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Andrew J. Cherlin | The Nation

Andrew J. Cherlin

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Andrew J. Cherlin

Andrew J. Cherlin is Griswold Professor of Public Policy in the department of sociology, Johns Hopkins University.

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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 Some act out, others become withdrawn.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.

Young men, Wallerstein tells us, were wary of commitment because they were afraid their marriages would end as badly as their parents' had. Many avoided casual dating and led solitary lives. She tells the story of Larry, who after courting and living with Grace for seven years still could not bring himself to marry her. Not until she packed up and left in frustration did he agree. He told Wallerstein:

I realized I loved her and that she was important to me but I was unable to make a decision. I was afraid because of the divorce. I was afraid of being left and I think that is why I was afraid of making a commitment to her.

Other children in the study turned to alcohol, drugs and, particularly among girls, early sexual activity. Wallerstein writes that sexual promiscuity was a result of girls' feelings of abandonment by their fathers. Their low self-esteem, their craving for love and their wish to be noticed led them to seek sexual liaisons and sometimes to start ill-conceived partnerships and marriages.

Overall, we are told, close to half the women and over one-third of the men were able to establish successful personal lives by the twenty-five-year mark--but only after considerable pain and suffering, much anxiety about repeating the mistakes of their parents, many failed relationships and, for one-third, psychotherapy. The rest were still floundering. Only 60 percent had ever married, compared with about 80 percent among all adults at their ages. Moreover, only one-third had children, as if they were afraid of doing to children what had been done to them.

Without doubt, a disturbing picture. And what makes it even more disturbing is Wallerstein's claim that her subjects are more or less representative of the typical American middle-class family that undergoes a divorce. Her families were carefully screened, she assures us, so that the children were doing "reasonably well" at school and had been developmentally "on target" before the divorce. Nor were the families especially troubled before the breakup, she says. "Naturally," Wallerstein writes, "I wanted to be sure that any problems we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither they nor their parents were ever my patients."

This claim to have a sample of typical, not unduly troubled families is, however, contradicted by the extensive psychological problems that the parents displayed when they were assessed at the initial interview. But you won't find that information in this book or the previous one. Only in the appendix to her first book, Surviving the Breakup, in 1980, does Wallerstein discuss the parents' mental states. There we learn the startling information that 50 percent of the fathers and close to half the mothers were "moderately disturbed or frequently incapacitated by disabling neuroses or addictions" when the study started:

Here were the chronically depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals, the men and women with severe neurotic difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those with long-standing problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses.

And that's not all: An additional 15 percent of the fathers and 20 percent of the mothers were found to be "severely troubled during their marriages." These people "had histories of mental illness including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and family."

Typical American middle-class families? Hardly. These were by and large troubled families of the kind one might expect to come to a divorce clinic for therapy. Why this information was excluded from the nine-page appendix on the research sample in the new book--why an interested reader can only find it buried in the appendix of a book written twenty years ago--is puzzling. Does Wallerstein now consider this information to be in error? Irrelevant? Or just embarrassing?

The problem for Wallerstein is that troubled families often produce troubled children, whether or not the parents divorce. So it may be a considerable overstatement to blame the divorce and its aftermath for nearly all the problems she saw among her children over the twenty-five years. In a study of the records of several thousand British children who were followed from birth to age 33, Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Christine McRae Battle and I found that children whose parents would later divorce already showed more emotional problems at age 7 than children from families that would remain together. The gap widened as the divorces occurred and the children reached adulthood, suggesting that divorce did have a detrimental long-term effect on some of them. But a large share of the gap preceded the divorces and might have appeared even had the parents stayed together.

Sensitive to the particularities of her sample, Wallerstein recruited a "comparison sample" of adults from nondivorced families. The comparison sample, we are told, was selected to match the socioeconomic level of the families in the study. In many respects, the individuals in the comparison group were doing better than the study's children, which Wallerstein presents as evidence that divorce really is the cause of the difficulties in the latter group. But since the comparison sample presumably was not matched on the parents' chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, problems in controlling rage, bizarre behavior and manic-depressive illness, their inclusion does not prove Wallerstein's case.

