A review of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. By Judith Wallerstein.

Hyperion, 2000.

This book will not make feminists and libertines happy, but it may result in happier children. Judith Wallerstein has been tracking children of divorce for over 25 years now, and she doesn’t like what she sees. Nor should we. Despite all the rhetoric and denial by the feminists and the detractors of marriage, divorce hurts children, and it hurts them even when they have long ago ceased being children.

Judith Wallerstein, from the University of California in Berkeley, first wrote of the effects on children of divorce in her 1980 Surviving the Breakup. Then in 1989 she authored Second Chances. In that book she documented how children still suffer, ten to fifteen years after parental divorce. In this book she covers a full 25 years of the children’s lives. Now, as adults, the harmful effects of divorce are still clearly discernible. Indeed, “the whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience”.

As such, this is a unique study – the first of its kind. No one else has conducted a longitudinal study of this kind for such a long duration and with so much personal detail. Judith Wallerstein began her study in 1971 with 131 children going through parental divorce. She has managed to keep in contact with this group, along with a control group, for a quarter of a century, thus making her research conclusions difficult to dislodge. And the main conclusion reached by this study is that the effects of divorce are long-term. Contrary to popular myths which say that divorce is a temporary thing, that children are resilient, and happy (divorced) adults will result in happier children, the truth is, divorce affects children deeply and at great length.

Says Wallerstein, “From the viewpoint of the children, and counter to what happens to their parents, divorce is a cumulative experience. Its impact over time rises to a crescendo in adulthood. At each developmental stage divorce is experienced anew in different ways. In adulthood it affects personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change.”

She continues, “But it’s in adulthood that children of divorce suffer the most. The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment. Their lack of inner images of a man and a woman in a stable relationship and their memories of their parents’ failure to sustain the marriage badly hobbles their search, leading them to heartbreak and even despair.”

This book features seven of the original 131 children, offering poignant glimpses into their troubled and traumatic lives as adult children of divorce. Paula, now aged 33, said this: “I don’t remember anything except living together and then not. I don’t remember anybody explaining anything to me. Suddenly, there was no one there. I spent so much time alone that I tried to become my own company. But how can you do that as a four-year-old child? I would go for days without saying a word.”

Then there is the story of Karen, aged 34. For years she was hesitant about marriage and relationships: “You see, it’s not all behind me. Part of me is always waiting for disaster to strike. I keep reminding myself that I’m doing this to myself, but the truth is that I live in dread that something bad will happen to me. Some terrible loss will change my life, and it only gets worse as things get better for me. Maybe that’s the permanent result of my parents’ divorce.”

The book also features the lives of adults who grew up in intact families. The contrast makes for fascinating reading. Indeed, Wallerstein notes that “children of divorce and those in happy intact families live in separate albeit parallel universes”. For example, while children of divorce remember very little of their parents’ pre-divorce situation, children in the control group (intact family group) have vivid memories of early childhood. Gary, an adult who grew up in an intact family, still has warm memories of what he had experienced as a young child: “Another memory I have was the crunch of the tires on my dad’s car when he returned from work at seven o’clock every evening. It’s funny but I can still hear that in my head. Supper was a family thing at our home. We had a special ritual. We used to go round the table and everyone said what they did that day. I still remember being included when I was three years old. I felt ten feet tall.”

These stories make it clear that parental divorce is one of the worst things that adults can inflict upon a child. While Wallerstein acknowledges that some marriages cannot be salvaged, especially where much domestic violence is involved, most marriages have simply been abandoned too easily and carelessly, with little or no thought given for how the child will be impacted.

But as many observers of contemporary culture have noted, the rights of adults have become the greatest good, with the interests of children and the social good largely ignored. As long as adults are happy, we are told, that is all that matters. But there are other stake holders to be considered. The divorce culture has put on a pedestal individual adult rights, while totally neglecting the impact this will have on our children and our society at large. As Wallerstein asks, “What about the children? In our rush to improve the lives of adults, we assumed that their lives would improve as well. We made radical social changes in the family without realizing how it would change the experience of growing up. We embarked on a gigantic social experiment without any idea about how the next generation would be affected”.

Well, now we know. History and common sense should have already told us, but now solid social science evidence can also be presented. Divorce hurts kids, and it hurts them for a very long time. The social policy implications of this lie outside of the scope of this book, but clearly we need to somehow turn around the divorce culture and return to a culture of marriage. Reading this book, passing it on to a friend, and getting it into the hands of our political leaders would be a good place to start.

[1052 words]

3 Replies to “A review of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. By Judith Wallerstein.”

  1. Do you have a page listing more of the benefits of heterosexual marriage with children, at this time?

  2. “Evidence based’ seems to be a catch cry of our time, but when the evidence comes, nobody appears to take much notice except for those who were in the first place prepared to listen to wisdom rather than evidence. I once read a very silly quoe “wisdom is a child of experience”. It may be for some but it seems not even that is what is really happening. Only God can change a heart, but wise and courageous law makers could prevent a lot of heart ache in the mean time.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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