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.