Divorce fallout

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Sep 21, 2000 12:00 AM
Now is a striking moment in our cultural history. The cover of Time magazine asks "Should unhappy parents stay hitched?" and inside, citing the latest installment of Dr. Judith Wallerstein's 25-year study of children of divorce, suggests for the most part, yes.

In America this is a shocking, radical, minority view. Just 33 percent of Americans in the latest Time/CNN poll say parents with kids should stay together "even if the marriage is not working" (that's up from 21 percent in 1981), even though 64 percent of Americans agree that divorce either "almost always" or "frequently" harms kids.

At the Institute for American Values' annual symposium held this week in New York City, Judith Wallerstein talked about the findings released in her new book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," and confronted some old criticism of her work.

The bottom line? "The impact of divorce is cumulative, crescendoing in adulthood," reports Dr. Wallerstein, and "The trauma of breakup is less influential than the many years in the divorced and remarried family."

When young, most children of divorce were badly frightened, desperately wanted their parents to stay together, experienced the loss not only of strong relationships with their fathers, but typically the loss of their overwhelmed and needy mothers as well. In general, the needs of the parents after the divorce -- for work, for a social life -- were "out of sync" with the demands of parenting. "It requires heroic efforts to sustain parenting" under these conditions, notes Dr. Wallerstein compassionately, "and not everyone is a hero."

As children of divorce grew older and considered love and marriage, their parents' divorce remained a vivid obstacle to be overcome. "I have the fear that any family I get involved with will dissolve," one child of divorce told her. Many more of the daughters of divorce became unwed or single mothers. The response of the divorce success stories -- adults who navigated their way to a good marriage, children and a satisfying work life -- was perhaps the most telling. They do not tell us, for the most part, "Hey, divorce is not so bad. After all I'm doing OK." Instead, over and over they told Dr. Wallerstein adamantly, "No child of mine is going to have the childhood I had."

By contrast, parents in deeply disappointing but intact marriages were much more able to maintain higher-quality parenting, and the children benefited from a greater sense of protection and better relationships with both mothers and fathers. "Open conflict often only arises for the first time in the opening scenes of a dying marriage," says Wallerstein. Children of intact marriages viewed success in marriage and children more as a matter of course. They do not view each quarrel as a prelude to abandonment and helplessness. As one woman put it to her husband early in the marriage, "Look, if my folks could do it, so can we." Men typically drew closer to their fathers in adulthood, cherished their new relationships with extended family, and were more willing to support their aging fathers financially and emotionally. Divorce, by contrast, disrupts not only the parental generation's relationships, but relationships between the generations.

Dr. Wallerstein's work has been criticized for not being nationally representative. As University of Chicago Professor Linda Waite, one of the nation's foremost sociologists and demographers, pointed out at this symposium, "Expecting this kind of in-depth psychological work to be conducted the way demographers do national surveys is irrational and unscientific." Dr. Wallerstein's results are shocking precisely because her sample is not an average sample: It represents a group of highly advantaged kids -- mostly white, middle-class with well-educated and affluent parents, who were developmentally and psychologically in good shape before the divorce. To find such lasting consequences under the best of conditions is truly shocking.

When she started her work in the early '70s, the conventional wisdom was that "if parents were unhappy, so must children be." This, says Wallerstein flatly, is "simply untrue." Many children were quite content in an emotionally disappointing marriage. "We have conflated children's needs with the wishes of adults, and it works," as Wallerstein says with such devastating clarity, only "so long as we avoid talking to children."