Pluck and circumstance

Judith Wallerstein makes a case for marriage, and on rare occasions, a healthy divorce.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney
October 5, 2000 12:30AM (UTC)
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For a therapist who has focused on the depressing -- and frequently alarming -- fallout of divorce for the past 30 years, Judith Wallerstein is remarkably optimistic. Even an extensive book tour, promoting "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study," has not dampened the high spirits of this 78-year-old expert on marital failure. If nothing else, the three decades Wallerstein has spent documenting the impact of divorce on children have caused her to become more urgent, more biting and less forgiving about the way adults in this country -- at home, in the courts, in counseling -- treat children in the midst and aftermath of divorce. She is enthusiastic, and specific, about changes that can and should happen to help kids with battling parents have healthier lives as adults.

Talking from the home she shares with her husband of 53 years, Wallerstein says she is aware of how difficult it is for the world to accept her conclusion that divorce is worse for kids than anyone imagined. But, she warns, the impulse to believe that children are resilient, that they "get over" the difficulties of divorce, that they are better off when bickering parents split up, is selfish of parents and disrespectful of children. The era in which Americans decided to make divorces easier to obtain was one of "unrealistic euphoria," says Wallerstein, and we are all, though we are reluctant to accept it, suffering from the consequences.


Jennifer Foote Sweeney, editor of Mothers Who Think, interviewed Wallerstein for

This is a very complicated effort covering three decades and 131 children, along with, more recently, a comparison group of children from "intact families." How can the various kinds of fallout from dysfunction, and the origins of dysfunction, be interpreted accurately?

I am drawing some general recommendations. I am saying that there is all too little consideration of the importance of maintaining the integrity of the child's friendships and playtime. I am saying that the courts and a lot of mental health people and a lot of parents give priority to the parents dividing up the child. That is terrible; that is man-made and woman-made chaos. There are certain things that we can do blithely without recognizing the impact on children. We need to undo them.


In reasonably good, intact families, for instance, parents go out of their way to think in terms of what kind of vacation a child might like to have. They don't think in terms of who gets July and who gets August. It's ridiculous and it is unfair. And what I'm reporting is that these children feel that their lives have been cut into to please their parents and that they've paid for their parents' divorce -- and that is undoable. That is absolutely undoable.

But can you let children define, even help decide, how the divorce is going to work? Isn't there a prevailing idea that by giving children that kind of power you make them feel insecure?

I'm not saying that children should rule the roost; I'm just saying that children shouldn't feel like a piece of baggage. I'm arguing for such minimal things -- that court orders should recognize that, each year, each child is a year older.


I have a hunch that someday we'll look back on what we do now as the Middle Ages. The notion that court orders should stand regardless of how the child grows -- it's like taking a child's shoe size when they are 6 and using it for years after, regardless of the pain it causes the child.

To what extent are children aware of the impact of early events of their lives on their adult behavior?


I think most people, I hate to talk for most people, but generally speaking, people don't sit around reflecting on the connection between their past and their present. One of the striking things about this whole group [in my study] is that they were angry, but they were also very compassionate with parents that they thought had had a very hard time. They didn't point a finger and say their parents were terrible people and they didn't care about them.

The memories of their early experiences tend to fade except where there was violence -- those remain etched. I'm in this unique position of having the record of what happened, so I know when a woman of 30 says to me, "I remember Dad coming into the living room with a loaded gun," I've got it; I've got the fact that the police were called, that the father was arrested. And if she says, "I don't remember consciously, but I dream about this, and it's a nightmare for me twice a week," obviously the memory has persisted.

One reason I wrote the book is to help these people, who represent one-quarter of our adult population, who have divorced parents make the connections that I think will help them diminish some of their struggles. Like the feeling "I can't trust anybody," or "Even if I trust somebody, I can't trust them completely." They realize this is not something they're alone with. It's widely shared. I think it will help.


The other issue that I came across so unexpectedly -- I call it the second-shoe syndrome -- is one that is useful to deal with for adult children of divorced parents. They often have this syndrome that is described as "Whenever I'm happy, I'm afraid it's going to vanish." This is not just people in the study. I get letters from people all over the country, from children of divorce, who say they are married and have wonderful spouses and children and, they say, "Every night when I go to sleep I am afraid when I wake up in the morning, they'll be gone."

