To judge from magazine covers, the American divorce rate is either a disaster for children or no problem at all. First came the famous "Dan Quayle Was Right" article in The Atlantic in 1993, with a cover line that said divorce "dramatically weakens and undermines our society." Then, in 1998, Newsweek heralded The Nurture Assumption, whose author, Judith Rich Harris, argued that whether parents divorce makes little difference in children's lives because genetics and peer groups determine their problems. This September, Time featured The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, a book whose authors, psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis and journalist Sandra Blakeslee, brought the gloomy news that a majority of children of divorce still suffer twenty-five years later. What's a reader to think?
The facts are not in dispute: The American divorce rate doubled in the 1960s and 1970s and has held steady or possibly declined a bit since then. At current rates, about half of all marriages will end in divorce. One million children experience a parental divorce every year. Most of them are upset in the immediate aftermath of the breakup. Some act out, others become withdrawn. Too often, fathers fail to provide adequate financial support and mothers and children see their standards of living drop. Without doubt, going through a divorce is a traumatic experience for parents and children alike.
But are most children harmed in the long term? On this question, recent media coverage has lurched between two extremes. At one end is the doomsday view that divorce sentences children to life at emotional hard labor. In this view, a parental divorce starts a chain of events that leaves most adult children anxious, unhappy and often unable to make a commitment to a partner. At the other end is the evolutionary psychologists' view that children's behavior is genetically programmed, so that whether parents divorce doesn't matter very much. According to this line of reasoning, divorce is just a flag that identifies genetically challenged families whose troubles would have occurred even if the parents had stayed together.
Said this starkly, neither extreme seems convincing. Yet it is a sad fact of public debates about social problems that the extremes tend to capture everyone's attention. Magazines are sold and talk shows are fueled by the announcement that a particular problem is devastating American society and then by the news that--wait a minute--it's really not a big problem after all. There's little patience for discussions of problems that are serious but not calamitous. And yet the gravity of many social problems lies in the demilitarized zone between the extremes.
For example, consider teenage childbearing. It was initially declared a scourge. A leading researcher wrote famously in 1968, "The girl who has an illegitimate child at the age of 16 suddenly has 90 percent of her life's script written for her." More recently, however, some researchers and commentators have argued that most teenage mothers would not be better off had they delayed having children. Teenage childbearing, it is alleged, merely reflects growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. Poor teen mothers would still be poor even if they hadn't had their babies. While there is some merit to this argument, research suggests that having a baby as a teenager does add to the difficulties girls from disadvantaged backgrounds face.
Research on divorce also suggests that extreme views are inaccurate. But you wouldn't know it to read the latest report by Wallerstein and her colleagues on her long-term study of children of divorce. In 1971, she selected sixty families that had been referred by their attorneys and others to her marriage and divorce clinic in Marin County, California, shortly after the parents separated. Wallerstein kept in touch with the 131 children from these families. Her book on the first five years, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce, written with Joan Berlin Kelly, contained insightful portraits of the difficulties the children faced as their parents struggled with the separation and its aftermath. Her book about how they were doing at the ten- and fifteen-year mark, Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce, written with Sandra Blakeslee, became a bestseller. It chronicled the continuing problems that most of the children were having.
For her new book, she was able to talk to ninety-three of the children at the twenty-five year mark. Her striking conclusion is that most of these individuals, now 33 years old on average, have suffered greatly in adulthood. A minority have managed to construct successful personal lives, but only with great effort. The legacy of divorce, it turns out, doesn't fade away:
Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo.
Young adults from divorced families, Wallerstein writes, lack the image of an intact marriage. Because they haven't had the chance to watch parents in successful marriages, they don't know how to have one. When it comes time to choose a partner or a spouse, their anxiety rises; they fear repeating the mistakes of their parents. Lacking a good model, they tend to make bad choices. (In the realm of work, in contrast, Wallerstein's subjects had no particular problems.)
A woman who took the role of caregiver to a distraught parent or to younger siblings while growing up, for instance, may choose a man who needs lots of caring in order to function. But she soon finds his neediness and dependency intolerable, and the relationship ends. Wallerstein writes of one such woman in her study:
She described how she would come home after work and find her partner lying on the couch, waiting for her to take charge. It was just like taking care of her mom. At that point, she realized she had to get out.