- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Sean Bartlett struggled with his parents' divorce in the beginning.

Why not? He was 7 when it happened. He doesn't remember much of what went through his mind during the tumultuous weeks and months that followed, except "I guess it was kind of rough."

Over time, he says, "I got used to it. It's normal now. I don't think too much about it."

Sean, now 10, and his two older brothers, 13-year-old Danny and 17-year-old Eddie, are lucky. The boys live half of the week with their father, Edward, a senior policy analyst with a nonprofit research and public health center in Rockville. They spend the other half with their mother, Zohreh Granfar, a Spanish translator who works with the Montgomery County public schools and as a private consultant.

Even better, their parents live only two blocks away from each other in Rockville and they get along.

"We have some very big issues between us, obviously," Mrs. Granfar says of her ex-husband. "But we've really tried to keep the children in the same environment and make things as bearable for them as we can."

One million young people join the ranks of children of divorce every year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Few of them are as fortunate as the Bartlett boys, their parents say.

But how miserable are children of divorce? How much do they suffer? Is divorce ever good for them? Therapists, psychologists, scholars and other cultural observers say it depends on how "messy" the divorce is and how stable the marriage was beforehand.

Taming the beast

Mr. Bartlett, who has a doctorate in public health, knows more than he ever wanted to know about divorce, both from his job as a policy analyst for the Men's Health Center and, of course, from firsthand experience.

He is focusing now on the physical toll divorce takes on men, compiling studies he says show that divorced men are twice as likely to commit suicide as married men and that divorced men fare worse than divorced women in such areas as psychological problems, work disability and even overall mortality.

"The divorce system is very unfair to men," Mr. Bartlett says. "The child-support system is very onerous to men. I've seen divorce break many, many men."

Fortunately, he says, he wasn't one of them when his 17-year marriage broke up 2 years ago.

"I was lucky, and my kids are lucky," he says. "None of us are emotionally screwed up. But I've stared into the belly of the beast, and I know what the beast looks like."

He and his ex-wife took pains to make sure their divorce was as amicable as possible for their children's sake, and their efforts seem to have paid off.

Eddie Bartlett, a senior at Magruder High School near Rockville, shrugs off the divorce, even saying it has certain advantages for him and his brothers.

"If you want to have your friends over, and one house is busy, you can just go to the other house," he says. "I don't really give it a second thought anymore. Everybody was saying when it first happened that it was going to be emotionally difficult, but we still see both parents, and that's a big thing, I guess. I think it was all unfortunate, but it wasn't a big surprise when it happened, and it wasn't that hard on us, at least not as hard as it could have been, I guess."

'Classic behaviors' of divorce

The "divorce generation," most sociologists agree, started in 1969 when California passed the first "no-fault" divorce law, which soon spread to every other state.

Dr. Michael Katz, a clinical psychologist in Southfield, Mich., who has worked with children of divorce for 30 years, says such children regularly exhibit four classic negative behaviors: excessive lying, low achievement, denial of responsibility for their own behavior and difficulty in concentrating.

While many children, regardless of background particularly teen-agers can exhibit those behaviors, Dr. Katz says children of divorce are resistant to many traditional forms of family therapy and discipline.

"That's what distinguishes these problems, and kids, from other kids with the same problems," Dr. Katz says. "Most kids who live with their birth parents, if you ground them, if you discipline them, if you give them a second chance, whatever, most show some change in their behavior.

"But these kids [of divorce] have nothing to get them to change. They keep doing it over and over. The reason for it is that most parents react by punishing more. But for these kids, the reason for their disobedience isn't they're bad kids. They're showing signs of underlying emotional problems. They're [crying] for help."

Lora Chuhman, 30, of Baltimore, says she went through that kind of disobedience and general apathy toward life at age 16 when her parents divorced.

"I failed most of that year in high school," she says. "I didn't do too well. I didn't care. I was sick part of that year most of it was stress, I think and I was very angry and hurt and frustrated."

Dr. Katz says children of divorce typically face seven kinds of emotional problems: attachment difficulties, control issues, low self-esteem, anger, maturity delays, attitude problems ("they're always finding fault with everything," he says) and issues of morals and values. ("They seem to be very me-oriented instead of [thinking] 'how do I do things for others?'")

On top of all the immediate problems children face after their parents' divorce, researcher and writer Judith S. Wallerstein argues, the real effects aren't felt until the children reach adulthood and start to struggle with their own relationships and marriages.