This is a widespread experience and very serious because then you are scared to be happy and it's terrible to go through life that way. It is a post-traumatic symptom of having their home vanish as children. I think if people know this experience is widely shared, it will help them.

When you mention your discovery of the tendency of people to go to "lyrical heights" when someone is finally listening, can we also assume that in your interviews there is some wish to please or to dramatize events for purposes of pleasing or impressing the interviewer?


You know, that is a hard question because whatever method you use, it has certain advantages and disadvantages. What we finally learned is that any time you study anything, you change it in some way. How much it changes, I don't know.

I saw these young people once every five years. I would really have to be very omnipotent in my own fantasies about my influence to think that the one visit every five years was a major influence on their lives. Whether they talked to please me -- probably as adolescents they did. On the other hand, later on, as they grew into their 20s, they also said, "You know, during that whole interview with you five years ago, I was high as a kite."

They may have had flights of fantasy, but I was taken aback by their honesty. It isn't only that they were so eloquent, it's that they were also so hard-hitting. Like that young man, Larry, who says, "All I learned from my dad is how not to be a father." I was taken aback. That's not eloquence, but if a playwright wrote that, he'd be happy.

I think they meant what they said. I think they said things strongly, but I think they felt them strongly.


To what extent do studies and findings about marriage and divorce lose relevancy as people find myriad other ways to live together and create nontraditional families? Is the paradigm of marriage and divorce a logical one to explore at this point?

You know, that is a very interesting question, but paradoxically, most of these adults who grew up in divorced families wanted a long-lasting, faithful marriage. A few said, "If you marry, you divorce," and they were going to avoid marriage, but most wanted a lasting relationship with one person. So, in our heads, we still seem to be dealing with a paradigm that seems, I grant you, shaky.

I don't know which way the family is going, but it's not as if people standing at the threshold of adulthood are saying anything different than what they've always said. I think what is striking is that there appears to be a discrepancy between the wishes of young adults and the culture in which we live. We have a sense that we are living in a world that is always changing and that we really don't know what tomorrow's going to be like, but nonetheless, in the hearts and minds of these people, they wanted what they thought their parents failed at, and what they thought was very hard, maybe impossible, to get.

To what extent is the impact of divorce the same as the impact of growing up with parents in a lousy relationship?


I really try to answer that in some detail in my book. The worst family in my book is an intact family where the people are in constant conflict. They are very respected people in the community outside, but every night they fight and it soon escalates either into hitting each other or sex or hitting one of the children. The evening always ends on this macabre note. It is a family in which the children are totally marginalized and victimized. I have seen that in divorced families and I've seen it in intact families. So if we are talking about dreadful parenting, it has its full share in both.

The effects are the worst where the child has no parenting. There can be some advantage to a youngster coming out of a violent family if one parent is able to show an example of somebody who does something about their life in a constructive way. That is a very important model for the kids; that's much better than staying in a destructive marriage. You have to have one parent who gives priority to the children, and that's not always true -- in intact or divorcing families.

Is it only children of divorce who live in what you describe as "parallel universes"? How about children who are abused? Children who have lost a parent? Children who are adopted? Children with gay parents? Children of teenage parents? Children of alcohol-addicted or drug-addicted parents?

Children who are in any important category of their lives different -- whether it's because they are disadvantaged or superadvantaged and brought up with nannies and maids -- feel they live in a parallel universe. What is important is that we didn't think that children of divorce lived in parallel universes. I'm just adding to the list a group of children whom we didn't think belonged there. This came as a surprise to me too. We really thought, and I contributed to this assumption -- the book is a "mea also culpa" -- that there would be no continuing sense of "I'm a child of divorce." It turns out there is.


How much could we have known or assumed about the impact of divorce on children at the time that laws were made to make divorce easier? That period, especially in California in 1970, when the state established no-fault divorce, is one that you cite as a turning point.

