Biography - December 1997

Judith Wallerstein: Forget the Notion Divorce Won't Hurt Kids. It Will.

By Jane Meredith Adams

Parents who divorce like to think they re doing what's best, and that their youngsters will bounce back healthy and whole, with no long lasting trauma. Society in general upholds this idea, and our lawmakers and courts have followed suit with liberalized divorce laws. But psychologist Judith Wallerstein says it rarely works that way. "Too often," she reports, "children of divorce pay for their parents' breakup for years to come in both psychological and economical ways."

Wallerstein should know. One of the nation's leading experts on divorce, she heads a project unprecedented in the annals of psychological research. For 25 years, she has been following a group of 131 children whose parents split up.

Wallerstein knew all the details of the parents' marriages and divorces (in some cases, second, third, and even fourth divorces). She knows which kids smoked pot, which earned straight A’s, which had nightmares. And she remembers.

"The remarkable thing is that I have all the kids in my head," she says. "I remember every dream, every fantasy. I remember how they played, so I can remind them, and they love that because they have a sense of discontinuity [in their family setting]."

Into the political and social debate about the American family, Wallerstein has given voice to a group left unheard: the children themselves. Her startling findings - that 25 years after their parents' divorce, children continue to suffer emotional fallout - have reshaped the debate.

Judith Wallerstein: Let me give you a little bit of background. I've been working on children and divorce since 1970. In the center that I established, we've seen more divorcing families than anybody in America.

Now, what distinguishes this study is several things. One, that it is a very, very long study--25 years. There's nothing even comparable; I started with these children prior to the legal divorce--at the time that the parents separated. At that time the kids were 3 to 18. This was 1971, '72, which is just when divorce started to rise in America. And at that point, the prevailing view was that divorce was no big deal. That it would have no effect.

Biography: What does that mean? That it would have only a temporary effect?

Wallerstein: Not even an effect on children. There was some romantic notion that if we did away with the hypocrisy of having to go into court and to prove that the woman was a tramp and the father an alcoholic or vice versa, that parents and children would continue as before. Nobody foresaw the terrible issue of child support. Nobody foresaw that people wouldn't agree, that in most divorcing families with children only one person wants the divorce. It was assumed that if the marriage is broken down for one person, it's obviously broken down for both. That just isn't true. And nobody foresaw that the children would be in distress, because it was assumed, and it's all very logical, that any child would know that the parents are unhappy and it would be a great relief for the child.

The only trouble is none of this works out. Child support was an enormous issue. Women were very much economically less well off. It was also when women's lib was full of optimism: women would all become heads of General Motors. That didn't quite work out. I became interested in the subject when we moved to California, and 1 was teaching at Berkeley, which I did for 26 years, and I became a consultant to a whole lot of clinics. And nursery school teachers and elementary school teachers started to call. That's where our first alert came from. I mean nursery school teachers said that these kids were out of control, what should I do?

Biography: How were they out of control?

Wallerstein: Kids were very aggressive. They were hitting everything. They were throwing things. Or they were crying, or they were hiding their heads in their teachers' laps. Largely it was very aggressive behavior, or refusal to separate from the parents. The kids had terrible sleeping problems. When parents divorce, school children become very frightened that they'll be abandoned by both parents. Then they sit there and can't concentrate on anything. And they certainly cannot settle down and go to sleep because they're quite sure the minute they close their eyes, the parent will go. And their logic is irrefutable. If one parent can leave another, why can't both parents leave me? It's tragic.

Nobody told the kids anything. These kids didn't know what was happening, and they woke up one morning, and guess what? Daddy's gone, or Mommy's gone. Mostly daddy's gone. So we started to get all these calls, and I took myself to the Berkeley library and found that nobody had done a single bit of research on this issue. And at that point I decided I would look at it. It was as simple as that.

I was interested in children who were in good psychological condition prior to the breakup. These were middle class kids who had been well fed, well clad. This was a really nifty group of children, which makes the findings all the more striking. With college-educated parents, with professional fathers. Then I found that these kids were seriously unhappy, showing a lot of symptoms. I couldn't believe it. It's not what I expected.

