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.

Boy listening to headphones while parents fight.
Divorce is a big deal. Judith Wallerstein's research helped us learn how.

Pixland/Thinkstock.

My friend Judy Wallerstein, who died last month at age 90, liked to tell the story of how she was drawn into the rancorous national debate on divorce. It was 1970 and Judy, a psychologist, had just moved with her husband and three children from the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., to Marin County in northern California.

It was a Sunday morning and her daughter's new friend Karen, age 9, had slept over. As they were eating breakfast, Karen put her spoon into her mouth and stared off into space. "I wonder," she said, laying aside the spoon, "if my mother is going to marry Mr. O'Brien."

Judy was startled. "Karen, do you really call him Mr. O'Brien?"

"Of course, I do," she said, and then revealed that this would be her mother's fourth husband.

The divorce rate in "no fault" California, soon to be followed by the rest of the country, was skyrocketing. Women, propelled into delirious freedom with the advent of the birth control pill a decade earlier, were examining their career options, motherhood roles and, perhaps most intently, their stale marriages. There was a national sigh of relief over the fact that people could get a divorce without convincing a judge that a spouse had been unfaithful.

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Judy took a close look at the little girl. She was bright, charming, animated and happy. How could so much instability result in so little distress? As Judy wrote in the first book she and I co-authored, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce, “I began to think about divorce not with the notion that children are necessarily damaged by it, but with the idea that today's children might negotiate their way through and come out as charming and open as Karen. It was an intriguing idea."

So, Judy went to the Berkeley library to see what had been written about how children react to divorce. And found nothing.

The remedy was the "California Children of Divorce Study" which Judy and her colleague Joan Berlin Kelly launched in 1971. They recruited 60 families with 131 children between the ages of 3 and 18 at the point the marriage dissolved, when life as everyone knew it began to unravel.  The parents were middle class and well educated. The children had been well cared for.

Judy personally interviewed every man, woman, and child at the time of separation (followed by divorce) and, for the vast majority, every five years afterward for the next quarter of a century. The study turned into an unprecedented longitudinal examination of the effects of divorce on the American family.

Judy's methodology was based on intimate case studies. She talked with each person over many hours, probing for feelings and insights. For years, she held each child "in her head," remembering every dream they reported, every fantasy, every frustration. Huge files containing these case studies are still stored downstairs at her home on Belvedere Island in Marin.

In 1980, Judy and Joan Kelly wrote Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce based on the five-year follow-up. That same year, she established the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera, Calif., which provided counseling to thousands of divorcing couples and their children. Having seen more divorced adults and their children than anyone in the country, Judy liked to refer to herself as a tribal elder regarding divorce.

Judy and I began our collaboration in 1984 after I wrote an article in the New York Times about her work. She called and asked if I would be interested in writing a book on the 10-year follow-up. We met for Korean barbeque and hit it off immediately. In 1992, as my own marriage fell apart, Judy helped me and my adolescent children survive our own crisis.

Given her initial idea that divorce may not be so bad, it's ironic that Judy became best known as one of the nation's leading critics of divorce. The heart of her findings:

  • The effects of divorce on children are not transient. They are long-lasting and profound, persisting well into adulthood.
  • The quality of the post-divorce family is critical. Parents are told "don't fight" but the issue is much bigger. Beyond custody and visiting plans, children need to be fully supported as they grow up. Few are.
  • Age matters. Little ones, ages 2 to 6, are terrified of abandonment. Elementary-school-age children, 7 to 11, grow resentful when deprived of opportunities they would have had if their parents had stayed together. Preadolescents, ages 11 and 12, can be seduced by what Judy called "the voices of the street." Many teenagers, taking on the role of parent, become overburdened.
  • Stepfamilies are laden with land mines that no one sees coming.

Second Chances was a best-seller, but reaction to Judy's findings was harsh. Parents did not want to believe it. Rival academics attacked her. Through it all, she stood up to her critics.

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