Children of divorce feel effects for decades

Legacy: A long-term study finds adults still struggling with issues of commitment 25 years after their parents' divorce.

Family Matters

September 10, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

For anyone who thinks that children suffer only mildly or briefly when their parents divorce, Judith S. Wallerstein has some very bad news.

Not only is the emotional damage long-lasting but its full effects may also not be realized until the children of divorce reach adulthood -- and suffer a host of setbacks when they confront marriage, child-rearing and, often, their own divorces.

In a just-released book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study" (Hyperion, $24.95), a follow-up to the pioneering study she launched in the early 1970s, the San Francisco psychologist writes about a group of Marin County children she has faithfully chronicled since their parents divorced nearly three decades ago.

By her own admission, her findings may induce a substantial amount of collective guilt and hand-wringing in a nation where divorce has become commonplace. Not only do nearly half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, but also an estimated one-quarter of all adults between the ages of 18 and 44 are products of divorced parents.

"My purpose is not to make people feel guilty but to make them realistic," says Wallerstein, 78, whose book is co-authored by Julia M. Lewis, a San Francisco State psychology professor, and New York Times science correspondent Sandra Blakeslee. "There's a commonly held belief that you might as well divorce because the kids are going to be unhappy anyway. That's wrong."

In her book, Wallerstein gives extended descriptions of a handful of the 93 children she has followed in her study. All are having difficulty in life, often fearing loss, change, conflict or betrayal -- and generally feeling emotionally stunted by their parents' divorce.

Her subjects repeatedly refer to themselves as "children of divorce" even as they pass their 40th birthdays. For them, divorce causes, Wallerstein writes, a "permanent stamp," a personal identity made up of "childhood fears you can't shake despite all the successes and achievements you've made as an adult."

"Karen," the pseudonym given one of the first subjects described in the book, is fairly typical of the group. She became a surrogate caretaker when her mother and father divorced, first to her younger siblings and then to her parents. Later in life, she found it difficult to develop long-term relationships. She fears conflict. She can't argue without panicking.

"What I want for (my daughter) is not to be worried about her mom the way that I worried my whole life about mine," Karen, a married mother of a 2-year-old, tells Wallerstein. "I don't want her to take care of me. I want to take care of her. I want to give her all the love and security I never had. I want for her to have everything I never had."

In the same passage, Wallerstein writes of tears welling in her eyes upon hearing Karen's sad monologue -- a reaction not normally associated with scientific research. But she makes no apologies for her empathy, calling herself a "tribal elder" to her subjects.

Indeed, she despairs of more clinical approaches that usually involve anonymous phone calls with "faceless people asking about your sex life" and questions whether they could have elicited the information she was able to uncover.

"That approach is fine for figuring out who you're going to vote for or for census stuff," says Wallerstein. "But when you're after people's feelings, I don't think you get it."

Whether Wallerstein's bleak portrait of divorce's toll is accurate or not has long been debated by social scientists. Hers was the first long-term study of divorce's effect and an eye-opener when her findings were first published in 1980 and turned into national best-sellers.

Conflict over results

Fellow researchers generally laud her for her early work but also complain that her results are often oversold. The sample was too small, they say, and the study lacked a control group of comparable non-divorced families.

And how typical is a group gleaned entirely from affluent and eccentric Marin County -- not to mention the fact the chosen families were responding to an ad for free counseling in exchange for participating in the study?

"This is a small clinical study that, unfortunately, gets generalized for the whole population," says Constance Ahrons, a professor of sociology at University of Southern California who has done similar long-term studies on divorce. "For divorced people, this is going to be an upsetting read. What can they do?"

Howard Markman, a psychologist and marriage researcher at the University of Denver, says that while Wallerstein's work broke new ground two decades ago, she ignores more contemporary studies that suggest parental conflict, not divorce, is the greater enemy of children.

"Children of conflict are at higher risk than children of low-conflict divorce," says Markman. "The message shouldn't be to stay in your marriage at all costs. It should be to have a happy marriage."

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