I think there was so much euphoria, at least in California. Governor Reagan signed the bill with a flourish, backed by several task forces that were broadly representative of the right, the left, the church, secular groups. There was a sense that "we are breaking out of the shackles of hypocrisy. We no longer have to rely on proving adultery." There was a sense that if one person wants out, it can't be much of a marriage, and that the children would flourish because parents would be living without hypocrisy, and they would undo the mistake of the first marriage in a good second marriage. It was a period of unrealistic euphoria.

They were not, at that time, even concerned with what would happen with the children financially, much less emotionally. The bill became a law in 1970 and there was a bestseller at the time called "Creative Divorce." I think the fantasy was: "I am going to get those years back and I'm going to start from the beginning." It's a very touching fantasy that did not really consider any of the detrimental effects.

Remarriage seems to be interchangeable with divorce in many of your conclusions. I couldn't always tell if remarriage improved or worsened the effects of divorce. Do children ever trade the template of a bad marriage and divorce with a good one demonstrated in remarriage?

I tried to portray several really good stepparents in situations where the kid wasn't ready for them -- and the opposite situation, where a youngster really wanted a good relationship and the stepparent wasn't willing to put in the effort. It is true that if you look at national statistics, children from divorced families and children from remarried families have similar difficulties academically and similar difficulties in their whole psychological adjustment; they are much more frequently referred by teachers for counseling than children from intact families.

But what I found is that where there were really good remarriages on both sides -- this is the tricky thing -- those kids did much better. The trouble is that I had less than 10 percent [of cases] where remarriages lasted and where both the mother and the father had good remarriages. Two good remarriages -- that's a blessing -- or if there are grandparents in a stable marriage.

So the example of a strong marriage in the immediate family also had a positive impact?

Of course. Most of them didn't have that, but those who did were way ahead of the game when they came into their adulthood.

After all you've seen, do you believe that children can be prepared adequately for divorce?

I don't know what "adequately" means, but it certainly can be done better than giving what I call the real estate explanation: "Your dad is going to live here and your mom's going to live here." All that does is emphasize the fact that life is totally unpredictable and that you're likely to lose what you've got.

It has to start by saying, "When your dad and I married, we loved each other." We don't want these children to feel that they were born out of anger, out of a marriage that never should have happened. We have to give them some sense of a good tradition. I was bowled over by the number of adults from the intact families who told me in detail of their parents' courtships. That just blew me away. I would have sworn they had been there.

By the same token, you feel that parents who are having a crisis in an intact family or splitting up should be honest about how difficult marriage can be, how it requires work -- sort of a realistic accounting of what marriage can involve.

That is profoundly important. Children need help and they often don't get any from parents. For instance, this going back and forth is not easy for a 4-year-old. Children don't generally go back and forth in their lives. Some children are able to negotiate it with ease, but for some children, it is a source of great anxiety -- especially since they learn very quickly, like little CIA agents, not to talk in Mommy's house about what happens in Daddy's house.

These are tasks we don't usually expect children to do and they need help, like a 10-year-old whom a parent may not see as needing much help. Well, a 10-year-old girl needs help being alone at her father's house. Many of these young girls worry about whether they will have their first menstrual period at their father's home and what would they do. Adults don't remember that. There are all these issues that these children deal with by themselves.

And if any one parent says, "My child isn't ready for this," it is interpreted as that parent not being friendly to the other parent. The friendly parent is a terrible preoccupation in the courts.

Is the life-transforming experience of divorce ever good? Is anything in the experience beneficial?

I think it is enormously beneficial to have the example of parents who take constructive action on their own behalf and really are able to understand all that's involved in the very difficult demands of the years right after the divorce. Parents are rebuilding their lives, maintaining parenting and finances -- all of which is overwhelming. I think it can be a great example of courage and responsible adulthood. But there has to be an improvement in the quality of life for the child so they can see the benefit.

The child should not feel that his life has diminished. He should be allowed to benefit from the divorce -- not just be told that his life is better. If there is going to be all this discombobulation, I think you have to say to the child, "It's going to be pretty messed up here for the next couple of months, and I will try to keep you informed about everything that is going on, and we will try to talk about these things, but we are going to come out of this." And I think it is very useful to use old-fashioned words and say things like "We are all going to be brave. I'm going to make this work." I think there are ways to approach this that can make it not a pleasant experience, but an important growth experience for the child.

What is your take on the fathers movement and its impact on children of divorce?

