Troubled marriages and divorce can cause pain that moves through generations.
Troubled marriages and divorce can cause pain that moves through generations.
Television and film often portray divorce as pretty standard stuff. It’s not that simple.

In the U.S., the divorce rate doubled from 2.5 per thousand population in 1950 to a peak of 5 per thousand in 1985. But the numbers have been coming down gradually ever since to about 3.5 per thousand now. And the divorce rate among American Catholics is significantly lower than among other religious groups. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that 28 percent of married Catholics have divorced compared to 39 percent of Protestants and 40 percent of those with no religious affiliation.

The upshot? Americans, especially Catholics, see that divorce is a source of long lasting brokenness and hurt. It’s vital to be careful and prepare well before getting married.  

Judith Holtzinger, a youth minister at St. Philip Parish in Dallas, left an abusive husband in 1982. She can still feel the anguish and the ripples that affect her children.

Holtzinger and her husband met in the 1970s while enrolled at Southern Oregon University. With hindsight, she realizes she missed many warning signs. She was trying to be positive and overlooked the man’s jealousy, drinking and temper.  

On top of that, marriage preparation was minimal. The couple met with a priest who simply asked if they had questions and did not press them to look at tough issues.   

Their two children were caught between fighting parents and struggled as youths. Years later, they tell their mother that childhood was difficult.

Finally, the parish priest in Albany urged Holtzinger to leave with the children for everyone’s safety. She slipped away while her husband was in a drunken stupor.

The pastor in Keizer welcomed her and suggested she join a movement called Beginning Experience, which helps heal after loss.    

“I became alive again,” she says.

But single parenthood was hard. Holtzinger picked berries and beans to try to make ends meet.

Now she realizes that with the pain came valuable lessons. She would rather have learned in a different way, but she is more assertive, independent and understanding now.

“Here I am standing on my own two feet,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be as compassionate without having gone through that.”

Helen Ireland of Salem was shocked in 2008 when her husband asked for a divorce on the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary. She first went into denial, then tried bargaining. She felt angry and depressed.  

“I was stuck. Not doing anything. Not going anywhere,” she says.

Six years later, she is still working it through and finding that it takes time. The help Beginning Experience gave her was so vital that now she is a discussion leader and board member.

“People here will listen and never judge you,” she says.  

She knows her divorce affected her two sons, even though they were adults when it happened. One still will not talk to his father and the other feels like he is betraying his mother when he does.

But she is determined that her boys will not repeat what their father did. She paid for and Engaged Encounter weekend, a church-approved marriage preparation program she wishes she had gone through.

BeeGee Reding’s husband left her in 1984 with three teen daughters to raise alone. A member of St. Edward Parish in Keizer, she would feel weak with pain when she saw other couples holding hands at Mass.

Four years after the separation, she went on a Beginning Experience weekend and was comforted to find other people as lost as she was.  

“It took a big heavy cloud off of my back,” she says. “I was feeling different from everybody else but I found people who went through this who I could call and talk to and get help.”

Some of her daughters went through troubles, one with a few divorces of her own.

“You will survive divorce,” Reding says. “It is going to hurt. There is not a definite time when the hurting will end. You may not think you are strong enough but you are. And the church wants your marriage to continue, but if it doesn’t you are still a Christian person.”

The church’s approach to people who are divorced is widely misunderstood.

“The Church understands the pain of those caught in this situation,” says the U.S. Catholic bishops’ family life office.

“When divorce is the only possible recourse, the Church offers her support to those involved and encourages them to remain close to the Lord through frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.”

According to the office, the church believes that God establishes marriage as a permanent union, but recognizes divorced people as full members of the church who are encouraged to participate in its activities.

“Divorced Catholics in good standing with the Church, who have not remarried or who have remarried following an annulment, may receive the sacraments,” the office says.

The bishops refer couples having trouble to The website suggests that Catholics who have separated should seek out prayer, professional counseling and spiritual advice. says that the best way to help children amid divorce is to help yourself first by slowing down, getting good rest and praying more.   

“The most important lesson you must learn and pass on is the priority of God in every area of your life, the continual surrender of your will to His, and the desire to seek Him ever more,” the website explains.