth of July draw soldiers back into memories of combat, the ring of the phone reminded us of calls that shook our world. I kept telling myself that this was not as big of a deal as it felt, not as big of a deal as my soldier analogy suggests. No one died. It would be much worse if the voice on the other end of the line informed us that one of our parents was killed or a loved one had cancer. Or would it? I wondered. At least I would know how to feel and react to such horrible news. Maybe it is an overstatement to insinuate that our experience was like battle fatigue, but I felt raw, questioning which way was up and what I could count on as real after this experience.

Kara often awakened in the night to find herself overwhelmed by fear. There was never anything specific to the fear, no fright of something supernatural like a ghost, no worry that an intruder had picked her apartment lock. It was just blind fear, fear she could articulate only as fear of being alone. I understood this, because I myself was feeling it, sleeping most nights on the couch so that when the fear enveloped me I could try to escape it by turning on the TV. It was an odd kind of fear, for it had no form, no rational categories to talk myself beyond it. It simply felt like I was losing my being, as if in midst of my sleep I could simply disappear, fade away into nothing. It was the fear that now that the union that created me was dissolving, I might dissolve with it.

In the documentary film One Divided by Two: Kids and Divorce, there is an animated scene that relays the haunting dream of a child after the divorce of his parents. See video:

One Divided by Two

This dream reveals the ontological ramifications of divorce. Read More

Step-Families & The Loss of Being

Andrew Root 11.30.2010 8:34 AM

Here is an excerpt from my book, The Children of Divorce.  Excuse the length of this post, but it wrestles with why step-families may be so hard from an ontological perspective. (For a definition of “pure relationships” see my last post):

Divorce in late modernity is a two-edged sword. It assumes that the freedom of the pure relationship can set the terms for the marriage, yet such terms cannot support the being of the children this marriage creates. The obligatory bond of biology provides an unalterable chapter in the child’s biographical narrative. While he or she can choose to enter and leave multiple relationships to formulate an identity with continuity over time, the child nevertheless must come to some kind of acceptance of the relationship that resulted in his or her being. When there is division in that basic union, the narrative of the self lacks coherence (we will discuss this further below). At some point in defining who you are, you must come to grips with where you come from.

Therefore, the promise of late modernity that identity can be formed and reformed on the terrain of intimacy does not work when it concerns parent and child, for identity (who you are) cannot escape definition, even when intimacy is not present. Even if I do not know my father (thus making intimacy impossible), my very being is drawn to his; his being becomes (even in not knowing it) that by which I define myself, or that by which I fail to be able to define myself because I do not know him. Read More

The Pure Relationships & The Children of Divorce

Andrew Root 11.23.2010 9:29 AM

In this excerpt from The Children of Divorce I’m drawing from Anthony Giddens’ concept of “the pure relationship.”  Giddens believes almost all our relationships in late-modernity are “pure,” by which he means they are free from the obligation of tradition or village or ethnic group, etc.  We now get to choose whom to love and whom to hate:


Divorce itself, in late modernity, is the product of reflexivity. People divorce because they are free to imagine their identities anew outside marriage. Marriage in late modernity must bow to the fluctuations of the pure relationship. Where earlier marriage bowed to political mergers and labor negotiations, today marriage bows to the reflexive project of self-identity. It seeks intimacy on the horizon of the future. No-fault divorce allows marriage to take on the marks of the pure relationship. No longer are individuals bound to the institution of marriage itself. Rather, no-fault divorce allows the self the freedom to rework its identity as it moves into the future with or without the spouse. This may be good for the selves of husband and wife. But what about their children? Read More

Trust, Marriage, & the Child’s Loss of Being

Andrew Root 11.18.2010 9:23 AM

This is an excerpt from my book The Children of Divorce:

The love-based marriage, especially after opposition to sexism, and rising wages for women, is based almost completely in trust. No communal ritual demands the continuation of marriage, and the cultural taboo of divorce is minimal at best. Therefore, to enter into marriage in late modernity is to trust that the love that binds will be enough to avoid the many unknown risks that the future holds. Our being and acting in the world are based on trust. When trust is betrayed at the level of love, the self of husband or wife finds little to stand upon, for trust in love has been the foundation of the marriage. When the foundation crumbles, the structure of the family is no longer inhabitable. Mother and father must depart from the structure built on the foundation of trust because that foundation is gone. But, children do not belong to the family because they have chosen to trust it. Children do not belong by choice, but by being—by being the very creation of the union of mother and father.

