Unhappily Ever After

KAREN S. PETERSON

Seventy-eight-year-old psychologist Judith Wallerstein does not look like a rebel.

Seventy-eight-year-old psychologist Judith Wallerstein does not look like a rebel.

Her personal setting is certainly peaceful: a California ranch home featuring redwood shingles, an entrance through a fern garden and ceiling-to-floor windows with a sweeping view of San Francisco Bay.

But this much-quoted, much-critiqued grandmother continues to throw bombs into the laps of those who cling to the belief that divorce is something children get over. Instead, she finds that the adult children of divorce in her landmark study are so insecure that only 40% have married. Although they believe in the institution, they expect to fail. They fear loss, conflict, betrayal and loneliness.

As skeptics question her methodology and sweeping generalizations, Wallerstein persists in shaping the national debate she helped create.

“We have really thought about divorce in crisis terms,” she says . “It is serious for the child at the time, but then he recovers. But my findings show people into their 30s and 40s say over and over, ‘The divorce is with me every day.’“ She says she is amazed “how much their parents’ divorce shaped their adult years.”

Out this week, her latest book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (Hyperion, $24.95), continues her litany of bleak findings on the 60 mostly white, divorced families in affluent Marin County, Calif. She has interviewed them periodically, some since 1971. Most of the children were 6 or younger when their parents divorced. They are now in their late 20s to early 40s.

“The major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence,” she writes. “Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate . . . the effects of divorce crescendo.”

Wallerstein also is surprised to learn that “their sense of future is compromised. They fear any change will be for the worse.”

She has been able to keep track of 93 of the original 131 children in her project. They are now adults with “worries that are shaping our society in ways we never dreamed about.” And they represent impressive numbers: About one-quarter of Americans ages 18 to 44 are the children of divorce.

Wallerstein tells their stories virtually in novel form, following the full flow of their lives. She concentrates on five profiles, disguising some as composite characters. And for the first time in this book, she interweaves stories from a small “comparison group” of 44 adults from local intact families, interviewed only once.

Her co-authors are psychologist Julia Lewis and journalist Sandra Blakeslee.

Wallerstein refers to her research subjects as her “extended family.” She is passionate and animated when she discusses them. “They trust me, and I trust them.”

Wallerstein is dedicated to her “qualitative method,” in-depth interviews and anecdotal evidence that make many critics groan. They would prefer psychological tests and much larger numbers of subjects. “Generalizing from her findings is neither helpful, or, more importantly, it is not scientific at all,” says Stephanie Coontz, a family historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of The Way We Really Are.

Wallerstein says her approach does not lend itself to large-scale studies. “You cannot use a method that gets to the intimate level of people’s lives and also get thousands of people. And the idea they will tell you intimate details on the phone is just foolish.”

Her newest findings are shaped by her interviews, plus what she has learned counseling 6,000 children with divorcing parents in the facility she established: the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera, Calif.

She finds that the children of divorce suffer in many ways:

  • A lack of role models. Adult children of divorce have no guide for a healthy marital partnership. But children from intact families take strength from their parents’ marriages, even the decision not to divorce if the marriage was unhappy. “Just because the adults are unhappy does not mean the children are,” Wallerstein says.

  • A longer adolescence. Children of divorce often provide emotional support to wounded parents, making bonds harder to break.

  • Less chance at college. Among the children in intact families, 90% had fathers who contributed to college expenses; under 30% of the children of divorce got help.

  • Difficult stepfamily situations. Remarriage changes a father’s focus, at least initially, to pleasing a new wife. Two-thirds of children grew up with multiple divorces and remarriages of one or both parents. Only a fraction bonded with all members of the blended families.

  • Greater substance abuse. The children of divorce used drugs and alcohol before age 14 more often than did the children of intact families. Girls had earlier sexual experiences.

  • Less social competence. While two-thirds of the divorce group rated above average in competence at work, only 40% functioned well in social relationships. One-third went to therapists to straighten out their personal lives.

