|LEGACY OF DIVORCE|
Today, more than 40 percent of adults under age 40 are children of divorced parents. How are their adulthood relationships shaped by their experience of divorce? Psychologist Judith Wallerstein, author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, answers your questions.
RealAudio of Elizabeth Farnsworth's interview with Wallerstein (12/19/00).
"The whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience," Wallerstein writes in her latest -- and controversial -- new book. She has followed and studied a group of children of divorce for the past 25 years. Now these young adults are forming their own relationships, but are often haunted by fears of being doomed to repeat their parents' mistakes.
Wallerstein reports that her subjects were often intensely afraid of being abandoned -- more so than adults whose parents had not divorced. Over half of those she studied decided not to have children for fear of condemning them to the same difficult childhood they experienced.
In a NewsHour interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, Wallerstein said she was surprised to find that the effects of divorce lingered so long in her subjects. It wasn't just the initial shock of separation. Having parents who divorced means that these adults lack a model to guide their relationships.
Wallerstein has studied children of divorce since 1971, when she began observing some 131 children of divorced families in affluent Marin County, California.
While not condemning divorce, Wallerstein reminds readers that divorce may free parents from constricting relationships and still harm children.
Dr. Judith Wallerstein answers your questions.
Q: Throughout my childhood and adolescence I was very aware of the strife between my parents and suffered because of it. Like Dr. Wallerstein's subjects, I felt a good marriage was out of my grasp. What about those of us who felt used in the tug of war of two unhappy people who were waiting until the children grew up to divorce?
A: Actually many of these young adults turn up in the counseling services at universities. Often they feel that their leaving led to their parents' divorce and that they were the glue that held their parents' marriage in place. Unfortunately, we have no organized study of these people in part because it is hard to get access to a large enough group that could be followed over time.
The adults who grew up in troubled intact families that I describe in my book fell into at least two categories: those who fare much worse than any in the divorced group because they had no relief from the parental strife, and those whose parents were able to cooperate around parenting although were disappointed in their relationship with each other. The youngsters in he latter group had an easier childhood and adulthood than those whose parents divorces. Those who grew up in unrelieved strife suffered the most.
Q: What is your theory of the effect of unhappy marriages rather than divorce? My parents had an unhappy marriage. They probably should have divorced but did not. Their example has effected my emotional relationships with women.
A: If you read my book you will find that the most unhappy adults were those who grew up in wretched families that never divorced. Those parents were so preoccupied with their own concerns that they hardly had any awareness of their children except as an audience to their quarrels. On the other hand there were troubled families who were able to maintain their parenting cooperatively.
The children in the first group would have been better off if the parents had divorced but only if at least one parent was interested in the children in the post-divorce years. In other words, divorce by itself does not improve the destructive conditions of the child's life. It just makes change possible. But it surely requires at least on or preferable two nurturing parents.
Q: The divorce has happened. What can you do to lessen the impact? My granddaughter was not quite three years old when her parents divorced and is now entering the teenage years. What can we do to help her?
A: You can help her a lot if she feels close to you and if she feels that you and she can talk together and you can help her understand her parents' divorce and what she can learn from it to plan her own future more successfully. Talk to her about love, about how to choose, about commitment, about how important it is not to jump into a relationship, about parenting.
Help her understand that her future will depend on her and not on her parents' path, and most of all, that you have confidence in her. You will be please to know that those youngsters in our study who had grandparents who stood by them over the years did much better. One such woman (happily married, two children, professional career) told me, "My grandparents saved my life."
Q: What is the effect on children who are adults at the time of the divorce? That is, when parents stay together for the sake of the children and divorce later when the children are grown?
A: Of course it depends on the age of the adults and whether they are married and fully established in their own lives or just getting started. But a surprising finding of recent years is how distressed adults are when their parents divorce. It appears that at every age the example of the couple is important in affirming for the child the stability of the world and relationship. Adults are of course not only distressed on their own behalf, but they are concerned about taking care of a troubled or depressed or impoverished parent. Often they feel very guilty because their commitments to their own families and job preclude taking responsibility for the parent who needs their help in making a fresh start.
Having said that, I will add that the children who suffered the most in adulthood were the youngest at the time of the divorce. Those who were in late adolescence or young adulthood did much better in their adult relationships. They had a very good idea of what goes into building a good marriage partly from their keen observations of what had gone wrong between their parents.
Q: How does divorce effect adult children in their early 20's when their father is not physically present and has not been physically present for the past seven years.?
A: Children and young adults keep the absent father in mind forever. Often when they reach adulthood they go in search of him. The child who feels abandoned by her father suffers a great deal. There is no single impact but desertion is generally experienced as rejection which reflects the child's deficiencies. Typically the child blames himself. He feels unloved and therefore unlovable. These are hard feelings to maters. They can surely cause great suffering, intense anger, and depression. But these are also conditions that can be helped by therapy, by a loving relationship in childhood and adulthood. They are amenable to change, especially in a young person.
Q: What is the best approach for primary care providers (nurses, physicians) which would offer the best guidance for these families?
A: Our society provides very few places where parents can turn for advice. Attorneys are not competent to discuss issues regarding the children. Few physicians or other health care personnel have any training in the very thorny issues that parents and children face at the time of the breakup or during the years that follow. As a sad result, parents feel lost and bewildered and children are kept in the dark and receive little support about the major crisis in their young lives.
In my new book I emphasize how important it is to help the young child with visiting, custody, and the other major changes in their lives. One half of children of divorce are 6 years old or younger at the time of the breakup. They are very frightened of being abandoned by both parents because a the breakup and for many months thereafter, parents are hardly available and household routines are in disarray. Moreover they conclude with irrefutable logic that if one parent can leave another, surely both parents can leave the children. They remember the years after the divorce as the loneliest, saddest time of their growing up. Older children are concerned about their own powerlessness. They feel like second-class citizens compares with the friends in intact families who can choose their own schedules and participate in their own summer plans without reference to court orders. Health care personnel need to receive the education that will enable them to provide proper guidance.
Q: I believe it is important to recognize that divorce can sometimes be as much of a solution as a problem. For one thing, it shows that individuals can take responsibility to solve their own problems. I heard Dr. Wallerstein say that adult children of divorced parents "hope for love but they don't expect it." I was amazed that she considers this attitude a problem. I can't think of a healthier attitude for anyone as they wrestle with the issue of choosing a potential life partner.
A: I agree that divorce is a social remedy and that it can surely be a solution. But a solution for one member of the family, namely the adult, can be a problem for the child. I argue that the needs of each should be considered and that children need special help which they will not receive as long as we assume, as we do now, that children's feelings mirror those of their parents. The young lady whom I quoted as saying "you can hope for love but you can't expect it," prefaced her remark with "I'm afraid to use that word." I don't think she felt comfortable or prepared to wrestle with choosing a potential life partner as you suggest.