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Growing Up in the Divorced Family - Wallerstein

Growing Up in the Divorced Family - Wallerstein



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Published by: Chaille on Jun 20, 2008
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Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D.
Stressful parent–child relationships in the post-divorce familytogether with the enduring effects of the troubled marriage and breakup lead tothe acute anxieties about love and commitment that many children of divorcebring to relationships in their adult years. Findings from a 25-year study of 131children call for a paradigmatic change in our theoretical understanding and inour interventions with these youngsters as children and as adults. Revisedclinical and educational strategies with parents and children are proposed.
divorce; children; adult children of divorce; long-term effects.
GROWING UP IN THE DIVORCED FAMILY I begin with a favorite quote from a distinguished family judge.Rosemary Pfeiffer of the San Mateo Court in Northern California, inan address to the Family Court Services Regional Conference in 1985,told us, ‘‘If one were to use situation comedies as an analogy for ourwork with families, then the long running show M.A.S.H. would be mychoice. Like the legendary M.A.S.H. unit, our lives in both a profes-sional and a personal sense are marked by drama, comedy, and trag-edy. We live our lives within a frontline emergency situation, in which
Judith S. Wallerstein holds a Masters Degree in Social Work, a PhD in Psychology,and training in Child Psychoanalysis. Her research on the effects of divorce on children isknown nationally and internationally. Her four best selling books have been translated intomore than 10 languages. She is Founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family inTransition, a non-profit research, counseling, and educational center in Northern Califor-nia. She is Senior Lecturer Emerita at the University of California at Berkeley School of Social Welfare, where she taught clinical courses on children and families for 26 years.
Correspondence should be directed to Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D., Berkeley School of Law, New York; e-mail: judywall@mindspring.com.
Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 2005 ( 
DOI: 10.1007/s10615-005-7034-y
2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
we are called upon without adequate preparation or sufficient notice todiagnosis injuries and to treat traumas. We bandage the wounded, wegive them all the support and rehabilitation that we can call up, basedon our own resources, and we send them on their way. The differenceof course is that the injuries and trauma which we deal with are thoseinjuries and traumas to the heart.’’The judge’s poignant words converge with the moving testimony of Joanne, a child of divorce. Like so many other communications, mostlyvia e-mail, that I have received since the publication of 
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce
(Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000), Joanne’smessage to me was welcomed but entirely unexpected. She explainedthat she was 20-years-old and still struggling very hard with herparents’ divorce, which jolted her seemingly tranquil world when shewas 15. ‘‘I read your books,’’ she wrote, ‘‘and all that you said struckhome. It’s like you had met me and reported my story and my feelings. You validated what I experienced. And I felt comforted. As if you hadbeen there with me.’’She went on to say, ‘‘I remember the day my mom and dad told usthat they had decided to divorce, as if it was yesterday. The sky wasovercast. The house looked gray. It was surreal. I retreated into myown mind as it spun out of control, imagining all the milestones thatwe would encounter as a broken family. Tears were streaming downmy face, but I felt that I needed to take charge and correct the situa-tion. There is no way, I told myself, that this is not going to happen.‘‘It’s already happening,’my dad said, as if he were reading mythoughts, ‘‘so accept the reality.’’ So there we were, three cryingchildren with no say, and one very sad and one uncomfortable parent.‘‘Today, I still find myself thinking a lot about my folksdivorceeven though my folks are 3000 miles away and it’s 5 years ago. I enjoycollege, but I never can escape that part of my past, as it shapes somany of my beliefs and reactions to the world today. It baffles me thatmy sentiments are still so tender almost 5 years later. It’s a door Ican’t close. But I felt it was only me, and something was wrong withme, until I read your books.’’Joanne’s statement that she cannot close the door on her parents’divorce and that it continues to shape many of her beliefs and reactionsto the world converges with the concern of the judge and the concerns of many clinicians who work with divorced and remarried families. Boththe legal and the clinical disciplines have at long last recognized that weare in new territory and how much we need to work together to improveour understanding and our psychological and legal interventions. Thebooks of mine that Joanne found so congenial to her own experience, ashave so many thousands of adult children of divorce, portrayed the inner
lives and experiences of a group of 131 children and their parents fromthe time of the family’s marital breakup until the children reached fulladulthood (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980;Wallerstein et al., 2000). These books comprise the first and only suchreport that tells the story of ‘‘growing up divorced’’ in American societythrough the eyes those who lived it. When we first met the young partici-pants of our study, they were between the ages of 3 and 18. Initially,they were seen at the separation and well before the legal divorce, thenagain at 18 months, 5, 10, 15, and 25 years afterwards.Today, these adult children of divorce are 28–43-years-old. Theirparents divorced during the first wave of the divorce revolution of theearly 1970s, when the national divorce rate began its steep rise. Thesechildren are the vanguard of an army of adults from divorced families,who currently make up one quarter of the American population now intheir twenties, thirties, and forties. This high number is not surprising,as the divorce rate has been hovering at close to one half of all first mar-riages and 60% of second marriages, for the past several decades. Whatis less well known is that the majority of couples divorcing in the 1990shad a child age 6 or under at the time of the breakup (Maccoby & Mnoo-kin, 1992). These youngsters spend the bulk of their growing-up years inpost-divorce families, trying to cope with a range of changing relation-ships of one or both parents including cohabitations and remarriages.Their losses will be compounded by their parents’ broken love affairs,second or even third divorces, and by the several years of diminishedparenting that are inevitable as both parents struggle to rebuild theirlives and recapture their hope of achieving a rewarding and lasting lifepartnership. These children are the invisible clients in our divorce pro-ceedings, and their lives are the ones most influenced by a proceeding inwhich they have no standing and only feeble voices usually ignored. As children and as young adults they, as well as their parents, makeup a large segment of our patients. Although we have no figures repre-senting their presence in private clinical practice, children of divorce,including those in their parents’ second marriages, are three times aslikely as children from intact families to be referred for psychologicalhelp by teachers (Zill & Schoenborn, 1988). Drug, alcohol abuse, and sex-ual activity start significantly earlier for them than for adolescents fromintact families (Amato & Keith, 1991; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994;Resnick, 1997). As adults they marry less and divorce significantly morethan adults raised in intact families (Amato & DeBoer, 2001; Cherlin,Kiernan, & Chase-Lansdale, 1995). Additionally, they show a range of psychological difficulties in adulthood that have been reported in severallong-term studies (Cherlin et al., 1995; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002;Wallerstein et al., 2000).

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