Judith Wallerstein is a psychologist and researcher who has devoted 25 years to the study of the long-term effects of divorce. Her work is thoughtful, professional, and disturbing. It is also informal, anecdotal, and subject to frightening misinterpretation.
Strengths and Findings of Wallerstein’s Research
Wallerstein began her research in the early 1970’s with 131 children of divorce. She interviewed at length both the children and their parents. She has continued to follow those same families as the children have matured into adulthood and begun families of their own, continuing periodic interviews and checking their progress through life. Wallerstein’s research is different from its predecessors because it continued for so long after the actual divorce. Her research is the product of hundreds of hours of interviews with children of divorce and their parents. It is an extraordinary gift, and she deserves our thanks and praise.
Wallerstein’s most significant finding by far is that the effects of divorce on children are not short-term and transient. They are long-lasting, profound, and cumulative. The children in Wallerstein’s study view their parents differently, and they have lingering fears about their ability to commit to relationships that affect their own marriages.
Children experience divorce differently from their parents, and on different schedules. By and large, divorcing spouses go through a period of high conflict and intense pain during the divorce process. The pain continues for years after divorce, but healing is usually more or less complete within three years after divorce. Wallerstein’s research indicates that this just isn’t true for children. The effects of the divorce for children may continue for decades.
The children in Wallerstein’s study complained bitterly about being forced to disrupt their lives to spend time with the non-custodial parent. They wanted to see the other parent but felt that all the arrangements were made for their parents’ convenience and not theirs. One young woman in Wallerstein’s study was so resentful of having to miss activities to visit her father that when she reached adulthood she stopped seeing her father at all.
The children Wallerstein studied were more likely to struggle with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Fully half the children she studied were involved in serious abuse of alcohol and drugs, some as early as age 14. And they tended to become sexually active early, particularly the girls.
Limitations of Wallerstein’s Research
Ideally, we can reflect on Wallerstein’s research and continue the wonderful work she has done, while at the same time understanding its limitations. My fear is that we’ll do a great job of the first task and fail to do the second.
First and most important, Wallerstein’s research is of necessity anecdotal. That means she has not conducted scientific sampling or rigorous “double-blind” methodologies to ensure correction for any researcher bias. This means in turn that it’s somewhat risky to interpret her findings and assume that they apply across a broader cross-section of children. It also means that, despite Wallerstein’s unquestioned professionalism, her very humanity is a variable that, again of necessity, has most certainly colored the conclusions she reaches.
Second, Wallerstein’s subjects are not necessarily typical. By her own admission, her subjects have been predominantly white, predominantly upper middle class, and predominantly well-educated. That’s another reason why it may be risky to assume that her findings apply to other groups.
I think the most important limitation of Wallerstein’s research, however, particularly as it relates to those of you who are struggling with a high-conflict marriage, is what she did not study. She did not study — in fact she could not study — whether the effects she studied flowed from the divorce itself or from the conflict that caused the divorce.
And that’s where the misinterpretation comes in. Wallerstein’s research has already been cited, and I’m sure it will be cited more now after the release of her latest installment in June of 1997, as grounds for making divorce more difficult to get. Those seeking to require waiting periods, pre-divorce counseling, parent education, and proof of fault in divorce have all have used Wallerstein’s research as evidence that divorce is the problem, and if we can just stop people from divorcing, we’ll correct the problem.
That isn’t my experience. From where I sit, divorce is a symptom, and frankly, often a solution. The problem is indifference and betrayal. The problem is a breakdown of trust between spouses. The problem is bad marriages.
Brace yourselves. There’ll be another round now of strident voices clamoring for limitations on divorce, voices that will be heard and responded to. Divorce will become more difficult. Divorce may even become less frequent. We will not, however, become healthier. We will just stay longer in bad marriages.
And we will fight more in divorce. This means more money for people like me. This means less money for people who divorce, who need it to help their kids and themselves to get on with their lives.