Berkeley - 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.
The first 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
As adults, 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.
The stories 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.
"Our findings 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.
She emphasized 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.
"It is 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
"We now 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," she said.
She said 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.
For the 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.
Comparisons 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 said.)
* Sixty percent of the adult children of divorce
are married at this point compared to 80 percent of adults whose
parents' marriages lasted.
* Thirty-eight 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.)
* Only 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
* Twenty-five percent of the children of divorce
used drugs and alcohol before age 14 compared to nine percent
of the comparison group.
Wallerstein 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 college education.
The younger 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.
Afflicted 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.
Wallerstein 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.
"In extreme 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."
But in most cases, "Life will be harder
for the child because parenting is harder," said Wallerstein.
She added 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.
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