Considering Divorce

Between 1960 and 1982, the divorce rate in America tripled. By now many researchers have investigated the effects on families and children of this sweeping change. Considerable speculation has been generated as well. But there has been little agreement. To some divorce is a quick fix to marital discontent sought by narcissistic parents and its impact on children is devastating. Others believe that unhappy marriages carry their own harmful consequences and that divorce is not as destructive to children as one might think.

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith S. Wallerstein and her colleagues gather evidence by listening directly to children of divorce. Their study began in 1971 with a sample of 131 children and adolescents from 60 families in which parents had recently separated and filed for divorce in Marin County, California. The researchers followed up 18 months later and then again after five years, 10 years, and 25 years to see how the children were affected over time.

The result is a book that challenges what the authors call "myths" about divorce--for example, the belief that if parents are happier in getting divorced, the children are happier as well. Or if divorced parents just avoid fighting, their kids handle divorce well. Or that divorce is a short-term crisis that causes most harm to parents and children at the time of the breakup. This study's findings tell us instead that the needs of children are often vastly different from those of parents. What makes adults happy may indeed leave children bereft and miserable. Additionally, the authors contend, divorce scatters emotional land mines across the child's present and future landscape, so that throughout his or her young life and well into adulthood each developmental hurdle trips yet another explosion. The repercussions of divorce are by no means temporary; they are lifelong. "Divorce is a life-transforming experience. After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood--with the decision to marry or not and have children or not--is different. Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience."

Indeed, no one would contest the conclusion that divorce is a source of complex and often enduring pain for children and adolescents. Children frequently lose access to one parent after a divorce. Usually it is the father whose role becomes increasingly marginalized. In a large majority of divorces, mothers are awarded custody of their children. (Shared custody is becoming increasingly popular with the courts, a "solution" that Wallerstein and her co-authors take particular issue with, believing it to be made out of consideration for parents' needs, not those of children.) Along with the emotional impact of absent fathers, there is the issue of diminished income. Children are almost twice as likely to be living in poverty after divorce as before. Certainly custodial mothers can be less available to their children, with a host of problems that leave them distracted and often depressed. There are stepparents, blended families, confused and conflicting allegiances that the already hurting child must try to negotiate, often with little good support or advice. And divorce rates are higher still in second marriages than in first marriages. Schools change and neighborhoods often change; relations with peers and even other relatives are disrupted.

And divorce can make it more difficult for children to move forward with confidence in their own integrity and the trustworthiness of others. Young children are especially vulnerable to the loss of security and consistency that is critical to their development of a solid sense of self. Adolescents lose a reliable home base from which to rebel safely and establish a secure sense of their own identity. Also, at a time when their need for idealized adult images intensifies, they are often left with bitterness and disappointment in the adult world. And, the authors argue, young adults, at a time when they are searching for love and committed partnership, confront their own sad conviction that its possibility is not at all to be counted on. This leads to the "unexpected legacy" of the book's title: Even adult children of divorce struggle mightily with their history.

Acknowledging the resilience children and adolescents possess, the book offers hopeful stories of young adults who manage to overcome their fears and pessimism and go on to have fulfilling and healthy relationships, including marriage. But the focus of this work reads as the authors intend it to: as an urgent warning spotlighting the depth of children's pained responses to their parents' divorces and the stubbornly enduring nature of their ensuing difficulties.

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No study of children of divorce, including this one, can indicate how particular children might have managed had their parents stayed together. Some studies suggest that children from high-conflict homes are more likely to suffer depression than children in single-parent homes are, while others indicate that geographic dislocation is more likely to hurt children's school performance than divorce alone. Researchers have compiled evidence suggesting that mothers eventually do better after a divorce: They often have greater self-respect, for instance--and that may bode well for their children. Still other research supports the likelihood that a child's response to divorce is contingent on the larger context of support systems and how they address the child's specific developmental needs.

But what has made this book controversial is the contention that children of unhappy intact marriages fare better than do those with divorced parents. Even when parents are unhappy together, the authors insist, divorce should be avoided whenever possible.

To make this point, Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakesee established a "comparison group" of young adults who grew up alongside the children of her study but whose parents, happy or not, chose to stay together. Some of their stories are included here as well. Nobody would disagree that happy intact marriages offer children the best chance for healthy development. The authors hoped to determine how children of unhappy intact marriages fared. Their conclusion, that those children do better on a number of scales than those in the focus group, is somewhat provisional--and not especially persuasive. This is partly a methodological dilemma. This comparison group was introduced to the study only at the 25-year mark. None of the interviewers had firsthand knowledge of their subjects' lives as children. All family history is rendered retrospectively.

Still, the book uses the comparison to underscore one of its more controversial theses: that when there is no violence between parents or other equally destructive circumstances, it might be best, for the sake of the children, for couples to remain together. Doing so will show children that their parents were able to act on behalf of the greater family good. And in the process, it will demonstrate in a very real way the value of commitment, loyalty, and even self-sacrifice for the sake of those who would suffer most from divorce. But really, who is to say what kind of marital pain warrants divorce and what does not? Ultimately, the parents of unhappy unions who chose to stay together may have been able to do so because on some level, apart from concern for their children, their marriage was good enough. Not good, but good enough. So can these two groups be compared to differentiate their impact? There is not yet enough solid research to draw conclusions.

