The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce
A 25-Year Landmark Study of Divorced Families
by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee
New York: Hyperion (2000)
Reviewed by Karen and Ron Flowers
From the flyleaf-
“Twenty-five years ago, Judith Wallerstein began talking to a group of 131 children whose parents were all going through a divorce. She asked them to tell her about the intimate details of the lives, which they did with remarkable candor. Having earned their trust, Wallerstein was rewarded with a deeply moving portrait of each of their lives as she followed them from childhood, through their adolescent struggles, and into adulthood. In her book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), Wallerstein offers us the only close-up study of divorce ever conducted-a unique report that will change our fundamental beliefs about divorce and offer new hope for the future.
“Wallerstein chooses seven children who most embody the common life experiences of the larger group and follows their lives in vivid detail through adolescence and into their love affairs, their marriage successes and failures, and parenting their own children. In Wallerstein’s hands, the experiences and anxieties of this generation of children, now in their late twenties to early forties, come to life. We watch as they struggle with the fear that their relationships will fail like those of their parents. Lacking an internal template of what a successful relationship looks like, they must invent their own code of behavior in a culture that offers many models and few guidelines. Wallerstein shows how many overcame their dread of betrayal to find loving partners and to become successful, protective parents-and how others are still struggling to find their heart’s desire without knowing why they feel so frightened. She also demonstrates their great strengths and accomplishments, as a generation of survivors who often had to raise themselves and help their parents through difficult times.
“For the first time, using a comparison group of adults who grew up in the same communities, Wallerstein shows how adult children of divorce essentially view life differently from their peers raised in intact homes where parents also confronted marital difficulties but decided on balance to stay together. In this way she sheds light on the question so many parents confront-whether to stay unhappily married or to divorce.
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce should be essential reading for all adult children of divorce, their lovers, their partners, divorced parents or those considering divorce, judges, attorneys, and mental health professionals. Challenging some of our most cherished beliefs, this is a book that will forever alter how we think about divorce and its long-term impact.
A summary of findings-
- For children, the impact of divorce is cumulative. The first upheaval is felt when the divorce occurs. But the impact of the experience “increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood” (p. 298). Through each of life’s stages the divorce is experienced in new and different ways. In their adult experience, the divorce affects “personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change” (p. 298).
- From the disruption of their lives at the time of the divorce, children draw the conclusion, sadly, that adult relationships are fragile and that they can come apart suddenly, without warning. It follows in their minds that if their parents’ marriage could end so capriciously, so parent-child ties may be broken at any time, leaving them abandoned and alone.
- The immediate aftermath of the divorce does little to allay their fears. They are lonely. Routines are disrupted and households are in disarray for years. As adults they remember the difficulties of moving between two dwellings, missing important events and contact with their friends, and the loss of their parents’ time and attention as they focus on rebuilding their own lives. Many were forced to take up adult responsibilities to care for themselves and their siblings, even their parents, long before they were ready. For many this was compounded by the added stress of relating to their parents’ new partnerships. Most felt that no one is listening to them. Nothing insured that their changing needs and feelings would be considered. For the most part, they did not understand why the divorce had occurred, despite what may have seemed obvious to the parents. Those who had a wide network of support in the extended family, school, church and community, or who could muster more inner resources, did better than those who did not have such resources on which to draw.
- In adolescence, girls from divorced families were more likely to engage in sexual activity, and both boys and girls from divorced families used alcohol and drugs more frequently than adolescents from intact homes.
- “It’s in adulthood that children of divorce suffer the most” (p. 299). They have no inner sense of how a healthy marriage works. “Anxiety about relationships was at the bedrock of their personalities” (p. 300). Even those who eventually marry happily fear that their happiness and even their marriage could evaporate at the first sign of conflict. Fears of loss and betrayal may eventually be overcome with persistent effort, but a residue remains for most that leaves them “terrified by the mundane differences and inevitable conflict found in close relationships” (p. 301).
- Many remain very angry with their parents for having been “selfish and faithless” (p. 300). Many said they have no intention of helping their parents in old age. Others feel more compassion and pity. Some remained in close relationships with one or both of their parents, others were estranged. Some young women in particular struggled to separate from their mothers for whom they had been a source of strength and encouragement.
