How One Woman Changed the Way We Think About Divorce

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 13 2012 11:12 AM

Divorce Has Consequences

But most people didn’t think about them before Judith Wallerstein.

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For example, some said she had no control group, so how could her findings be valid? Judy snorted, that's ridiculous! What was I supposed to do, gather another 60 families in 1970 and make them promise to never get divorced? Then I could compare the two groups?

Judy also defended the case-study approach, a gold standard in psychiatry. She noted that a lot of research on divorce is done with questionnaires, whereas she spent hours talking to each subject, asking things not like "how many times a month does your father visit" but "how do you feel when your father visits?"

Feminists attacked her for trying to guilt trip women into staying in bad marriages. But let's be clear: Judy was never against divorce. Serious marital conflict can be far more damaging, she said. But she desperately wanted women to be prepared for their children's anger and disappointment and learned that a divorce undertaken thoughtfully and realistically can teach children how to confront serious life problems with compassion, wisdom, and appropriate action.

Books on divorce.

Some organized fathers groups considered Judy public enemy No. 1. While her work was seminal in pointing out how important fathers are in a child's life, Judy felt that some groups were more interested in finding ways to avoid child support than in genuinely helping children.

Judy got involved in the courts and legal maneuverings around divorce. She fought for a mother's right to relocate as the custodial parent. She complained that many judges treat children as rag dolls, propped in a corner with their mouths sewn shut. Because children change as they grow up, she argued, visiting and custody arrangements should be renegotiated every few years. She won some of these battles and lost some, but never tired of fighting them.

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Finally, parents would say to Judy, "Divorce is no big deal because so many kids today have divorced parents. It's normal." To which, she replied, "Children go through divorce in single file. The pain of loss is acute. That is as true today as it was 40 years ago."

Judy knew about the pain of loss. Her father died of cancer when she was 8. Her mother didn’t tell her what had happened—Judy didn’t know he had been ill. He just disappeared. "You can trace all this work to my own suffering as a child," she told a reporter in 1997. "I know the importance of an intact family, about the importance of fathers."

Thanks in large part to Judy's work, there is greater attention today to the needs of children after divorce. Lawyers, mediators, judges, educators, counselors, husbands, and wives have heard her message, even if they've never heard her name.

Meanwhile, over the years, Judy's phone kept ringing as subjects from her original study stayed in touch. The children, now grown, called for advice and Judy, listening closely, realized they had another story to tell. In 2000, we published The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, a 25-year landmark study of the effect of divorce on children. The kids, now age 28 to 43, shared a suite of attitudes that surprised everyone but them. As adults, children of divorce tend to be frightened of commitment. Marriage is a slippery slope and their parents fell off it, so it is to be avoided. Many live by the rule that if you don't marry, you won't divorce—so they cohabitate, not realizing that the pain of a breakup is not dependent on a marriage license. Adult children of divorce have trouble dealing with conflict in their marriages, even the good marriages, Judy said. These findings have been upheld by numerous other studies and books written by the adults themselves.

Judy and I co-authored two other books. In 1995 we published The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts and in 2003 What About the Kids? Raising Children Before, During and After Divorce. Writing with her was always an adventure in nonlinear thinking. Judy was holistic in her reasoning, following instincts before logic. When we worked, I would interview her for hours while she free-associated ideas. As a veteran science reporter, with a constant eye on story structure, I would wrestle her narratives into drafts. The book on good marriage required five full rewrites. It was frustrating but always, always fruitful.

Judy died on June 18. She was still writing columns on the effects of divorce for the Huffington Post in May. She is survived by two daughters (a son died in 2006), five grandchildren, and her husband of 64 years, Dr. Robert Wallerstein.

Sandra Blakeslee is a regular contributor to the science section of the New York Times.

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