When trust in love is gone, and the foundation crumbles, parents may label the structure uninhabitable and try to move on. They may find it difficult and painful, but they are free even in confusion and hurt to seek the future. The child, on the other hand, is not able to leave, for his or her being and acting in the world are wrapped up in this now condemned structure called family, this union of one biological parent with another. Eighteen-year-old Jewel states, “It’s so much harder on the kids than it is on the parents because a relationship can split, and you’re like, ‘Okay, this guy’s a jerk,’ or ‘This girl is a jerk,’ and you can go on with your life. But for the kids, that’s their dad or their mother, and it’s so much harder for them. The parents often don’t consider that aspect of the divorce.”

We rarely consider that children are through their union, and in their separation children are unable to leave the structure created by their union that they now deem uninhabitable. Now that trust has failed at such a fundamental level, risk grows teeth and trust becomes harder and harder to negotiate in the future.

Risky Families Part Two

Andrew Root 11.16.2010 10:18 AM

One of the core realities of our time is dealing with risk.  Just watch football on Sunday and the insurance commercials that promise they can take risk out of life.  It appears our lives in late-modernity are always the balancing of risk and trust.  Life is much less dangerous than in centuries past, but seems to be more risky.  Even the family has become a risky thing.  In this excerpt from The Children of Divorce I discuss this:


Part Two

When parents choose divorce they choose to be in the world in a different way. They choose an action that allows each one’s self to move into the future separate from the other. Even if it is painful and unwanted, in divorcing the parents make a maneuver for the future. But children, especially young ones, are left maneuverless. Their being and acting for the future is clouded, for it was from the family that the child discovered who they were in the world (ontology) and how to act in it (agency). The self of the parents chose the union of one to another for the future, but the child made no choice; rather the child is the product of the union and the realization of the parents’ chosen future—so long as their future together endures.

The act of divorce asserts that a particular union cannot provide fulfilling self-development for the parents. It cannot support their well-being into the future. Yet the child is dependent upon the future. His or her life is to be lived, his or her identity is to be formed, his or her actions are to be taken, in the future. If the future can no longer sustain his or her parents’ marriage, how can it be welcoming to the child? How can the future be anything but disjointed? Stephanie Staal, in her autobiographical book, The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents’ Divorce, states this reality powerfully through reflection on her own experience: “I know splitting up was often a painful process for them—sometimes devastating—but while our parents endured their divorces armed with the resources of age and experience, we were confronted with new and complicated emotions before we were fully capable of understanding them. For those of us who bore witness to the wave of divorce that engulfed our parents, their breakups defined our childhood, leaving imprints that may last a lifetime.”

Risky Families Part One

Andrew Root 11.11.2010 8:13 AM

One of the core realities of our time is dealing with risk. Just watch football on Sunday and the insurance commercials that promise they can take risk out of life. It appears our lives in late-modernity are always the balancing of risk and trust. Life is much less dangerous than in centuries past, but seems to be more risky. Even the family has become a risky thing. In this excerpt from The Children of Divorce I discuss this:

Part One


Because the family is constantly vulnerable to the individual choice of father and mother, the family is intrinsically risky in late modernity. Elizabeth Marquardt states, “One major national study has turned up an important finding. . . . The researchers found that one-third of divorces end high-conflict marriages, in which the parents report physical abuse or serious and frequent quarreling. . . . However, two-thirds of divorces end low-conflict marriages, in which the parents divorce because they are unhappy or unfulfilled, or have other problems that are not seriously threatening.” This reveals that there is absolutely no guarantee that a child’s parents’ marriage will continue, and that the family will not be radically changed. For some it may be unlikely, but it is never impossible. Today’s family is always under the risk of being shattered. The young person must be and act in world where this risk could become reality.

We witness this riskiness in the experience of fifteen-year-old Carie as she reflects on the announcement that her parents intended separation: “They never fought much at all,” she says, “then one night, it was a family meeting. We had pizza, and then they cleared the table. I don’t really remember exactly how they said it, but my older brother started crying. . . . I didn’t know that it was coming. When they told us, I ran upstairs to see if it wasn’t just a dream and I was still asleep.”