Mrs. Wallerstein, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, began studying children of divorce in 1971, when she recruited a core group of 131 middle-class children and their families in Northern California who were going through divorce. She interviewed them extensively and continued to follow their lives with in-depth updates every five years.

She wrote two books on those five-year "checkups," "Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce," and "Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce." Last year, she released "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study," in which she concluded that the bitterest effects of divorce aren't felt until they interfere in the children's own adult relationships.

She chronicled the lives of seven from her original core group all of whom are now between the ages of 28 and 43 and found all of them still grappling with intimacy, honesty, love and all the other aspects of a healthy marriage.

"After divorce, childhood is different," Mrs. Wallerstein wrote in the introduction to "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce." "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."

In a recent phone interview, Mrs. Wallerstein cited other statistics she gleaned during her research, which show "it's quite clear that children are very distressed by divorce."

"I have a lot of concern about the tremendous unhappiness and anger that follows a divorce in many families," she says. "Society isn't ready to give up divorce, but it is concerned about the very serious economic and emotional fallout for a lot of adults. I did not expect that children 25 years later would be so frightened that their relationships would fall apart. I did not expect they wouldn't have any idea how to choose a man or woman for a lifetime commitment. Divorce crescendos in adulthood, and nobody expected that."

Divorce legacy debated

Others who have studied the long-term consequences of divorce for children don't agree totally with Mrs. Wallerstein's conclusions.

Mavis Hetherington, a retired chairwoman of the psychology department at the University of Virginia, studied 144 families of divorce for more than 20 years. Mrs. Hetherington says she respects Mrs. Wallerstein and her work, but Mrs. Wallerstein "treats divorce like a terminal disease."

"When you think of the people around you who have been divorced, they've gone through bumpy periods, and their kids have gone through bumpy periods," Mrs. Hetherington says. "but when you compare them to people who have stayed in unhappy marriages, how much better off are they? We find kids who move from hostile, conflictual family situations to a harmonious one with a [single] authoritative parent, and they do better than those who remain in hostile environments."

Mrs. Hetherington also found in her study that 20 percent to 25 percent of children of divorce score above the clinical cutoff for disturbed, deviant behavior, which is about double the standard for the non-divorce population of 10 percent.

"You can say 'Holy smoke, that's a twofold increase, that is serious,' " she says. "It is, but it also means that 75 to 80 percent are functioning well. This is not to say that most children of divorce aren't terribly distressed by [their] parents' divorce, but they'll also say, 'Yes, I'm doing OK; I'm not clinically depressed, I'm holding a job, and I have friends.'"

She also found that children of divorce tend to be better at mediating and negotiating than those who have not gone through that trauma because they developed those skills while growing up.

What makes the difference in a child's response to divorce, she says, is the presence of a close, caring adult in the child's life, even if the adult isn't a parent.

Paul Amato, a sociology professor at Penn State University who also has studied children of divorce for years, also quibbles with some of Mrs. Wallerstein's conclusions.

"My disagreements with Judith Wallerstein are more a matter of degree than anything else," says Mr. Amato, who has studied children of divorce for more than 12 years. "I do think she does tend to emphasize the negative [more] than maybe is appropriate."

Mr. Amato has studied 147 children of divorce over a period of years and has concluded that divorce doesn't necessarily devastate children in the long term. He says children whose parents fought constantly during the marriage often fared quite well after the divorce was completed. On the other hand, children whose parents seemed to have a decent, quiet marriage before the divorce experienced problems building their own relationships down the road.

"There were many cases where marriages actually weren't that bad," Mr. Amato says. "These were marriages where the parents were no longer madly in love but still had affection for their spouses. They didn't really fight that much, they just felt life was passing them by, or they felt they weren't getting anything more from the relationship, or they were bored with the relationship.

"Those kinds of divorces were especially hard on the children," Mr. Amato says, "the reason being that even though the marriage wasn't ideal from the parents' perspective, from the kids' perspective it was just fine. The kids didn't care if their parents weren't self-actualized; they cared about a stable home. Under those circumstances, we found that divorce was really disturbing for children because they didn't see it coming. It was unexpected, unanticipated, inexplicable."

Mrs. Wallerstein counters that all her findings correlate with statistics gathered by the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics and that some of her critics may not have read her book all the way through. (Mr. Amato says he did.)

"I did say that many people by the time they're in their 30s are able to overcome it," Mrs. Wallerstein says, "but they started off in a sense unprepared for adult relationships."

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