Young Americans who grew up in divorced or remarried families have run into an unexpected set of difficulties in adulthood as they form their own intimate relationships, start families or remain childless — and, in too many cases, struggle through their own divorces — according to Judith Wallerstein, author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (Hyperion; September 7, 2000; $24.95).
Dr. Wallerstein, author of the national bestsellers Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce and Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce, now reveals the results of the first and only study of the effects of divorce that closely followed 93 children of divorce over a quarter century. Comparing these young women and men with a similar group from intact families, she made a startling finding: the effects of divorce are cumulative and crescendo in adulthood. In fact, the greatest impact of divorce does not occur until people are in their twenties and thirties. At a time when one in four adults is a child of divorce, Dr. Wallerstein's study represents an enormously powerful phenomenon that is revolutionizing our concept of the family and reshaping our society.
Yet Dr. Wallerstein's study also underscores unforeseen sources of hope and resilience. She chronicles the extraordinary strength and courage of the children of divorce, who in many cases had to help both their parents and themselves overcome the trauma of divorce. Contrary to the beliefs of some observers, Dr. Wallerstein found that the children of divorce are not a cynical generation. They value love, marriage, and parenthood highly, although they are wary of commitment and fearful of betrayal. While recognizing that divorce is sometimes necessary and even preferable to remaining in a highly dysfunctional relationship, Dr. Wallerstein wants adults considering divorce to understand the full consequences of a marital breakup for their children, and tells what they can do to reduce their children's burden. In addition, she suggests specific changes in our legal, mental health, and child welfare systems that would help ease the effects of divorce on children.
``The delayed impact of divorce in adulthood is a revolutionary finding and a stunning surprise," according to Dr. Wallerstein, who has written her new book with Sandra Blakeslee, an award-winning science correspondent for The New York Times, and Julia M. Lewis, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. ``We thought that children would be able to work through issues related to divorce by the time they reached late adolescence or left home. We advised parents that if they refrained from fighting and arranged their schedules so that the children could see both of them often, then the children would do well. But these policies were based on adult needs and perceptions of divorce. We failed to realize that living in a post-divorce family is an entirely different experience for children as opposed to adults. The story of divorce is far more complex and the impact more far-reaching than we had ever imagined."
Moreover, Dr. Wallerstein discovered that growing up in a divorced family creates a consistent pattern of behaviors and expectations in young people when they set out to form their own adult relationships. Otherwise well-functioning adult children of divorce, now in their late twenties to early forties, must fight to overcome:
Dr. Wallerstein's study, based on extensive one-on-one interviews at five-year intervals, produced numerous other important findings, including:
Adult children of divorce lack a healthy ``Couple Template," or model of marital partnership. They carry the template of the relationship between their parents into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment. Anxiety leads many young adults into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether. Ominously, they also say that they will not support their parents, especially their fathers, in old age.
By contrast, children from intact marriages generally took strength and encouragement from their parents' decision to stay together, even though many of the marriages that stayed together were strikingly similar in levels of conflict and unhappiness to those that ended in divorce. The adults who grew up in intact families told Dr. Wallerstein that their parents stayed together despite serious marital problems, and were able to cooperate on child-raising issues. They said that this cooperation helped protect them through their turbulent teens and provided a valuable role model in adulthood of how to behave — and how not to behave — in a marriage. One young man told her, ``I love my parents but I'm going to do things differently. My dad always walked away from arguments at home and it hurt their marriage. But I also learned from my folks that you take the good and the bad and that's what marriage is about."
On the other hand, children raised in highly dysfunctional marriages were no better off — and sometimes worse off — than children raised in unhappy post-divorce families. When chaos and abuse are the norm inside a family, the marital status of the parents can be irrelevant in affecting how much children get hurt.
Many positive experiences common to children of intact families were never cited by children of divorce. These include memories of play and family activities with themselves as children at the center; feeling that parents were available when needed — but in the background — at developmental turning points; awareness of parents' daily dialogues about children's behavior and needs. By comparison, the drama of divorce put parents at the center of their children's lives; often made parents unavailable in developmental crises; often obliged fathers and mothers to provide ``parallel parenting," including separate and sometimes contradictory child-rearing practices.
Adolescence lasts longer for children of divorce, because breaking free of their parents is more complicated than for their peers raised in intact families. Since many children become confidantes, friends, and even mentors of their parents during and after the divorce crisis, emotional separation is more difficult. Anger can also bind a child to a parent well into adulthood. Leaving home physically, therefore, does not equate with leaving home emotionally. The typical child of divorce is often remarkably compassionate and attuned to other people's feelings. She is unusually close to siblings and supportive of them. The need to cope at an early age can lead to mastery and later professional success. But at the extreme, the ``parentified" child still feels required to rescue mom or dad, feels guilty attending to her own needs, and may repeat the rescue fantasy in adult relationships.
