Every five years the psychologist Judith Wallerstein updates her ongoing study of 131 children whose parents were going through divorce in Marin County, California, in 1971, and every five years her warnings about the dire effects of divorce on children make the headlines, the covers and the talk shows. Her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, ups the ante: She now believes that parents should grit their teeth and stay together, so traumatized were her interviewees even into their 20s, contending with drugs and drink, bad boy-friends, unsatisfactory jobs, low self-esteem and lack of trust in relationships. Before you young cynics out there say welcome to the club, remember: This is not a moralistic sermon dreamed up by Dr. Laura, the Pope, your relatives or even Judith Wallerstein. This is science.
But what if it isn’t? Scholars have long been critical of Wallerstein’s methods: She had no control group–kids just like the ones in her study but whose unhappily married parents stayed together. (In her new book she has attempted to get around this flaw by interviewing a “comparison sample” of people from intact families who went to high school with her subjects, but the two groups are not carefully matched.) She generalizes too quickly: Can sixty Marin County families really stand in for all America? Are the seventies us? Doesn’t it make a difference that fathers today are more involved with their kids both before and after divorce, that mothers are better educated and better able to support themselves, that divorce is no longer a badge of immorality and failure? It never occurs to Wallerstein, either, that the very process of being interviewed and reinterviewed about the effects of parental divorce for a quarter-century by a warm, empathetic and kindly professional would encourage her subjects to see their lives through that lens. “Karen” may really believe divorce explains why she spent her early 20s living with a layabout–blaming your parents is never a hard sell in America–but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
The media tend to treat such objections rather lightly. Wallerstein’s critics “don’t want to hear the bad news,” wrote Walter Kirn in Time‘s recent cover story. The real bad news, though, is the way Wallerstein has come to omit from her writings crucial information she herself presented in her first book about her research, Surviving the Breakup, published in 1980.
How did Wallerstein find her divorcing couples, and what sort of people were they? In her new book, she writes that they were referred by their lawyers “on the basis of their willingness to participate.” Surviving the Breakup gives quite a different picture: “The sixty families who participated in this study came initially for a six-week divorce counseling service. The service was conceptualized and advertised as a preventive program and was offered free of charge to all families in the midst of divorce. Parents learned of the service through attorneys, school teachers, counselors, social agencies, ministers, friends, and newspaper articles.” In other words, Wallerstein was not just offering people a chance to advance the cause of knowledge, she was offering free therapy–something she today vehemently denies (“Naturally I wanted to be sure that any problem we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither they [the kids] nor their parents were ever my patients”). Obviously, people who sign up for therapy, not to mention volunteering their kids for continuing contact, have problems; by choosing only therapy-seekers, Wallerstein essentially excluded divorcing couples who were coping well.
Today, Wallerstein provides no information about the psychological well-being of the parents before divorce, but in her 1980 book, she is very clear about how troubled they were. Only one-third displayed “generally adequate psychological functioning.” Fifty percent of the men and almost as many women were “moderately troubled”–“chronically depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals…with severe neurotic difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those with longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses.” Fifteen percent of the men and 20 percent of the women “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.” Some underwent “hospitalization for severe mental illness, suicide attempts, severe psychosomatic illnesses, work histories ridden with unsatisfactory performance, or arrests for assault.” It’s not for me to say whether a sample in which two-thirds of the participants range from chronically depressed to outright insane represents the general public–but attributing all their children’s struggles to divorce is patently absurd.
The way Wallerstein describes her sample has changed also. In a table in her 1980 book, she places 28 percent of the families in the two lowest of five social-class rankings, as defined by the Hollingshead index, and 23 percent in the highest. In the new book, these figures are mentioned in passing, but at the same time she calls all the families “middle class”–including a famous wife-beating TV executive and his former spouse, a wealthy travel agent who spent her life globe-trotting. All are now “educated,” as well, including the substantial percentage of parents (24 percent of the mothers and 18 percent of the fathers at initial contact in 1971) who hadn’t been to college. Gone too are such relevant facts from the earlier book as that one-third of the couples had “rushed into a precipitous marriage because of an unplanned pregnancy” and that half the wives, “because of their age and lack of job experience, were viewed realistically as unemployable.”
In short, what we have here are not generic white suburbanites who threw away workable marriages in order to actualize their human potential in a Marin County hot tub. We have sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy parents, economic insecurity, trapped wives and, as Wallerstein does discuss, lots of violence (one-quarter of the fathers beat their wives; out of the 131 children, thirty-two had witnessed such attacks). How on earth can she claim that divorce is what made her young people’s lives difficult? The wonder is that they are doing as well as they are.