The call to liberalize divorce in the early 1970s promised happier and better marriages.
Ironically, findings from this study show that although divorce sets many adults free, and many second marriages are happier, these benefits do not extend to their children. Divorce begets fewer marriages, poorer marriages, and more divorces. This should not encourage us to retreat from regarding divorce as an adult right. However, it does call attention to enduring problems in the lives of the children involved. Where did we go wrong, and what can we do?
The findings from this study call for a shift in our dominant paradigm of understanding the impact of divorce on children and in the interventions that have been developed to mitigate its effects. The widely accepted premise has been that divorce represents an acute crisis from which resilient children recover, typically within a 2-year period, and then resume their normal developmental progress, if three conditions obtain: (a) the parents are able to settle their differences without fighting; (b) the financial arrangements are fair; and (c) the child has continued contact with both parents over the years that follow. Implicit in this model is the notion that after the turmoil of the divorce, the parent–child relationships return to the status quo ante; parenting resumes much as it was before the split, and the child continues to do well, or even better, minus the marital conflict of the predivorce years. A parallel paradigm places loss at the center of the divorce: The hazard to the child is primarily the loss of one parent, usually the father. In this view, it is held that the child will be protected against long-term problems if continued contact with both parents is ensured.
The first model has led to a range of interventions centering on reducing conflict between the parents, including mediation, collaborative divorce, programs provided under the aegis of the courts to educate parents in ways to eschew conflict and litigation, and a range of other educational programs to help high-conflict parents bring their anger under control. The second model has found its expression in joint custody, in legal efforts to block the mother’s move away from the community where the father resides, and in encouraging fathers to value their continuing role of active participation in their child’s upbringing after the breakup.
However, most of the children in this study were in ongoing contact with their fathers throughout their childhood. One third visited weekly or more frequently. None of the parents engaged in conflict through the courts over visitation or custody. When parents got along and both maintained caring relationships with their children of the first marriage, undiminished by their postdivorce relationships, and when both parents were doing reasonably well in their personal lives, the childhood and adolescence of the children were protected. However, even a protected childhood did not shield the children, at late adolescence and young adulthood, from the fear that their love relationships would fail.
This 25-year study points to divorce not as an acute stress from which the child recovers but as a life-transforming experience for the child. The divorced family is not simply an intact family from which the troubled marital bond has been removed. There are many stresses in the postdivorce family, and a great many daunting adjustments are required of the children. Hence, though the divorce was designed to relieve stress and may well have done so for the adult, for the child the stresses of the divorced family may be more burdensome, and he may feel correctly that he has lost more than he has gained. This is especially the case if, like most children in this study, the child was relatively content before the breakup and had no expectation of the upheaval ahead. Our findings suggest that whereas children in intact homes often seek continuity with their parents, those from divorced homes seek discontinuity. They fear identification with their parents. Those in our study who were close to stable grandparents felt reassured and comforted by the models that the grandparents provided, but only a minority had extended family members who remained, in the words of the children, “faithful” to them. Contrary to the loss model, remaining in frequent contact with both parents did not alleviate their suffering in adulthood, especially if the condition of the parents was discrepant and one parent remained lonely and unhappy.
It appears that when the child of divorce arrives on the stage of adulthood, the setting is lacking in good images of how an adult man and woman can live together in a stable relationship—and this becomes the central impediment that blocks the child’s developmental journey. The need for a good internal image of the parents, as a couple, is important to every child during his growing-up years. The significance of this internal template increases in adolescence. Sad memories from the past and observations from the present build to a dramatic crescendo as young people from divorced homes confront the issues of love, sex, and lasting commitment, and as they address the practical workaday problems of choosing a life partner, of forming a realistic image of what they are looking for, of distinguishing love from dependency, and of creating an intimate relationship that holds.
How is the inner template of the child of divorce different from that of the young adult in the intact family, especially if the child has access to both parents and the parents refrain from fighting? As every “child of divorce” in our sample told us, no matter how often they see their parents through the years, the image of them together as a couple is forever lost; and a father in one home and a mother in another does not represent a marriage. Joint custody does not teach children how to create adult intimacy and mutual affection, how to resolve marital conflicts, or how to deal, as a couple, with a family crisis. As they grew up, these children lacked this central reassuring image. By strong contrast, the children from intact families told many stories about their home life and how their parents met and married. They had spent their growing-up years observing their parents’ interactions and learning about marriage, and they were well aware of the expectable ups and downs. For the children of divorce, the parents’ interactions—including the courtship, the marriage, and the divorce—collapsed into a black hole, as if the parents as a unified couple had vanished from the world and from the child’s inner life.