Wallerstein began her work in 1971, just after California passed the first no-fault divorce law. Troubled couples began taking advantage of easier divorces, believing what was best for them was also best for their kids. “Judith Wallerstein, almost alone, decided to talk to the kids about what happens when Mom and Dad divorce,” says David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America and founder of the Institute for American Values. “It sounds simple, but she is the only one who did it. There was a kind of brilliance to it.”

Her best-known book, Second Chances, became a surprise best seller in 1989 and was translated into nine languages. She found that divorce is seen as a second chance at happiness for an adult, but it is not for a child. Ten years into her children-of-divorce project, she discovered that 41% of the children were “entering adulthood as worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry” young people.

The book spawned a backlash at no-fault divorce and was noticed by policymakers, mental health professionals and researchers around the country. She does not support repealing no-fault laws, but she encourages those who are in “middling” marriages to stick it out for the sake of the kids. She chooses her words carefully. “This is an intensely personal decision. Nobody has the right to say you should give your children priority. But if a woman feels that way, she should know it is possible.”

Second Chances took some hits from critics: Her sample was too small, too local, too white, too affluent. There was no control group. She dwelled on the negative. Some larger studies support her findings, while others don’t.

“People who have done large-scale studies find much smaller differences” in children of divorced and intact families, Coontz says.

The roots of Wallerstein’s compassion for kids with a missing parent reach into her childhood in New York. Her father died of cancer when she was 8 years old. “I was very attached to him. It took me a whole lot of years to believe he was dead.”

She also witnessed her mother’s struggle as a single parent with children 8 and 6. Her mom finally took the two children to live in British-mandated Palestine for five years when Judith was 10. Judith returned to New York, eventually to study at Hunter College and Columbia University. She received a doctorate in psychology from Lund University in Sweden.

She met and married Bob Wallerstein, now 79, while at Columbia. He became an internationally noted psychiatrist. They have been married 53 years. Their three children, none divorced, have given them a total of five grandchildren.

The two have never been anywhere close to divorcing. But she acknowledges: “When you are working with a divorced population, you inevitably worry about your own marriage. You are not only introspective about your marriage; you worry about it.”

Her new book is likely to continue the contentious public discussion of her research.

Blankenhorn calls it “a singular achievement . . . the first authoritative accounting we have of the long-term consequences of divorce on children.”

“She does know more about the inner lives of these people than anybody else does,” says Phil Cowan of the Council on Contemporary Families in Berkeley, Calif. But psychological assessments are needed, he says, not “personal narratives” that can’t establish cause and effect. “No respectable scientist can agree that she speaks about causality.”

Sociologist Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce, finds much more positive results in her own long-term study. Ahrons faults Wallerstein’s study sample as “small and skewed.” Some of the parents were depressed coming into the study and were offered some type of planning in exchange for participation.

Wallerstein says no therapy was given. In fact, “the sample was skewed in favor of psychologically healthy children.” Those in trouble were not allowed in the study.

Other respected researchers are at least partially in her corner.

“Her work is not definitive,” says Paul Amato, a sociologist and researcher at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. “But her accounts of people are a rich source of ideas that can be tested with more rigorous methods. I get ideas from her work.”

Wallerstein does expect some stinging reaction to the book, “especially from the divorced, who will say this can’t be true.” She is, she says, “the first to lay this on the table. This is very personal stuff.”

She is not ready to retire, intending to travel more and add to the eclectic collection of chests, carvings and antique Chinese prints that surround her. She does need a little more sleep than she used to, she says. But there is still all that information on the parents of these adult children of divorce to collate. “There is still a lot of rich material to mine.”

A COUNT OF THE CASUALTIES IN THIS DIVORCE 'REVOLUTION'

Psychologist Judith Wallerstein cites these results of “the divorce revolution”:

  • More than 1 million children a year have experienced parental divorce since 1970.

  • One-quarter of Americans ages 18 to 44 are the adult children of divorce.

  • Some 40% of all married adults in the 1990s have already been divorced.

  • Married couples with children represent only 26% of households.

  • About 45% of new marriages will end in divorce. About 60% of remarriages will end that way.

Source: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Peterson, Karen S. “Unhappily Ever After.” USA TODAY September 9, 2000.

Copyright 2000, USA TODAY. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 2000 USA Today


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