Biography: The presumption was, there would be a crisis around the time of the divorce, and then the kids would get over it.

Wallerstein: Yes. So then we decided to follow them, and we were launched into what became the California Children's Divorce Study, which is now known all over the world. We started to publish professional articles, and our colleagues got angry at us. I mean, adults didn't want to believe what I said.

Biography: Why is that?

Wallerstein: Because there is a conflict of interest. I mean if you're married, and want out of the marriage, you want to think that your children will approve. You don't want to face their anger. You don't want to face their rejection. Parents are very concerned.

And lo and behold, we have a whole impoverished group of people because two can't live as cheap as one. And because people remarry very fast. About 80 percent of divorced men remarry. A lot of the fathers in my study, during periods in which their kids were growing up, married and divorced three times! I had one man who married five times. I first saw his son when he was six. He's now close to 30. I said to him, John, what do you make of your dad getting married five times? He said, I'll tell you. My dad has no identity and he has to marry so he can know who he is. That's a little different view of a father/son relationship, right?

After five years we published our first book, Surviving the Breakup. After ten years, I published Second Chances.

The method of the study is that I sit and I talk to a kid for hours. I know the kids well enough to say, come on Jimmy, tell me what really is happening in your marriage. Don't give me this big bunch of bull. And I know them extremely well. I remember every dream, every fantasy. I remember how they played. It used to wake me up in the middle of the night. I don't remember what I served for dinner yesterday, but I do remember that.

Biography: So what were your main findings that you want to emphasize in 25 years?

Wallerstein: The kids had a hard time remembering the pre-divorce family. And they had a hard time remembering all the things the courts were struggling with. You know, who's angry at who, who fights, but what they remembered about the post-divorce years was their sense that they had indeed been abandoned by both parents, that their nightmare [of abandonment] had come true. Because some of the mothers both went to work full-time and were also at school at night. They would lock the bedroom door to study. I mean, you can't study with a bunch of pre-school kids around.

The kids remembered a lot of baby sitters, one after another, or being in strangers' hands. They remembered they were left in the care of older kids, who threatened to hit them, or did hit them, because you know, a nine year old is a nine year old. And they remembered the years in the post-divorce family as lonely and feeling, as one kid said, I went for days without saying a word. Another kid said, I was angry at everybody for years. I was angry at my mom because she abandoned me. I was angry at my dad because he abandoned me. I was always angry at someone. So this was more important than the efforts of the court to tell parents, don't fight, don't fight. It's much bigger than don't fight. It's what kind of support can you provide for your children. And that's one of my main issues--that the serious issues were not being addressed.

Biography: What do you mean by serious issues?

Wallerstein: Well, the issue of the child feeling abandoned. I mean, I'm arguing for the fact that when you divorce, you have to plan for the child's post-divorce years, not just for what you're going to do the next year. Not just custody or visiting rights.

Biography: What would that require?

Wallerstein: There would be a built-in delay in getting that divorce, during which time parents--with help from the courts, mediators, counselors, educators, or whatever--would make plans for the whole lives of the children afterwards, including sending them to college. Only six of the kids we studied got full support during college, and these are sons and daughters of very wealthy people.

Biography: Because of the acrimony between the parents?

Wellerstein: Because of the second and third families, and acrimony, and the fact that there's no law. I asked the men, why didn't you send your son to college? They'd say, Look lady, I paid everything I was supposed to pay. I did everything I was supposed to do. Enough is enough.

One third of the kids we studied stopped their education in high school because they couldn't go to school and support themselves. One reporter I talked to said, Well I put myself through college. I knew my parents couldn't afford it, and I got out cum laude. Great. But how would she have felt if her father was earning $200,000 a year? Big difference.

These kids feel that they have paid for their parents' divorce, and I don't think they should. They are entirely unprotected. And they know it. You're making visiting orders and custody orders for young kids, okay? So when the same young kid gets to be older, I think that child should have an input. They don't.

Biography: About how they want to be living?

