The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce with Judith Wallerstein

December 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One-quarter of the adults in this country under the age of 44 are children of divorce. A new book, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” by Judith Wallerstein, Julia Louis, and Sandra Blakesly, explores how divorce continues to shape the lives of young people, even after they reach full adulthood. The book builds on therapist Judith Wallerstein’s 30-year study of 131 children and adolescents from 60 divorcing families in Marin County, just North of San Francisco. Wallerstein is the founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition.

You’ve been looking at these kids– and now adults– for 30 years. What’s the legacy now that they’re adults of divorce?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: The legacy– and it’s a very surprising legacy to me, but I think it’s one that has really hit a chord throughout this country– is that the major impact of divorce is not, as we thought, at the time of the breakup, although that’s very hard, but the major impact of divorce happens when they enter young adulthood and they… when the man/woman situation, man/woman relationship moves center stage, and that’s when the ghosts of the parent’s divorce rise from the basement.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you really learned a lot about not only what happens to them as adults, but looking back, you learned more even about what they had suffered as kids when you talked to them now, right?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: I learned a lot. But I learned it in many ways. I knew them as children, so when they described their childhood memories, I could check with what I knew and remembered. And I happened to remember everything they told me– although sometimes I can’t remember what I did yesterday. But when they talked about having children, they all… Many of them said, in a surprising number, “I wouldn’t want any child of mine to have my childhood,” which was one of the most telling statements they made.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Many of them felt they had no childhood after the divorce, right?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: They really felt they had sacrificed their playtime, their childhood friendships. They had to spend a lot of time going back and forth from mother’s house to father’s house. They wanted to see their parents, but they wanted to see their friends, and they wanted to participate in the activities of the playground, and so on. And they did feel that they sacrificed a lot to their parent’s divorce.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what is it that you most notice and know about them as adults that this divorce led to?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: They have a lot of trouble in believing that they can love somebody, or that somebody is going to love them, and that it’s going to be a relationship that’s going to last. And they’re very convinced that they’re going to go down the same path, and that their relationships are going to fail, and they say so very openly. One young woman says, “you can hope for love, but you can’t expect it.” Another: “Any relationship I’m in, I know I’m going to jinx; any relationship, any family I would be in would be a failure.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this time, you had another group you looked at, people now adults who had lived through maybe difficult times, but their families didn’t divorce. What did you find? What differences did you find?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: Oh, I found striking differences that I didn’t expect: That these young people, many of whom lived across the street and were friends of the people who participated in the study, when they reached adulthood, they had some templates, some internal images about what marriage was about, that marriage has its ups and downs; that it’s a serious business. And they said, you know, “my dad told me anything that’s worth having is worth fighting for.” And they knew how people related to each other. And when they went looking for partners, they got into affairs, they got into all kinds of issues. I mean, it’s an anxious time for everybody in our society. But they had in their minds what a marriage is about, and they didn’t have the conviction that — this is so tragic — that their relationships would fail.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mm-hmm. Why did this surprise you? I would think it would be fairly obvious, that if your parents are divorced, you might expect that you would be… have the same bad luck.

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: Because what we all believe now in America– and all of our resources have gone into this– that it’s the breakup that matters. And we tell parents– attorneys tell them, mental health people tell them– that if you can settle your problems between you with civility, if you can settle the financial affairs with some justice, and if the child will continue to have contact with both parents, the child is home free. That’s what we say, and that’s what we’ve been believing. And I have to confess, I’ve contributed to that, because my work has shown that it is an upset for the children at the time. But I didn’t expect that the greatest upset — I’m talking now about divorce as a cumulative experience– that the greatest impact would be in their 20s and in their 30s; that’s scary.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I found the book a devastating critique of divorce. Some people out there listening might be thinking, well, this is so hard on people that are children of divorce, but I have to get a divorce; there’s something in my marriage that makes it necessary. What do you say to those people?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: I’m not taking a stand against divorce. I’m saying nobody from the outside can quantify the suffering of any man or any woman. But I am saying, and I show in my book, that a number of people who were disappointed in the marriage and disappointed in each other but found parenting rewarding– not that they were martyrs, but that the parenting was rewarding and were able to do it together– that their children felt protected and nurtured, and the children in the divorced families felt somehow exposed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is your group… Marin County is a wealthy county, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, and your group is all from Marin County — can you really draw conclusions that work for the whole country based on your sample?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: My group represents divorce under the best circumstances. I chose youngsters who were psychologically sturdy. They weren’t in any trouble before the breakup. Their parents are well-educated, and they didn’t…there was nobody on welfare, there was nobody who really suffered poverty, like many, many families do after the breakup. And so, I think I was able to see the psychological impact with great clarity. Does this apply to all families in America? Nothing applies to all families in America. But so far, every one of my findings has held up with large studies, and that’s a record of 30 years.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you say to that person out there listening who does feel it’s most necessary to get a divorce? What do you say that might help limit these really negative consequences?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: Well, there are a lot of myths I think are unfortunate. Many parents are told that if you’re unhappy, the child is unhappy. A child is not a mirror of a parent. A child has a stance of his own, and many children… most children, when there’s a divorce, are very surprised by the parents’ action. So my first message is, don’t jump, stand still. Get whatever help you need. There are many situations where divorce is the best choice, but there are many more where it isn’t. And it’s hard for me to believe that 45% of marriages are so bad that they really need to divorce, and that’s what’s happening in this country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then what? If you do decide you have to get one, what can make the situation better?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: I think parents have to realize they’re in it for the long haul; that their children are going to need their help in separating their fates from the fates of their parents; that the parents need to say, our marriage is not representative. They can go out of their way perhaps to enlist the help of grandparents or other members of the family or friends who have good marriages, because these young people grew up with the sense that they had never seen a man or a woman on the same beam, to use their language, and they didn’t… weren’t sure that that existed anywhere.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What’s at stake here for the nation as a whole?

JUDITH WALLERSTEIN: I think the nature of our society, I think we are very fortunate that this is not a very cynical group. These are young people who want love, they want marriage, they want lasting relationships. A lot of them are staying single. A huge number are staying single. These are national statistics, and these are mine. Second divorces are higher than first divorces. And if we can come to some consensus that we need a protection to bring up children, then we have to in some way reverse direction.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Judith Wallerstein, thanks for being with us.