Implications for Interventions
This study, along with others, has spawned educational and clinical programs throughout the country that address parents and children at the time of the breakup. There are no studies as yet of the long-term effectiveness of these or other interventions.
There are several policy issues that emerge from this study. They include: (a) equalizing access to higher education by extending child support nationwide beyond age 18 for youngsters in college, in families where the youngster would expectably have received substantial financial support had the parents remained together; (b) greater recognition by courts, mediators, and parents of the importance of considering the interests and concerns of adolescents in setting custody schedules; and (c) treatment at the time of the breakup for children and parents in families where the children have witnessed parental violence, in order to prevent posttraumatic symptoms from consolidating. We believe that these measures would ease the suffering and reduce the lasting anger of many children toward their parents.
The major challenges of engendering hope, creating good images of man–woman relationships, and teaching young people to choose appropriate partners and create a relationship that will hold are staggering in their complexity and go far beyond any interventions yet attempted. What follows are some initial suggestions based largely on reports from clinicians and reports of treatment from the subjects of this study.
There are indications from university counseling services that many adults who grew up in divorced families seek out therapy, especially during their first two college years (personal communications, including consultations at Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Michigan, and San Francisco State University).
Counseling centers have successfully initiated groups and individual therapy for these students, who come with urgent pleas for help with their failed relationships or grave concerns about their parents—including those parents who waited to divorce until the youngest child went to college. This population would provide a splendid opportunity for a range of pilot projects.
Findings from this study have provided a detailed agenda for groups in several locales, including groups run by private practitioners. One such program, run by Dr. S. Demby in New York City, entitled “Leftover Business From My Folks’ Divorce,” has drawn a lively response (personal communication, 2001). Also, our experience at the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera, California, showed similar strong interest among young professionals who were suffering from failures in relationships, sexual inhibitions, and difficulty in separating emotionally from their parents. Our experience has been that daughters feel especially guilty about enjoying a happier relationship with a man than their mothers were able to achieve.
Organized groups or courses in high school and, especially, in college might prove effective in eliciting attitudes of doubt and cynicism as well as stereotypes about men’s and women’s behavior in close relationships. The challenge would be to find counselors, therapists, or teachers who could hold the students’ interest, raise provocative questions rather than preaching at these young people, and deal candidly with issues of trust, love, and sex, while conveying honesty, integrity, and hope.
One third of the subjects in this study sought individual therapy in adulthood. It is encouraging that those who benefited were able to terminate exploitative relationships quickly and went on to find appropriate partners. Clinicians reported that these people were excellent candidates for expressive therapy because of their youth, their pain, and their high motivation to work hard to change their lives. The problems they presented are in keeping with this study. Therapists need training in understanding and developing appropriate strategies geared specifically to the special challenges these young people bring. They make very quick contact with the therapist, but as they begin to value the therapy, their fears of being abandoned emerge powerfully in the transference, and their impulse is to flee before the therapist leaves them. If the therapist addresses these fears early in the treatment, it will enable the therapy to continue. These young adults are also in danger of feeling overwhelmed by sorrows and angers that lie close to the surface, as if their parents’ divorce happened only yesterday. The therapist can help by acknowledging how long and how bravely these individuals have kept their suffering to themselves, perhaps in order to protect a needy parent, but that it is now safe to close the door on the past. This, then, defines their task.
Finally, a major theme in family life education might be to help parents discuss the reasons for the divorce with their children, as they become older adolescents. Silence or vague explanations offered by most parents only contribute to the young person’s sense that divorce strikes suddenly, without warning. The family-life educator could also help the parents review with the child the mistakes that were made by both parties. Most important, the parents should assure the adolescent of their hope that their youngster will succeed in creating lasting relationships of his or her own. Such explicit assurances might alleviate the “fear of success” that haunts so many children of divorce. The goal should be to help the young person view divorce not as inevitable but as a result of avoidable human error (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 2003).
It remains to be seen how much these and other, yet to be developed interventions can reduce anxieties and change attitudes that are continually reinforced by the surrounding culture. We are in new territory as clinicians and educators, and as members of a society in flux.