- The traumatic effects of divorce arrive most powerfully
in the lives of children decades after their parents separate,
according to an historic study carried out at the University
of California, Berkeley.
of its kind to follow children of divorce into adulthood,
the study has discovered that while an initial breakup is
painful for children, the greatest impact comes when, as adults,
they try to form their own intimate relationships and families.
these children tend to make poor judgments, according to landmark
research carried out by Judith Wallerstein, a national authority
on divorce and a senior lecturer emerita at UC Berkeley, where
she taught for 26 years in the School of Social Welfare. Wallerstein,
who is also founder of the Center for the Family in Transition
in Corte Madera, Calif,, began the study in 1971 and has followed
approximately 100 Bay Area children for 25 years.
of 93 of these children, now aged 28 to 43, and the impact
of their parents' divorces on their personal lives, is told
in a new book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year
Landmark Study," published by Hyperion. It is co-authored
with Julia M. Lewis, professor of psychology at San Francisco
State University, and Sandra Blakeslee, science correspondent
for The New York Times.
challenge the myth that divorce is a transient crisis and
that as soon as parents reestablish their lives, the children
will recover fully. That doesn't happen," said Wallerstein
in an interview.
that, in spite of their difficulties, most of the children
in this book do eventually conquer their ghosts. They make
more mistakes. They have extended adolescences. Finally, after
a slew of early marriages and divorces, several of the children
find good partners and become good parents. Others still were
struggling at the 25-year mark.
doable, but it's harder," said Wallerstein. "Parenting erodes
almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored
for years, if ever. Throughout the postdivorce years, children
have less protection and less nurturance.
see that the major hurt is in adulthood when internalized
images of the mother, father and their relationship come to
center stage and shape the choices their grown children make,"
the work lives of these grown children largely were unaffected
by the divorce, but their personal lives included crippling
fears of loss and disaster, fewer marriages, fewer offspring,
more divorces, and greater use of drugs and alcohol during
youth compared to a similar group of children from intact
families in the same neighborhoods.
25-year follow up, Wallerstein interviewed a second group
of 44 adults from intact families that grew up alongside the
children of divorce and attended the same schools.
between their lives offer compelling testimony to the lasting
effects of divorce on children. (Except for the divorce, parents'
problems in the two groups were remarkably similar, Wallerstein
percent of the adult children of divorce are married at this
point compared to 80 percent of adults whose parents' marriages
percent of the adult children of divorce have their own children,
17 percent of them out of wedlock. In the comparison group,
61 percent group have children, all in the context of marriage.
* The children
of divorce were far more likely to marry before age 25 - 50
percent, compared to 11 percent of the comparison group -
resulting in a much higher divorce rate. (Fifty-seven percent
of these early marriages failed, compared to 25 percent of
early marriages in the comparison group.)
29 percent of children from divorced families received consistent
support for higher education from their fathers, compared
to 88 percent of the children from intact families.
percent of the children of divorce used drugs and alcohol
before age 14 compared to nine percent of the comparison group.
said it was a tribute to the resilience and perseverance of
the children of divorce that they were able to do well in
careers despite the greater difficulty they had getting a
the children were at the time of the divorce, the more they
were harmed, said Wallerstein. Preschoolers in this study
typically suffered a grievous loss of maternal attention,
a loss that is recounted in the book in the story of Paula.
by a "vast unsoothable sense of loneliness" since the day
her world collapsed when she was four years old, Paula experienced
an intolerable deprivation of parental attention throughout
childhood. As a young adult, her life became chaotic and self-destructive.
Now 33, divorced, with a young child, Paula is working very
hard to turn her life around. Her story is one of seven representative
case histories in this book that carry the message of the
impact of divorce.
said she does not advocate that a couple stay together no
matter what their marriage is like. In fact, the worst marriage
in the book occurred in an intact family, said the authors,
where parents visited a kind of prolonged hell on their children
and probably should have divorced.
cases," she said, " a divorce can be better for children if
one of the parents can turn her or his life around and serve
as an example."
most cases, "Life will be harder for the child because parenting
is harder," said Wallerstein.
that the "trickle-down" theory of divorce is a myth. Parents
like to believe that if they are unhappy in their marriage,
the children also will be unhappy. Conversely, if divorce
is better for them, it will be better for the children. But
things don't work that way, she said. Children frequently
do not share their parents' unhappiness with a problematic
marriage, while a divorce brings pain into their lives that,
until now, has gone unrecognized.