There are other methodological difficulties. The authors tell us that the voices included in the book are those of specific children and young adults, but that they are also representative of what was learned from the entire sample of "children." As well, the authors occasionally (though it is never clear where) merge details of individual voices into composites, partly to offer confidentiality to the informants, but presumably to heighten the impact of the stories we read. Unfortunately, the result is that several of the interviews feel somehow drained of the very specificity the authors seek to establish, and several sections of dialogue sound all too alike. In trying to have it both ways--to do extended, in-depth, detailed interviews that highlight the intensely personal response of a limited number of respondents from a fairly homogenous sample group, and to write of these responses as if they are representative of most children of divorce--the authors dampen the impact of their cautionary tale.

As an inquiry into the way certain individuals handle divorce, this book is indeed rich and deeply illuminating. Yet there is also, occasionally, the nagging sense that the focus of the study itself may have contributed to this single-minded preoccupation with divorce as the source of all difficulties. One respondent tells us about her current social life at 28 years of age: "Oh, I go out a lot. And I get hurt a lot. Maybe it has to do with my being dominated all those years by my dad and the court." This is the consistent explanatory refrain that the reader hears from most of the respondents. A host of complex emotional and relationship difficulties are sometimes too readily blamed on the parents' divorce. It feels somewhat reductive, and it doesn't always ring true.

Nevertheless, through the words of this book's subjects, and by way of the authors' own thoughtful observations and clinical analysis, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce vividly delineates the complex interactions among divorcing parents, their children, and the many others who are subsequently drawn in to the breakup of a family. As well, the interviews reveal just how these children manage their own feelings of loss, betrayal, anger, and sadness: how some go on to become parental caretakers, subsuming their own feelings beneath a veneer of competency, while others become emotionally numb, turning to alcohol and drugs. And the interviews calibrate the range of responses, both behavioral and emotional, in between.

The writing is supple and fluent, and often compelling. The book shows a subtle, psychologically astute understanding of the child's emotional life as it easily moves back and forth, examining both the environment and the child's psychological reality. And it is especially strong when it goes after the rigidity of institutional responses to divorce: the inadequate understanding and assistance institutions provide to families going through divorce and their failure to support marriages so that they might remain intact. Our courts, schools, and places of work typically overlook the developmental complexity of childhood and adolescence, losing opportunity after opportunity to provide truly beneficial support and guidance to youngsters (and their parents).

The book offers some valuable suggestions, though there will be many who will wonder just how they can be implemented. Here's a sample of the authors' views on the damaging impact of court-ordered mediation: "Mediation doesn't help children because the child is hardly present in the planning--either in body or spirit. Mediation brings together the contesting preferences of the parents. But the mediator is not charged with developing a plan that will suit the child's developmental or emotional needs. Nor is the mediator charged with inquiring into the child's interests or wishes or preference." The authors have no patience for a system that, all the while speaking of the best interests of the child, listens only to adults and treats the child like a "rag doll," to be manipulated, maneuvered, and often ignored.

Paradoxically, it is when the authors focus on the various ways we can try to assist children of divorce--in the courts, in the schools, in the workplace (for instance, by providing more flexible work time for single parents with children)--that a key question is raised: If the child's needs were indeed more appropriately handled--not only in the immediate aftermath of the divorce, but throughout his childhood and adolescence--would the impact of divorce that is so painfully evoked in this book be ameliorated? In other words, is it the divorce itself that wreaks so much emotional havoc (the authors tend to believe it is), or is it all the ensuing problems, exacerbated by lack of support for concerned family members? And if our society were better able to integrate an understanding of the needs of children with an effective institutional, policy-driven response, would we help these children grow to young adulthood with fewer of the burdens so vividly illustrated here?

A growing body of research indeed suggests that how we support families and children after divorce can go a long way toward assisting them not only in surviving this particular family trauma but in managing their feelings in such a way that they avoid the common pitfalls: school avoidance, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, low self-esteem, depression. This research indicates that schools and communities can go a long way toward minimizing the impact of divorce. Sociologist James Coleman's research suggests that children from single-parent homes are no more likely than children from two-parent families to drop out of school--if their families are supported by community, educational, and religious networks. But how do we create a culture with the will to offer consistent support to these children and their families? And even if we do, will these young adults continue to be so haunted by their experience of marital disloyalty and failure that their own capacity to trust in a healthy love relationship will be impaired?

Despite the unavoidably dismaying tone of this study, the book ends on a note of hopefulness, as some young adults tell about their successes (often arrived at later than those of their peers from intact families) in overcoming their fears and conflicts to establish intimate relationships. It feels a little too late, though. Most of the book is informed by a pessimism regarding these children and their prospects. So when we are told that they (and it is not clear how many among the sample) have managed to establish good, loving relationships, we want to know how. And that remains a mystery. One hopes that the growing body of research on resilience will shed light on that mystery and reveal ways that we as a society can enable more of these children to grow up and have fulfilling lives and relationships.

In any case, because this is a book about how lives unfold over time, one can't help but wonder what will become of these adults and their presumably successful relationships and marriages in another 10 years. I suppose the real value of this book is that it prompts in the reader a deep appreciation for the unique play of children's (and young adults') vulnerabilities and capacities as they come to terms with one of the contemporary tragedies of family life. This book is important because of the questions it raises. Although we should not overgeneralize from this study, we must take to heart many of its suggestions about how to nurture and support marriages before they founder--and about how to do the same for the growing ranks of children and parents who find themselves on the far side of failed marriages. ยค

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