The woman who turned America against divorce

How did psychologist Judith Wallerstein become America's divorce czar? A profile by Joan Walsh.


Joan Walsh
July 23, 1997 12:45PM (UTC)

I must have missed the 1970s. I was there, but mostly as a teenager, and I gather that for adults it was a time of free love and
fabulous license, when divorce, in particular, was as common and casual as
trading in a used car, a decision people made without thought to the impact
on their kids.

That would explain the frenzy of books, magazine articles and
headlines proclaiming that divorce hurts children, which to my sober 1990s
sensibilities has a bit of a "Dog Bites Man" ring. What is the news here?

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Of course divorce hurts kids, but so does having a depressed mom or
constantly bickering parents; so does alcoholism and child abuse. What we
don't know is whether divorce hurts kids more than the alternative, and
that's a judgment that can only be made family by family. The news that
divorce is hard on kids could only be surprising to someone cryogenically
frozen while watching "An Unmarried Woman," someone like Mike Myers' goofy
Austin Powers, who might believably wake up and say, "Let's shag, baby -- I
don't give a damn about the kids!"

The most recent example of shock (shock!) over the news that
divorce hurts kids was a flurry of articles about psychologist Judith
Wallerstein's latest work, a 21-page paper on 26 children of divorce -- the
youngest kids in her ongoing study of 60 Marin County families who split in
the 1970s -- released at a conference on family law in June.
Wallerstein's slim paper, based on her tiny Marin subsample, made the front
pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the front of the Style
sections in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, and the reporters
are still calling. "The Baltimore Sun was here last night at 7; La
Republica wants an interview," a worn-out Wallerstein told me in the
living room of her bright Belvedere, Calif., home, looking out over the San
Francisco Bay. "I can't keep up with the requests. I really wasn't
prepared for this."

What did Wallerstein find? Half the group of 26 developed drug or
alcohol problems in their teens, but all recovered. A third never made it
to college. Most are still single, in their late 20s or early 30s, and
struggling with intimacy. Reporters breathlessly recounted Wallerstein's
findings, undaunted by the size of her sample, or the lack of a control
group. "Study reveals deep scars of divorce," said the Chronicle headline.
"The trauma experienced by young children when their parents break up makes
it difficult for them to weather the challenges of adolescence and early
adulthood," the Post concluded. The Examiner said the study "challenges
society's basic perceptions of the impact of divorce."

How did the struggles of 26 Marin children become news from coast
to coast? I have always been perplexed by the wide influence of
Wallerstein's deep but demographically narrow research, which draws on 60
white families in a county so sui generis the late Herb Caen chronicled its
eccentricities under the category "Only in Marin." But the uncritical
recounting of her latest findings pushed me to try to understand the
phenomenon. I crawled out from under the enormous chip on my shoulder --
I'm a divorced mother and, like 60 percent of divorced women, I was the
instigator -- to get a copy of the psychologist's latest report. I went to
Belvedere prepared to do battle with the Oracle of the Obvious, this woman
who preaches that divorce hurts kids, as though she's the only one
smart or compassionate enough to care.

But her findings turned out to be more interesting and provocative
than the writing about them, and I was on to another mystery: Why are we
such gluttons for bad news about divorce? And why do we resist what's
really obvious: that there are steps we can take to minimize divorce's bad
effects on kids, if we're serious about helping children, rather than
harassing people to stay married?

Judith Wallerstein is hard to dislike, even for a divorced mother
like me with a chip on her shoulder. Petite and gray-haired, in a purple
and gray print dress belted at her tiny waist, the 75-year-old grandmother
is driven by her work and devoted to the 131 children of divorce whose
struggles she has chronicled since 1972. "I am, in effect, the tribal
elder who was there at the major battles of their lives, who carries their
history, including their earliest fantasy dreams and fears, in my keeping,"
she writes in this latest report. She takes herself, and her work,
dead seriously. She brooks no criticism of her methodology, her small sample group, their Only-in-Marin singularity.

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"People say, 'There's no control group.' Well, how would you put
together a control group for this -- 60 families with the same problems,
the same age kids, the same income, who stayed together? It's impossible."
Actually, researchers handle comparable challenges all the time, but
Wallerstein is less scientist than ethnographer, chronicling her Marin
County subculture for 25 years with boundless curiosity. "You couldn't
follow a larger group with the intensity we wanted. Anyway, all the big
national studies back up my stuff. In fact, they find even worse outcomes
for kids of divorce."

Wallerstein is right about that last point. Every divorcing parent
has to reckon with a growing body of evidence that as a group, children of
divorce are more likely to drop out of school, suffer drug and alcohol
problems, require psychotherapy and get divorced themselves than children
from intact families. Studies also show that kids from high-conflict
marriages fare even worse than children of divorce, but that's little
comfort if your goal is raising healthy kids, not kids less damaged than
they could be. Clearly, divorce hurts children, but it's also clear that
if we understand what about divorce is particularly hard on kids, we can
hurt them less. Too many studies lump together children of divorce who
fall into poverty, whose fathers disappear, whose mothers slide into
depression, whose lives change terribly, with kids whose parents can afford
two households, whose dads remain involved, whose moms stay reasonably
happy, whose housing, schooling, day care and social lives otherwise stay
the same. Kids like mine, for instance.