I think it's both good and bad. What is wonderful about it is the recognition by fathers that they want to be fathers, and that they want to be fathers in the family and outside the family and that they treat this part of their lives with respect and with affection. What is bad about it is that it has increased the sense of dividing up the child, as if the child were an inanimate object. It has led to a great increase in joint custody -- whether or not it is good for the child.

It may be great for Jimmy and awful for Mary Anne. It may be great for Jimmy at age 4 but terrible for him at age 8. A child is a moving object, and a lot of demands of the fathers movement have been strident and not sufficiently attuned to the child. There is this simplistic cry of "I'm a father, look at me!" Well, bully for you. That's not enough.

The fathers have relied a little too much on court orders to maintain their roles. There is no substitute for winning the child's respect and affection on our own, for bending to that relationship, putting into it what it needs.

In defense of fathers, I will say that they remarry faster than women and that to be a father in two families, or even three, requires a hero. And I don't think we can expect people to be heroes. It is hard enough these days to be ordinary people.

I was interested in your statement in the book about how children of divorced parents are less likely to care for those parents later in life. What will be the impact of the abandonment of divorced parents by their children?

I picked this up by surprise. One young man said, "My dad has prostate cancer and I'm sorry, but I'm not going to be there for him; he wasn't here for me." It's tit for tat. They want a parent who was faithful, and where they felt a parent had been faithful, that was something they felt they owed back. It is a classic case of "You reap what you sow." I think a lot of people haven't realized that. I just chanced on this, and then a study came out of Johns Hopkins saying that it was a widespread phenomenon that children wouldn't support stepfathers or parents they felt had been unfaithful. It is a very human thing, but it is a rude awakening. All these little pigeons come home to roost.

What is the case for marriage? Could your study be seen as a case against marriage?

I've been married for 53 years [she laughs] -- that is a case for marriage. It's true that the book is about how perilous marriage can be. There is a case for marriage: It is that life is lonely and that adults need love and friendship and companionship. And as one of my friends said, "A dog is faithful but that's not the same."

The case for marriage is that we need to feel that there is at least one person in the whole wide world with whom you have absolute priority. What I have always felt about my husband is that he would find me. If there were an earthquake, I know that he would look for me forever. And that makes a difference in your whole life -- that is what makes it worthwhile. Of course, if you have a really good marriage, there is lots of other stuff too.

Can we duplicate this by living together without benefit of clergy? Of course some people can. I think that's a given. But heartbreak is heartbreak -- if you break up, even if you aren't married, you can't avoid that. Essentially, it is true legally that if you don't marry you don't divorce, but it is not true that you don't break your heart.

This has been such a long haul. Is this work depressing for you? Exhausting?

It isn't, partly because a lot of these kids ended up doing well. But I did get distressed about the kids who had had no parenting, where they didn't have any parenting before or after divorce, so the divorce essentially brought them nothing but financial problems.

I also was very distressed about the number of kids who didn't get help going to college, especially the ones in states where child support ends at age 18. I knew, and they knew, that had their parents stayed married, they would have gone to college with a lot of financial help. It's a terrible finding.

So there are very depressing parts of this. But when it was getting to me, I wrote that book on the good marriage ["The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts"]. I had a ball with that book. It was a book about married couples where he said, "This is a heck of a great marriage," and she said, "This is a heck of a great marriage." That was fun. It was fun for them, fun for me.

To what extent do your personal experience and that of your family have an impact on your work?

It has an enormous impact on me. I've had a cheering squad, I've had my own clique. I'm not married to a man who is jealous. He's tickled: He has put together a scrapbook about me and my work. And the kids are delighted. I have a son who is a professor of political science at Northwestern, and he called up and said, "I couldn't stop reading your book, Mom. It's the best work you've ever done." That's nice.

Does your experience make it hard for you to understand how people can get to the point of divorce? Your experience of life is completely different.

No, it's not hard to understand -- it includes my best friends. I live in the world; I live in the same divorce culture. I know that everybody's got a threshold and that divorce is not occurring necessarily because of high conflict but because of being lonely in a marriage. The central function of marriage is to assuage that loneliness. A lot of times I want to say to somebody: "What took you so long?"

Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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