What, then, can we take from Wallerstein's study? It is an insightful, long-term investigation of the lives of children from troubled divorced families. It gives us valuable information on what happens to children when things go wrong before and after a divorce. And things sometimes do go wrong: Many divorcing parents face the kinds of difficulties that Wallerstein saw in her families. Her basic point that divorce can have effects that last into adulthood, or even peak in adulthood, is valid. She was one of the first people to write about children who seemed fine in the short-term but experienced emotional difficulties in adolescence or young adulthood--in her previous book she called this the "sleeper effect"--and now she is the first to describe it in detail among adults who have reached their 30s. Psychotherapists, social workers, teachers and other professionals who see troubled children of divorce and their parents will find her analyses instructive. Parents and children who are struggling with divorce-related problems will find her analyses helpful.

But no one should believe that the negative effects of divorce are as widespread as Wallerstein claims. Some portion of what she labels as the effects of divorce on children probably wasn't connected to the divorce. And the typical family that experiences divorce won't have as tough a time as Wallerstein's families did. Parents with better mental health than this heavily impaired sample can more easily avoid the worst of the anger, anxiety and depression that comes with divorce. They are better able to maintain the daily routines of their children's home and school lives. Their children can more easily avoid the extremes of anxiety and self-doubt that plague Wallerstein's children when they reach adulthood.

What divorce does to children is to raise the risk of serious long-term problems, such as severe anxiety or depression, having a child as a teenager or failing to graduate from high school. But the risk is still low enough that most children in divorced families don't have these problems. In the British study, we found that although divorce raised the risk of emotional problems in young adulthood by 31 percent, the vast majority of children from divorced families did not show evidence of serious emotional problems as young adults.

Except for Wallerstein, many of the writers most concerned about divorce now appear to recognize this distinction. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who wrote the "Dan Quayle Was Right" piece in The Atlantic (drawing heavily on Wallerstein's earlier work), acknowledged in a more recent, book-length treatment, The Divorce Culture, that a majority of children probably aren't seriously harmed in the long term. But she argued that even if only a minority of children are harmed, divorce is so common that a "minority" is still a lot. And she is correct. Divorce is not a problem that "dramatically weakens and undermines our society," but it nevertheless deserves our attention.

For that reason, some of the remedies Wallerstein suggests would be useful: creating more support groups in schools for children whose parents are divorcing, insuring that divorced fathers contribute to the cost of their children's college education and educating newly separated parents about how to shield their children from conflict. Measures such as these would help some children without imposing undue strain on parents, schools or the courts.

Less clearly useful is Wallerstein's recommendation that parents in unhappy, loveless, but low-conflict marriages consider staying together for the sake of their children. I think she is probably right that children can develop adequately in "good enough" marriages that limp along without an inner life of love and companionship. There were millions of these marriages during the baby-boom years of the 1950s, when wives weren't supposed to work and women were forced to choose between having a career and being a mother. The result was often frustration and depression. Few people (not even Wallerstein) want to constrain women's choices again. Certainly, unhappy parents have an obligation to try hard to change an unsuccessful marriage before scuttling it. Without doubt some parents resort to divorce too hastily. But no one as yet has a formula that can tell parents how much pain they must bear, how much conflict to endure, before ending a marriage becomes the better alternative for themselves and their children.

Least defensible is the attempt by Wallerstein to inform readers whose parents have divorced that their problems with intimacy stem from the breakup. In high self-help style, Wallerstein tells her readers:

You were a little child when your parents broke up, and it frightened you badly, more than you have ever acknowledged.... When one parent left, you felt like there was nothing you could ever rely on. And you said to yourself that you would never open yourself to the same kinds of risks. You would stay away from loving. Or you only get involved with people you don't care about so you won't get hurt. Either way, you don't love and you don't commit.

And so forth. Wallerstein plants the seed of the pernicious effect of exposure to divorce as a young child--and then waters it. Yes, the reader thinks, that must be why I'm so anxious about getting married. Never mind that making a commitment to marry someone is anxiety-producing for young adults from any background. Or that we live in an era when the average person waits four to five years longer to marry than was the case a half-century ago. Wallerstein encourages readers to believe that most of their commitment problems stem from their parents' divorces. But parental divorce isn't that powerful, and its effects aren't that pervasive. To be sure, it raises the chances that children will run into problems in adulthood, but most of them don't. Unfortunately, that's a cover line that doesn't sell many magazines.