To a striking extent, divorce is often a stumbling block to higher education. Among children of intact families, 90% had fathers who contributed to their college educations, versus less than 30% of children of divorce. In most states, a divorced father's financial and educational responsibilities end at age eighteen, even if the father is affluent and holds multiple degrees.
Divorced fathers were more likely to visit children when things were going well for them financially and personally, but the main concern of many remarried fathers was to please the new wife. Furthermore, stepmothers were extremely influential in shaping a father's relationship with children from previous marriages.
Having experienced divorce in childhood does not seem to prepare young adults for handling their own divorces differently. In fact, those who had children and got divorced behaved much like their parents. It was as if they were unable to translate their own pain and disappointment into strategies for protecting their children. Many were preoccupied with anger at the ex-partner and expected their children to accept the changes wrought by divorce without question. They explained very little to their children, although the adult children of divorce complained that their parents had done the same thing to them.
Drawing on these findings and others, Dr. Wallerstein questions many of our entrenched legal practices. For example, many older children and adolescents are bitter at having no say in planning their schedules as they grow up in post-divorce families, since the legal system is set up primarily to meet adult needs. Children are treated like rag dolls sitting in a dark corner of the courtroom. Compared with their friends in intact families, older children of divorce feel like second-class citizens who are denied the right to participate in the planning of their social activities, friendships, and vacations. Young people from many divorced families are held to strict mediated agreements or court orders that chop their lives into awkward compartments. As a consequence, by age eighteen, many reject the parent who insisted on maintaining the rigid schedule. In Dr. Wallerstein's view, all of the professionals involved in the divorce process — judges, attorneys, and mental health professionals — need to reorient their thinking from concentrating narrowly on the breakup and on parental rights to helping parents prepare for the long haul, especially when the children enter adolescence and young adulthood.
Offering reasons for optimism as well as concern, Dr. Wallerstein's study shows that in their thirties, many of the children of divorce were able to resolve problems that had vexed them in their teenage years and early twenties. Some of the most troubled women, promiscuous and drug-addicted, stopped acting out. A number of men overcame their passivity and fear of failure to learn to love and value the women they chose as partners. Self-knowledge and detaching from the parental legacy of failure were key to the adult children's progress. Nevertheless, to Dr. Wallerstein's astonishment, they continue to see themselves as children of divorce. In short, this is an identity that does not go away, at any age.
Thirty years ago, when the divorce rate started rising to epidemic proportions in America, parents everywhere asked an agonizing question: What will happen to our children in the long run? With the release of the findings of Dr. Judith Wallerstein's unprecedented 25 year study, the answers are now in. THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE will be essential reading for all adult children of divorce who want to know why they feel and act they way they do; for people who are living with or married to a child of divorce; for divorced parents or those considering divorce; and for judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, and all of the experts who advise parents. Its publication is a groundbreaking cultural and scientific event that will change forever the way we look at divorce.
Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D., is widely considered the world's foremost authority on the effects of divorce on children. She is the founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition, located in Marin County, California. She is also a senior lecturer emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author, along with Sandra Blakeslee, of the national bestsellers The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, and Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce. With Dr. Joan Berlin Kelly, she wrote Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce.
Surviving the Breakup, first published in 1980, is the acknowledged standard reference work on divorcing families. Second Chances, originally published in 1989, comprises the 10- and 15-year follow-up reports on her unique longitudinal study of the effects of divorce on children. It has been translated into nine languages.
Dr. Wallerstein was educated at Columbia University and the Topeka Institute for Psychoanalysis. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from Lund University in Sweden. She has also held faculty positions at the Boalt School of Law of the University of California at Berkeley; the Hebrew University, Jerusalem; and Pahlavi University Medical School in Iran. She has lectured at major universities throughout the United States and abroad.
In addition, Dr. Wallerstein has served as a consultant for numerous organizations, including the Advisory Commission on Family Law to the California Senate Subcommittee on Administration of Justice; the Commission on Law and Mental Health, State Bar of California; and the California Senate Task Force on Family Equity. Her many honors include the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California and the Koshland Award in Social Welfare from the San Francisco Foundation
Dr. Wallerstein has been a guest on ``Today," ``Good Morning America," and ``Oprah." She lives in Marin County, California.
Julia M. Lewis, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, where she is director of the psychology clinic and coordinator of the clinical psychology graduate program. She is co-principal investigator of the 25 year Children of Divorce Project. In particular, she took primary responsibility for the comparison group of children from intact families for THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE . Educated at the University of California, she lives in Mill Valley, California.
Sandra Blakeslee is a science correspondent for The New York Times who has written three books with Judith Wallerstein: Second Chances, The Good Marriage, and THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, she has won many national honors in the field of science writing, including the Howard W. Blakeslee Award, named after her grandfather. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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