Wallerstein's small sample contains some wisdom about what hurts
kids, but reporters mainly missed it in their rush to declare divorce a
life-long disaster. One conclusion is inescapable: The fathers in her
sample proved stunningly inept both as providers and nurturers. Only six
of 26 provided for their kids' college educations, though virtually all
could afford it. Most proved unable to maintain a close relationship with
their children once the tie to their mothers was severed. Some disappeared,
while others insisted on rigid custody schedules their kids resented. In
adulthood, only five of the young people said they would turn to their
fathers for personal advice. By contrast, most remained close to their
mothers, though they worried she had sacrificed too much on their behalf.
"The instability of father-child relationships that emerges in this
long-term study is troublesome," Wallerstein concluded.

The failure to provide for college was most tangibly troublesome.
The six young people whose college educations were paid for, Wallerstein
found, made much easier transitions to adulthood. "Their pride and
self-confidence, and the sense of excitement in their lives, were in
striking contrast to the clearly apparent mood of resignation in their less
fortunate peers," she writes. After the refusal to pay for college, the
next most troubling failure of fathers, and some mothers, was insisting on
rigid custody arrangements that met their needs, but not those of their children.

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Why did reporters ignore this disturbing, if mostly anecdotal,
indictment of post-divorce fatherhood? "That's a good question,"
Wallerstein says. "Divorce is political, and politically we're back to
being concerned about the rights of fathers. And I'm not about
male-bashing. I know these men. They aren't villains. They all paid
child support, though it wasn't set very high. They would sit right here in
my living room and I'd ask them: 'Why didn't you pay for John's college?'
And they'd tell me: 'I did what was legally required of me, Judy. Enough already.'"

Sadly, doing what's "legally required" makes these men exemplary,
since most divorced fathers don't pay child support. They aren't villains,
but they aren't good fathers, either. Why are our expectations so low?

Wallerstein's findings suggest some obvious reforms. One is to
mandate support from both parents through college, especially in families
with the means to provide for higher education. "Fathers' rights groups
don't like this idea, but women's groups aren't pushing for it either,"
Wallerstein notes. "A lot of mothers are afraid they'll get less now if
they push for more later."

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Another clear conclusion is that custody arrangements need regular
adjustment and increased input from kids, especially as adolescence looms.
Shuttling between two households may not work for older children whose
priorities become sports, after-school fun and their friends, and parents
have to be creative about finding new ways to maintain strong relationships
as they lose their central role in their child's life. "In a normal family,
somebody says to Jimmy, 'What do you want to do Sunday? How do you want to
spend your vacation?' But in divorced families it's too often, 'You're
with Dad Sunday and all summer, too.' And the kids feel powerless. The
parents remain center stage, when developmentally they're supposed to
become less important."

Wallerstein's findings about fathers are less easily remedied by
reform. They're a reminder that fatherhood doesn't come naturally, that
most Western customs around marriage and monogamy have been a way to compel
men to share their resources -- and hopefully some of their time and love
-- with offspring who belong to them. "To this day, whether it's nature or
nurture, women are the mediators in families, and kids don't do as well in
households with only fathers," Wallerstein says. "It's the mother who
says, 'Leave your father alone, he had a hard day,' or tells the father,
'Tell Jimmy you're proud of his grades.'"

But even if her study seems to exonerate divorced mothers -- and it
feels good to get that chip off my shoulder -- I come back to the fact that
her sample is small and her results are probably dated. Most of the
divorced dads I know, and especially my ex, are much more available and
nurturing than fathers of the previous generation, and their kids can't help but do better than the 26 in Wallerstein's sample -- who, by the way, didn't do so badly, despite the hand-wringing headlines.

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Wallerstein's not so sure. I ask her, "Isn't it true that what
really puts kids at risk is not divorce itself, but having a mother who
gets depressed, a father who's much less involved, a sudden change in
living standards, high parental conflict ...?"

She cuts me off with an indulgent smile. "Well, yes, but you're
describing divorce. How do you get divorced without any of those things
happening?"

"It's possible," I tell her. Of course, I'm describing my own
situation, and I realize that, chip on my shoulder or not, I have a stake in
having a good divorce. Wallerstein realizes it too, and graciously grants
me that.

"It is possible. But it takes a lot of work. A good divorce is
about as much work as a good marriage. My research doesn't point to
restricting divorce. Divorce isn't going away. My work points to the
complexity of divorcing and doing it right for the children."

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Children Divorce Psychology




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