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THE PRICE OF A BROKEN HOME

3 minute read
David Van Biema

The godmother of the backlash against divorce curls in a couch before a window overlooking San Francisco Bay. “I don’t know whether the right word is backlash, she admonishes. “That implies that there’s no logic to it. I hope what we’re talking about is something more rational.” But, yes, Judith Wallerstein allows, “I’m glad people are concerned now.”

Wallerstein, 73, was concerned before it was fashionable. In 1970, while at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California,Berkeley, she began a study of 131 children whose parents were divorcing. In the mid-’70s, when popular and academic wisdom held that ending a bad marriage worked to the long-term benefit of all concerned, she recalls reporting that 18 months after the breakup “we didn’t see a single child who was well adjusted. And we didn’t see a single child to whom divorce was not the central event of their lives.”

Her colleagues’ reaction was disdain; yet over the next 24 years her dispatches from the biggest and longest-running study of divorced children only got bleaker. Wallerstein took an ever growing readership through a dispiriting landscape of anger and grief, of children unable to fit in with peers, and young adults crippled in their own attempts at love. “We realized that the whole trajectory of the child’s life changes,” she says. “Over half of the [now grown] children I have been studying have psychological problems they attribute to the divorce.” In 1995, at her study’s doleful quarter-century mark, America seemed to catch up: her findings and sweeping conclusions (“radical changes in family life [are] silently altering the social fabric of the entire society”) are now chapter and verse of the marriage-preservation movement.

But her work has its critics. Some challenge her results directly. University of Pennsylvania professor Frank Furstenburg Jr. claims that “the overall effect of divorce is modest to moderate.” Others, noting Wallerstein’s lack of a control group, wonder whether her subjects are any more miserable than the kids from troubled but continuing marriages she didn’t track. A lengthy University of Virginia study recently found that children of divorce were better off than those of highly dysfunctional marriages, and family historian Stephanie Coontz is worried that Wallerstein’s “scare tactics” may cause mismatched mates to “stick it out for the kids” and risk domestic violence.

Wallerstein says her results have long been vindicated by more statistically complete studies she inspired, like the one by Princeton’s Sara McLanahan that found that children of divorce drop out of high school, become teen mothers and are jobless far more frequently than their peers. Wallerstein insists that “I have never told people to stay together at all costs,” and opposes tougher divorce laws for being of dubious value for the children. Nor is she charmed by premarital waiting periods: “Time by itself does nothing. They would need to do something with that waiting period. What, I don’t know.”

She sounds like someone who, having exercised a lonely valor in defining a problem, may now honorably leave its solution to others. Yet her next book, about which she will divulge only the title, will be called The Good Marriage.

Just in time.

–By David Van Biema. Reported by Elizabeth B. Mullen/San Francisco

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