Divorce and Chilgren
By John Leo
The sleeper effect: A new book ups the price that
children pay for divorce
A startling thought is occurring to the folks who study the impact of divorce on
children: A good divorce may be much worse than a bad marriage. The conventional
wisdom that followed the rapid spread of divorce in the 1970s and 1980s that
children are resilient and usually overcome the shock of divorce has been mugged
by a brutal gang of facts. Some children cope well and thrive. But taken as a
group, the children of divorce are at serious risk.
For a decade now, the evidence has piled up. Children of divorce are more
depressed and aggressive toward parents and teachers than are youngsters from
intact families. They are much more likely to develop mental and emotional
disorders later in life. They start sexual activity earlier, have more children
out of wedlock, are less likely to marry, and if they do marry, are more likely
to divorce. They are likelier to abuse drugs, turn to crime, and commit suicide.
One study shows that the children of divorce, when they grow up, are
significantly less likely than adults from intact families to think they ought
to help support their parents in old age. This is an indication that resentments
do not fade and that the divorce boom could create disruption between
generations. A report in June from the Heritage Foundation began: "American
society may have erased the stigma that once accompanied divorce, but it can no
longer ignore its massive effects."
Now this discussion among researchers and policy experts is becoming part of the
national conversation thanks to Judith Wallerstein and her important new book, The
Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. The "unexpected" part is that
divorce produces "sleeper effects," deep and long-term emotional
problems that arise only when the children enter early adulthood and begin to
confront issues of romance and marriage. The "powerful ghosts" of
their parents' experience rise only in later life, Wallerstein told a seminar in
New York City last week.
Sense of dread. Wallerstein is a psychologist who has been studying 131 children
of divorce since 1971, interviewing them intensively at different stages of
life. Now these children are ages 28 through 43, and the news about them is not
good. Their parents' divorce hangs like a cloud over their lives. Compared with
similar grown children from intact families in the same neighborhood, the
children of divorce were more erratic and self-defeating. Some sought out
unreliable partners or dull ones who at least would never leave. Others ran from
conflict or avoided relationships entirely. Expecting disaster, they often
worked to create it. Some grew up to achieve success in
work and romance, Wallerstein says, but even they are filled with a sense of
dread and foreboding that it could all collapse at any moment, like the intact
home they once had.
Wallerstein's work undercuts the notion that divorce saves children by
eliminating the open conflict of parents. She finds that kids generally tune out
their parents' bitter quarrels and aren't much bothered by them. They don't much
care whether their parents like each other or sleep in different beds. A cordial
divorce doesn't help. The children just need parents to stay together.
Wallerstein says that the loss of the powerful mental image of the intact family
inflicts the crucial harm. The damage is compounded by the loss of attention
from frazzled parents trying to rebuild their lives.
She has her critics. Her sample is small and not necessarily representative,
drawn entirely from an upscale neighborhood in Marin County, Calif. But she has
reached deeper into the psyche of children of divorce over a longer period of
time than any other psychologist, and her fellow researchers seem to be leaning
her way. Her most strident critic, sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins
University, now acknowledges that divorce has significant long-term negative
effects on children. David Blankenhorn, head of the Institute for American
Values, calls this a sign of "the shift", a major turnaround in
thinking about divorce.
Part of the shift is the growing realization that divorce is more widespread
than it needs to be. In their book, A Generation at Risk, researchers
Paul Amato and Alan Booth report that 70 percent of American divorces are
occurring in "low-conflict" marriages. In the study of some 2,000
married people, just 30 percent of divorcing spouses reported more than two
serious quarrels in a month, and only 25 percent said they disagreed
"often" or "very often." So three quarters of divorcing
couples don't say they quarrel often or even disagree much.
Even bad marriages are likely to improve, according to sociologist Linda Waite
of the University of Chicago. Analyzing data from the National Survey of
Families and Households, Waite found that 86 percent of people who said they
were in bad marriages, but who decided to stick it out, said five years later
that their marriages had turned around and were now happier. Sixty percent said
their marriages were "very happy." "Bad marriage is nowhere near
as permanent a condition as we sometimes assume," Waite says in her new
book, The Case for Marriage. Considering what we now know about the
impact of divorce on children, that should give many divorce- minded couples
some second thoughts.
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