Wallerstein: Yeah, and the metaphor I use, because I wanted to say something very clear to these people, is that it's like we bought a pair of shoes for a child at age six, and we expect the child to wear the same shoes at age 10, 12, and 15. And when the child limps, complains, and can hardly walk anymore, we don't change those shoes.

Biography: What would you like the courts to do?

Wallerstein: I would like to build in flexible orders. Obviously a six year old can't decide, but a twelve year old can.

Biography: It seems like what you've done is given a voice to the children. Children haven't been heard.

Wallerstein: They haven't been heard at all. They're mute.

Biography: What else would you like to see the courts do?

Wallerstein: I'm arguing that divorce is not a trauma from which a child recovers. It's a long-lasting effect which for many children is cumulative. I'm saying that for these kids, the crescendo was in their 20s, because that's when they ran into relationships, and that's where they suddenly faced the ghosts. And they were especially frightened of having children; they didn't want their children to experience their feelings. The model I'm suggesting is a long-term, a cumulative experience, which peaks at different places. It peaks at college, when they can't go to college and they feel like second-class citizens. Half of my kids got involved in serious sex and drugs and alcohol in adolescence. Nobody intervened. They felt nobody cared. As one young woman said, I kept coming home to an empty house, and that's how I became involved in drugs and sex. We have to implement long-term planning, building in changes as the child grows, assuring that the kid will have the same college as they would have had the family remained intact. Now there's a wonderful suggestion by a professor of law at Harvard that I would like to see implemented. Her name is Mary Ann Glendon, and she's suggesting this would really cut down the divorce rate, that before you divide marital property, you set up economic provisions for the children. Wow. It's a theory suggested from a professor of law, it's not just a fly-by-night.

Biography: What if the family doesn't have a lot of money?

Wallerstein: Probably those children wouldn't have gone to college anyway.I'm just saying they should have the same. I'm not saying these kids should be a privileged group; I'm saying they shouldn't be second-class citizens because of the divorce.

Biography: It seems like part of the thinking was it was better to be divorced than to be fighting and generally unhappy. Tell me a little about that.

Wallerstein: The question is, should people stay married for the sake of the children? I think adults have rights. I'm not saying only children have rights.

And on the other hand, should we have some ways of educating people better for marriage? Of course.

Biography: What would those ways be?

Wallerstein: Well, we're into a whole new field. I think that there would be real room in adolescence for teaching about relationships. Not marriage. But how do you choose a friend? What's the difference between liking and loving? Teaching child care to high school boys and girls. In other words, I think preparation for family life shouldn't be left for television.

At a Glance

Name: Judith Wallerstein

Born: 27 December 1921, New York City.

Education: Undergraduate education at Hunter College, New York City; graduate degree in social work from Columbia University, New York City; Ph.D. in psychology from Lund University, Sweden.

Personal: Married to psychiatrist Robert Wallerstein for 50 years.

Children: Michael, 46; Nina, 44; Amy, 40.

Resident of Belvedere, California, for 31 years.

Achievements: Founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition, a research, education, and training center in Cone Madera, California. Co-author of Surviving the Breakup, Second Chances, and The Good Marriage. Recently returned as a senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.


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Judith Wallerstein's Ten Tips for Divorcing Parents

1. Be direct in age-appropriate ways. Explain that while you'd hoped the marriage would last forever, it wasn't working out. Present the divorce as a solution both parents have come to reluctantly.

2. Tell your children they remain one of the joys of your life.

3. Apologize for the hurt and disruption the divorce is causing.

4. Reassure your children they did not cause the divorce and cannot rescue the marriage.

5. If one parent has moved out, take the children to the new residence so it becomes real to them.

6. Before going to court, work out a financial plan to cover your children's needs through college. If possible, set this money aside in a trust fund before dividing assets.

7. Give your children a voice in flexible-custody arrangements. Don't force a 14-year-old to abide by a plan developed when the child was five.

8. Allow your children to mourn.

9. Seek professional help for your children, if needed.

10. Let your children know it's okay to love both parents.