- There are many survivors, who despite the traumas of their childhoods, have built successful careers and meaningful relationships with family and friends. Their resilience is the mark of their courage and hard effort to recreate a better template for intimacy within themselves.
What we can and cannot do-
- We cannot turn back the clock to a time when divorce was not among the real options.
- Wallerstein would begin with an effort to strengthen marriages, with new marriages a special target group since 80 percent of divorces in America occur within the first nine years of marriage. Couples need help “to fully understand the nature of contemporary man-woman relationships . . . [and] to appreciate the difficulties modern couples confront in balancing work and family, separateness and togetherness, conflict and cooperation” (p. 303).
- We can build on efforts toward effective premarital preparation by intervening with teens in mid-adolescence, when “attitudes toward oneself and relationships with the opposite sex are beginning to gel. . . . [and] worries about sex, love, betrayal, and morality take center stage. Wallerstein suggests beginning with the deceptively simple question: “How do you choose a friend?” Teens could then be drawn into discussion probing such topics as “differences between boys and girls, cultural subgroups, and how people resolve tensions” (p. 304). Family life courses which are true-to-life could be offered at both the high school and college levels. creating a setting for open, honest dialogue that is respectful of the life experience of both student and teacher.
- We can support social programs which buffer couple and family stress by making it possible for parents to spend more time with each other and their children and to be available for one another when needed-programs such as paid family leave, flex time, more opportunities for part-time work and job-sharing, protection on the corporate ladder from loss of position because of family leave.
- We can help adult children of divorce understand how their “fears and feelings were forged in the crucible of [their] parent’s divorce . . . [and how] these emotions, which are often hidden from consciousness, have the power to affect [their] marriages, [their] parenting, indeed the quality of their entire lives” (p. 306). We can help them be about the most important task of their generation-achieving better relationships-by encouraging them to delay marriage until they better understand themselves and what they want from a partner. We can model for them relationships that are working and encourage them to seek counseling help to “close the door on [their] parents’ divorce, to separate the now from the then” (p. 306).
- We can make parents considering divorce aware that what their children need from them is nurturing care despite their adult difficulties. If parents can separate these two arenas of their lives and provide quality parenting, they should consider making their own expectations and desires in marriage secondary to staying together in order to provide a stable, nurturing home for their children. Children are not as negatively affected by conflict in the marriage relationship as they are by divorce. It must be added however, that parents considering the decision to stay together for the good of their children should be parents who can “with grace and without anger . . . make the sacrifice required to maintain the benefits of the marriage for their children.” This is not a consideration for those whose marriages are “so explosive or chaotic or unsafe that husband and wife [feel] living together [is] intolerable” (p. 307).
- We can educate parents considering divorce about what parenting will realistically be like after divorce. They will need to know that to be a good parent they will have to spend much more time with their children, leaving very little time to pursue a new relationship. Their children are likely to be more demanding, angry and difficult to handle than before. They need to know that no matter what the custody arrangements are, they will, for the most part, be working as a single parent when it comes to making decisions and taking responsibility for their child. And if the child is to get through the experience with the least amount of trauma possible, someone will have to make the sacrifice to maintain household structure and routine as well as to offer comfort, a listening ear, and practical help. Hands-on responsibility does not end with childhood, either. It extends through early adulthood, and includes help with tuition through college where the parent is financially able.
- We can provide better services for families in the throes of breaking up, focusing on “what needs to be done to protect each child in each household” (p. 309). We can better provide the education, counseling and mediation needed by divorced and re-married families. Parents need adult support for themselves. They need help to anticipate the changes that lie ahead and to develop “co-parenting” skills to protect their children as they negotiate them. Children need play opportunities to convey their feelings and worries, and caring adults who can impart information to them about the divorce calmly and slowly, again and again. Adolescent groups provide an “excellent vehicle for clarifying divorce, ventilating anger at parents, dealing with issues of morality, and discussing the adolescents’ fears that their own future relationships might fail” (p. 311). We can provide a place where parents can come for many years ahead to discuss the changing needs of their children and plan how to best respond to them. We can give children of divorce the “voice” in what happens to them for which so many have been crying out.
- We can work toward better laws which give children voice and protect them in their most vulnerable years.