Carie’s words demonstrate the precariousness of the family in late modernity. She had no idea the announcement of her parents’ divorce—and the dissolution of their family—was coming. It is reminiscent of the story of a ten-year-old boy who ran to a family meeting thinking his parents would tell him that he would be given a canoe he had asked for, only to realize the meeting was to inform the children that their dad was moving out. But Carie’s quote also powerfully exposes how divorce itself is an ontological reality. After the announcement, Carie reports that she ran upstairs to see if it was just a dream. The idea that her parents would no longer be together, and her family would be radically changed, seems to collide with reality. It must be a dream. How can she be without them together?

Marriage, Late-Modernity, & the Rub for Children

Andrew Root 11.09.2010 9:50 AM

In this excerpt from my book, The Children of Divorce, I enter into a conversation with Anthony Giddens’ understanding of modernity and the loss of tradition.  I argue that this changes the shape of marriage, which leads children into some difficult conundrums:

In early modernity marriage becomes about love, about walking into the unknown future. Residues of old traditions remain with it, even after marriage freed itself from correlation to the past in lineage and labor. Patriarchy and sexual mores remain and new realities like the separate spheres are born. But soon these perspectives cannot bear the weight of the selves’ unconstrained journey into the unknown future that modernity promises; these perspectives cannot tolerate the pressure of the necessary doubt of everything that may hinder the selves’ being and acting on the horizon of the future. Divorce then becomes a maneuver done always for the future: for future happiness, for future health, for the possibility of future love. It is a maneuver undertaken for the self, so that the self might have a future worth being and acting in. In Giddens’s words, “ideals of romantic love . . . inserted themselves directly into the emergent ties between freedom and self-realisation.”

But of course here is our rub: the child too lives in modernity, the child too is free from the constraints of tradition and must seek to be a self that blazes his or her own trail into the future. While divorce can liberate parents to seek a new, meaningful future, for the child divorce likely hinders self-development.

An Introduction and a New Look at Divorce

Andrew Root 11.04.2010 12:42 PM

Hello blogosphere!  It is a great pleasure that Elizabeth Marquardt has invited me to be part this blog.  I’ve been invited because I’ve just published a book called The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being, that brings together my experience as a child of divorce and my training as a theologian.  Through social theory, philosophy, and theology I try to interpret the experience of divorce for children.  What I’ll be providing on this blog is two posts a week (hopefully!) that are excerpts from the book (with a few introductory remarks).

So to introduce myself and my project, here is an excerpt from the preface of the book:

I could see the pain spilling from his eyes; his disposition was heavy, and his sentences slow as he discussed his children. He would be my first friend with kids to go through a divorce. I have had countless friends whose parents had divorced, who were the children of divorce, but he would be the first of my friends to go through divorce as a parent. As he talked of his children his words poured out from the gash in his broken heart. This whole experience was more painful than he could bear. As I sat next to him, listening intently, his pain drawing me to his person, every cell in me wanted to say it; every fiber wanted to say the same phrase every divorcing parent and his or her friends say to mitigate their severe heartbreak. I could feel the words coming to my lips; I could feel my lips curving to release the words. I wanted so badly, sitting in the heavy shadow of his pain, to say, “Your kids will be fine. Kids are resilient; as long as you stay around and tell them you love them, they will be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

These words tend to be the mantra we give parents, and I now understood why. Divorce is deeply painful and no one wants to face the fact that this event, this event that in so many ways you are responsible for, is hurting, and will continue to hurt, the children you so deeply love. But it does! This book [The Children of Divorce] makes an argument that some will find difficult; it argues that divorce leaves an indelible mark on children, and such a mark that it strikes those that experience it (myself included) at an ontological level, at the level of their being. This book forces us to wrestle with the deepest, rawest, most unsettling questions of those experiencing the divorce of their parents, the question so deep it is often cognitively oppressed: Can a person be at all, now that those who are responsible in their union for creating that person are no longer together? If I am the product of these two people, what does it mean for my very being if these two people have severed and voided their union to each other?