- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

California psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein is renowned for her studies on the effects of divorce on children and families. Her latest book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study," is based on interviews with 93 children whom she has been tracking since their parents divorced in the the 1970s.

Mrs. Wallerstein's research is relevant in a time when one-quarter of American adults under age 44 are "children of divorce."

Reporter Cheryl Wetzstein recently spoke with Mrs. Wallerstein about her findings.

Q: You have long been writing about the consequences of divorce, correct?

A: Yes. When I wandered into [the issue] in early 1970s, I discovered there was nothing on it. When we passed our earliest laws about no-fault divorce, there was no research about children and no recognition that children were affected. That was a gap I moved into, because my whole professional life has been centered around children.

Q: You have written several best-selling books about children and divorce, the last one in the late 1980s. What made you decide that the "story" about divorce wasn't finished?

A: I thought it wasn't finished because I began to get a number of reports from these young people that things had changed a lot in their lives.

In my last book, I had reported a much sadder story for some of these kids, which was when they were just hitting adulthood at age 19 and 20.

Then when [several children] called and said they were getting married or having children, I had the feeling that I had stopped in the middle [of the story]. I felt that if I was going to tell the full story, I had to bring them into full adulthood.

Q: What are some of the findings that you discovered about adult children of divorce?

A: One is that the most powerful impact of divorce is not at the time of the breakup. That's when it is for the grown-ups. For children, the most powerful impact comes in their 20s when they confront the man-woman relationship and when, despite their passionate wish for love and affection, fidelity and a lasting relationship, they expect to fail… .

"They say, "Marriage is a good thing, but not for me. Any relationship I'm in, I'm going to jinx." Or "I'm afraid to use the word 'love.' You can hope for it, but you can't expect it." Or a 23-year-old who said to me, "My husband and I have two strikes against us we're both children of divorce."

Q: You say there are myths about divorce? What are some?

A: The first myth is that divorce is a very brief crisis for children. It's the main myth … and it's wrong.

We're telling parents that if they are civil with each other and they handle financial affairs justly and arrange for the child to see both parents in the years following, that we are home free.

It's a very comforting myth, but it ignores the reality of how much divorce changes the lives of children.

In other words, it still concentrates on the notion of divorce as a brief crisis. And that's absolutely not what it is for children, because it changes their whole lives.

Q: What are some other myths?

A: There's the myth that "if the parents are happy, the child will be happy," and "if the parents are unhappy, the child will be unhappy."

Most of the children I've seen including more than 6,000 children in the Judith Wallerstein Center for Family in Transition in Marin County, California only a minority had any sense that divorce was coming down the pike.

Q: Their parents' divorce was unexpected?

A: Yes. Kids are very philosophical. They don't do research. They think that if people argue, that's what families do. Even kids in violent families aren't aware of how aberrant their families are.

They really think, although they can become frightened, that this is what family life is about. They wish it could be different, but that's what they think life is.

And also and this is the big news many, many children in families that are unhappy for one or both parents, are really quite content. Their lives are on the playground, in the classroom. Their lives are not in their mother and father's bedroom. They do not care if their parents are sleeping in separate beds.

[Another] myth is that parents who are going to divorce are in high conflict. That's not true. They're in high conflict in the final scenes of the dying marriage, but throughout the year, they don't throw dishes. They argue but [from a child's point of view] that's what grownups do.

Q: So it's possible for the parents to be unhappy, but the children to be at peace?

A: Yes. Parents divorce out of a profound loneliness, out of a profound disappointment in the other person, when they lose respect for the other person.

The sexual deprivation in families that come to divorce is extraordinary years of no sex, at least no sex that the other partner was aware of.

People also divorce because problems from outside the marriage ricochet into the marriage. Death of an important person to one marital partner often precedes the divorce.

The [thinking] that "when the mother is happy, the children will be happy" is nonsense. A mother can be happy because she's having a passionate love affair. The father can be happy because he's having a career boost. Both of them can be happy because they're going on a trip, separately. But none of that affects the children.

Q: So the parents can happily move on, but leave the children holding the bag?

A: In many families, the parents have moved on. Or, like in some families [in the book], the crisis of the divorce was much greater than the parents expected, and they fell apart and depended on the children.

[It is] a very common phenomenon where the child is the mentor, the comrade, the caregiver, and takes on responsibilities for the parent. The child then loses her childhood. Many children said, "The day my parents divorced is the day my childhood ended." It's chilling.

Q: Who should be more impacted by your book, the parents or the children?

A: One-quarter of the adult population today, up to age 44, have divorced parents. It's an amazing figure. Many of these adults have no idea that the problems they have are associated with their parents' divorce.

For example, I get letters from all over the country that read exactly like this: "I'm a child of divorce. I'm 39 years old. I'm married to a wonderful man and I have two great little boys. Every night that I go to bed, I am afraid that it will vanish."

They expect lightning to strike twice. And it's awful because the happier you are, the more anxious you are, because you're afraid that you're going to lose it. They don't really understand what they're suffering with, in terms of fear.

One woman said, "No matter how much I trust this man, some part of me doesn't." These children don't know they're not the only one [struggling with these feelings], and I want them to know.

I also want their spouses and lovers to know [about these struggles]. You have all these people married to adult children of divorce and I hear so often, "She's such a charming woman, but every time we get into an argument, she goes to pieces."

[Children of divorce] have trouble resolving arguments because, as they say, "I've never seen a man and a woman resolve an argument." So the first thought they have is: "This is it. I see it coming down the pike. I'm out of here." There's hypersensitivity and feelings that "I have no capacity to change this." And it's terrifying.

Q: Based on your findings about divorce and children, what should our attitude be about divorce?

A: The people who are thinking of divorce, I am not giving them advice. But if people do decide to divorce, they should know what's ahead, how much parenting will be required and for how long. It's not going to be two to three years.

These kids are going to need help in growing up. Half of the kids of divorce in America now are 6 years old and younger, so this is a long haul before they're 18 or 21. And they may need help later on.

Q: What do you think the future of American marriage is if we've got all these scared kids whose parents divorced?

A: [The findings are] sobering, but not bad news… . A lot of these kids learned a lot from their experience. There is a straighter, clearer vision of relationships. They're against pretending and hypocrisy.

A lot of these kids did wonderfully in the workplace. What's more, they were moral kids. They could have been a cynical generation.

They could have said, "Who wants marriage? Who wants relationships? The heck with it all." They are not saying that. They're saying, "I want love. I want fidelity. I want a relationship. I'm just scared to death I won't get it."

Q: How will these findings affect marriage and divorce in the United States?

A: I think we have a lot to learn about how to prepare people for marriage … how to prepare, when to prepare, and when it's too late like three days before the wedding is not so good. And when and who should do it are we thinking church? school? both of them? parents? We're not there yet, but we've got to go there.

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