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Coming Apart

THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE By Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee; Hyperion: 352 pp., $24.95

September 24, 2000|VALERIE H. COLB | Valerie H. Colb is a family lawyer and the co-author with Susan Goldstein of "The Smart Divorce."

There was a time not long ago, in the "perfect" world of the 1950s, when every American family at the dinner table was expected to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting and any marriage that ended in divorce was considered a disgrace. Divorce, declared sociology textbooks of the time, was a public acknowledgment of failure, and a man or woman who was divorced often became an object of scorn and gossip in the neighborhood.

But in a scant 50 years, the social pendulum has swung the other way in dramatic fashion. Today nearly half of all American marriages don't last, which is more than twice the rate of other industrialized nations. Between 1970 and the mid-1990s, the number of divorced Americans grew from 4.3 million to 17.4 million, causing various institutions to issue gloomy pronouncements.

"At no time in history, with the possible exception of Imperial Rome, has the institution of marriage been more problematic than it is today," a demographer says in a report published by the Council on Families in America. "In a high-divorce society, not only are more unhappy marriages likely to end in divorce, but in addition more marriages are likely to become unhappy."

Various scholars and think tanks have spent time and endowments hunting for explanations behind this growth in the number of divorces--sexual liberation in the '60s, new attitudes about cohabitation versus marriage and no-fault divorce laws--but few have paused to consider another serious and often overlooked aspect of divorce: the children caught in the middle.

And this is why Judith Wallerstein's "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," a purportedly definitive study of the long-term effects of divorce on children, is an anxiously awaited study. Although it offers many glimpses into the lives of children of divorce, it delivers less than it promises. Wallerstein believes that society should protect children who are involuntarily enmeshed in divorce. But she provides no recipe for that protection and suggests that none exists.

Wallerstein and her colleagues studied the children of 60 middle-class Marin County couples who were going through divorces in 1971. These children were interviewed every five years for 25 years. This sample offered a unique opportunity to gain perspective on the influence of divorce on these children and, by extension, on other children. And the outcome, as one might expect, is grim. Drawing on strong anecdotal information, the study describes how many of the children, as adults, experienced alcohol abuse, unhappy marriages, physical abuse, a failure to realize their academic potential, rage and neurosis.

The study's most serious flaw, however, is the sample: The children were selected because their families were already experiencing serious problems and had been referred to the Wallerstein clinic, which had been established by the study's senior author. Long-term counseling was offered as an incentive. Families who were divorcing but were either not experiencing serious problems or did not feel they needed counseling were excluded from the sample. The negative impact of divorce therefore seems more dramatic than it may actually be. In addition, the validity of a study which draws its conclusions from a mere 60 participants, is suspect.

Wallerstein accepts, without question, that divorce is the root of many of the children's later problems in life. She fails to consider the psychological history of the participants. The majority of the families who participated in the study were already psychologically troubled. Divorce may not have been the source of their troubles, although it undoubtedly contributed.

Wallerstein too readily accepts these children's complaints that all of their problems were caused by their parents' divorce. The "divorce excuse" is an echo of psychological theories in which blame for an individual's problems is laid at the doorstep of the parents.

On the other hand, when a child in this study was successful at marriage or career, Wallerstein contends that the success is an exception. With the large volume of families who have now gone through divorce, this contention seems unlikely and is statistically indefensible.

It is axiomatic that troubled high-conflict marriages produce troubled high-conflict divorces. It is not a great insight, then, to conclude that high-conflict divorces have severe effects on the children involved and that children from psychologically fragile families are more vulnerable to the stresses of divorce. Wallerstein concludes that vulnerable children, such as children with ADD, physical handicaps or severe medical problems, are more at risk in divorce. She also compares "good intact families" to divorcing families and, not surprisingly, determines that the children of "good intact families" fare better psychologically than those families that experienced divorce. A 25-year longevity study was not necessary to reach these conclusions.

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