The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce:

A 25 Year Landmark Study

by Judith Wallerstein
Julia M. Lewis and
Sandra Blakeslee
(Hyperion, $35.95, 347 pages).

The conventional wisdom about divorce and children – that family breakups are, at worst, a temporary difficulty for kids – is so wrong that new research about the long-term negative effects on children of divorce must force a re-thinking among parents and family courts when couples consider breaking up.

The research, which has grown over the years, is illustrated vividly by the work of Judith Wallerstein, the author of numerous books on marriage and divorce, who has studied and worked with thousands of children of divorce. In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (written with Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee), Wallerstein shows the disastrous effects of divorce on children and argues that unless there is violence, parents should stay together for the sake of their kids.

This goes against contemporary thinking about divorce. The most recent Time/CNN poll found just 33 per cent of Americans think parents with children should remain together even when the marriage is not happy, although that number is up from 21 per cent in 1981. The commonly accepted view is that experiencing a divorce is better than enduring a bad marriage, even though 64 per cent of Americans think divorce harms children.

Such attitudes stem from the ideas espoused by academics, social workers and therapists in the 1970s who said parents should “divorce for the sake of the kids.” In 1974, Susan Gettleman and Janet Markowitz wrote in The Courage to Divorce that “divorce can liberate children,” and in 1973 Mel Krantzler wrote in The Creative Divorce: A New Opportunity for Personal Growth, that children of divorce can become more aware of themselves and the needs of others.

But Wallerstein’s research found the children of parents who keep their marriages intact despite their own personal dissatisfaction seemed to be better socially and psychologically adjusted than those whose parents divorced. That is, absent violence, a “bad marriage” is better for the children than even a “good divorce.”

Wallerstein finds the tumult of the breakup and experience of divorce (and possibly remarriage) scars children by creating a hopeless desire to have their parents stay together, and by the loss of not just a close relationship with their fathers but with their mothers as well (because of the overwhelming psychological toll and need to become economic self-sufficient). The result is children who are at risk of being insecure and unable to form lasting, fulfilling relationships. Instead of dissipating over time, these problems often intensify as the children become teens and adults and try but fail to build their own relationships.

Based largely on Wallerstein’s earlier work, the authors find that the needs of the parents after divorce (economic security, maintaining a social life) were incongruent with the needs of their children. To accept and exercise parental responsibilities while coping with divorce requires “heroic efforts” that most people are unable to deliver.

Wallerstein’s research is largely based on a core study of 131 children from 60 divorced families (which is the basis of her two previous books on divorce and children) and a new control group of 44 men and women whose parents endured unsatisfying but intact marriages. (The personal accounts of those in the study, using pseudonyms, clearly illustrate the damage done to the children of divorce and make The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce more potent than the typical sociological tract.)

The most important discovery of this research is the long-term effects of divorce. As the children of divorce became adults and faced relationships and marriage, the experience of their own parents’ divorce become a difficult obstacle to successful relationships and personal satisfaction. As one participant in the study said, “I have the fear that any family I get involved with will dissolve.” Fewer children of divorce get married, more of them get divorced and the daughters of divorce are more likely to become single mothers.

Wallerstein’s work began in the early 1970s when the idea that if the parents were unhappy, so too were the children. The authors flatly reject such fatalism and say such thinking confuses the physical and emotional needs of children with the wishes of adults. The confusion can ease the conscience of divorcing parents and all the social workers and family counselors, judges, academics and lawmakers who are complicit in creating what Barbara Dafoe Whitehead calls “the divorce culture.” As the authors of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce have found, the consequences to the children of divorced families are great and lasting. It would be profoundly irresponsible, even unethical, for those responsible for social policy, and for individuals and society as a whole, to ignore these findings.