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Children of divorce feel effects for decades


For anyone who thinks that children suffer only mildly or briefly when their parents divorce, Judith S. Wallerstein has some very bad news.

Not only is the emotional damage long-lasting but its full effects may also not be realized until the children of divorce reach adulthood -- and suffer a host of setbacks when they confront marriage, child-rearing and, often, their own divorces.

In a just-released book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study" (Hyperion, $24.95), a follow-up to the pioneering study she launched in the early 1970s, the San Francisco psychologist writes about a group of Marin County children she has faithfully chronicled since their parents divorced nearly three decades ago.

By her own admission, her findings may induce a substantial amount of collective guilt and hand-wringing in a nation where divorce has become commonplace. Not only do nearly half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, but also an estimated one-quarter of all adults between the ages of 18 and 44 are products of divorced parents.

"My purpose is not to make people feel guilty but to make them realistic," says Wallerstein, 78, whose book is co-authored by Julia M. Lewis, a San Francisco State psychology professor, and New York Times science correspondent Sandra Blakeslee. "There's a commonly held belief that you might as well divorce because the kids are going to be unhappy anyway. That's wrong."

In her book, Wallerstein gives extended descriptions of a handful of the 93 children she has followed in her study. All are having difficulty in life, often fearing loss, change, conflict or betrayal -- and generally feeling emotionally stunted by their parents' divorce.

Her subjects repeatedly refer to themselves as "children of divorce" even as they pass their 40th birthdays. For them, divorce causes, Wallerstein writes, a "permanent stamp," a personal identity made up of "childhood fears you can't shake despite all the successes and achievements you've made as an adult."

"Karen," the pseudonym given one of the first subjects described in the book, is fairly typical of the group. She became a surrogate caretaker when her mother and father divorced, first to her younger siblings and then to her parents. Later in life, she found it difficult to develop long-term relationships. She fears conflict. She can't argue without panicking.

"What I want for (my daughter) is not to be worried about her mom the way that I worried my whole life about mine," Karen, a married mother of a 2-year-old, tells Wallerstein. "I don't want her to take care of me. I want to take care of her. I want to give her all the love and security I never had. I want for her to have everything I never had."

In the same passage, Wallerstein writes of tears welling in her eyes upon hearing Karen's sad monologue -- a reaction not normally associated with scientific research. But she makes no apologies for her empathy, calling herself a "tribal elder" to her subjects.

Indeed, she despairs of more clinical approaches that usually involve anonymous phone calls with "faceless people asking about your sex life" and questions whether they could have elicited the information she was able to uncover.

"That approach is fine for figuring out who you're going to vote for or for census stuff," says Wallerstein. "But when you're after people's feelings, I don't think you get it."

Whether Wallerstein's bleak portrait of divorce's toll is accurate or not has long been debated by social scientists. Hers was the first long-term study of divorce's effect and an eye-opener when her findings were first published in 1980 and turned into national best-sellers.

Conflict over results

Fellow researchers generally laud her for her early work but also complain that her results are often oversold. The sample was too small, they say, and the study lacked a control group of comparable non-divorced families.

And how typical is a group gleaned entirely from affluent and eccentric Marin County -- not to mention the fact the chosen families were responding to an ad for free counseling in exchange for participating in the study?

"This is a small clinical study that, unfortunately, gets generalized for the whole population," says Constance Ahrons, a professor of sociology at University of Southern California who has done similar long-term studies on divorce. "For divorced people, this is going to be an upsetting read. What can they do?"

Howard Markman, a psychologist and marriage researcher at the University of Denver, says that while Wallerstein's work broke new ground two decades ago, she ignores more contemporary studies that suggest parental conflict, not divorce, is the greater enemy of children.

"Children of conflict are at higher risk than children of low-conflict divorce," says Markman. "The message shouldn't be to stay in your marriage at all costs. It should be to have a happy marriage."

For the 25-year-anniversary survey, Wallerstein did assemble a group she offers as "comparable" to her subjects to show how children of divorce are more likely to divorce, have fewer children, receive less financial support for college from their parents, and use drugs or alcohol.

She agrees her subjects don't represent a national sample, nor was that ever the intention. But she counters with this: If children from a middle-class suburb of San Francisco fail to overcome the hardships of divorce, what does that say about the prospects for the rest of the population?

"I'd like people to be more realistic about the effects of divorce, and I think my book can contribute to that," she says. "I'd like people to realize that if they decide to divorce -- and I think it's a perfectly fine decision for some people to do -- that they know what's ahead in terms of the needs of their children."

She is also unapologetic for continuing her stance that divorce -- not conflict -- is the issue. Often, she says, divorce is not the result of conflict at all but a matter of boredom or convenience. Again and again, she notes, her subjects say they were unaware that their parents were even at odds prior to the divorce.

"After a divorce, children need more care, and it's harder. People don't seem to realize that," she says. "They only think in terms of what they're running away from, not what they're running to."

Married for 50 years to San Francisco psychiatrist Robert Wallerstein and a proud mother of three and grandmother of five, the diminutive, gray-haired Wallerstein would seem to be an unlikely social crusader. But her work is often sited by social conservatives who would like to make divorce a less convenient option for married couples.

Yet she claims to be uninterested in restricting either entry or exit from marriage. "People aren't super heroes," she explains.

Some rays of hope

Dr. Paulina F. Kernberg, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University and fan of Wallerstein's work, says she believes the study stands up to scientific scrutiny as "clinical research of the first order." And while Kernberg's central thesis -- the harm divorce does to children -- may seem obvious, it "is something obvious that had to be unveiled."

"Her findings are what I see clinically. They are what I observe, too," says Kernberg. "Divorce is the second worst tragedy in the life of a human being. She has described this so eloquently you have to be blind and deaf not to get the message."

Wallerstein found a few rays of hope in her study. There are subjects who, at the 25-year point, are finally coming to terms with what divorce has done to them and have resolved to change. Karen is one of them. She is now happily married and tells Wallerstein that "somewhere in my twenties I stopped wanting a lost childhood (and realized) I can do what I want, not what they did."

"A lot of these young people went through hard times. They went through a lot of suffering. They got involved in terrible relationships," she says. "But many also pulled themselves out by their early 30s. They didn't all pull themselves out, but some did. I think that shows there's room for people to change in adulthood."

From the introduction

This book is written for those of you who grew up in divorced families and who want to know why you feel and act the way you do. Each of you believes that your suffering was unique. You've struggled with inner conflicts and fears whose source you don't comprehend. You've lived for years with fear of loss and the worry that if you're happy it's only a prelude to disaster. You fear change because deep down you believe it can only be for the worse. You've been worried about one or both of your parents all your life and leaving them has been a nightmare. Like most adult children of divorce, you've never confessed to anyone how terrified you are of conflict because the only way you know to handle it is to explode or run away. You've lain awake night after night struggling with anxiety about love and commitment. You know far too much about loneliness and too little about lasting friendship. But you were too uncomfortable to mention these feelings because you had no idea that you were part of a large and growing army of millions of young adults who were raised in divorced homes and who share your bewilderment and your history.

-- From the Introduction to "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study" (Hyperion, $24.95)

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