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.

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.

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.

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.

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