Echoes Of The Breakup

Can children of divorce live happily ever after? That's the provocative question psychologist Judith Wallerstein began exploring nearly three decades ago with more than 100 kids whose parents had recently split up. Her ominous results were the subject of her 1989 best seller, "Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce." Wallerstein concluded then that the effects of divorce were lifelong and traumatic for children. While their parents might feel liberated by getting out of an unhappy marriage, the kids were bereft. In interviews, many expressed a profound pessimism about their future.

At the time, most of Wallerstein's interviewees were in their teens or early 20s--still young enough to reinvent themselves. To see what's happened since then, she tracked down close to 80 percent of the "kids" (now 28 to 43 years old) for her new book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study" (347 pages. Hyperion. $24.95). There's some good news in this update. A surprising number of the subjects of her original study eventually found some fulfillment in their own work and family lives. Nonetheless, she writes, "whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience." And the pain, she says, is not diminished by the fact that divorce is much more common than it used to be: "Each child in a classroom half full of children of divorce cries out, 'Why me?' "

In her new book Wallerstein tells the stories of five of these divorce survivors (all with pseudonyms and details of their personal histories disguised). Some of the stories are quite moving and recognizable to anyone who's suffered through the failure of a marriage. Karen, for example, becomes a family "caretaker" and too often sacrifices her own emotional needs in order to keep the remnants of her family from falling apart. In her 20s, she manages to escape from a destructive relationship and finally goes to college and marries a nice guy. But even after the birth of their daughter, she experiences life from the skewed perspective of a child of divorce. One day, when her husband leaves the house for work after the two have had a relatively minor fight, she thinks they are about to break up. Her reactions to normal conflict are extreme and sometimes debilitating.

Other researchers have criticized Wallerstein's earlier work for a lack of scientific rigor. Her conclusions come from interviews, not standardized psychological testing, and she didn't use a control group. Her original sample was also considered unrepresentative, since all the families were generally middle class and living in Marin County, north of San Francisco--hardly a microcosm of America. They also all come from families who experienced divorce during a particularly tumultuous time in American history, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other studies involving more diverse groups of children have shown that while divorce is always a trauma for kids, it isn't as devastating as Wallerstein suggests.

In her new work, Wallerstein attempts to address some of these objections by comparing children of divorce with kids who grew up in intact families with similar problems. It's an admirable effort, but less than convincing because the biographical details of the families never really match up. Other researchers have solved this problem by running long-term studies and looking for trends among large numbers of families--far more subjects than the relatively small population in Wallerstein's study.

In the end, Wallerstein's real contribution is not hard science but insight. More traditional researchers may question her methods, but it's hard to fault her perceptions. Any child of divorce--no matter how far removed from the awful breakup--can identify with Wallerstein's walking wounded. In a post-divorce family, even ostensibly happy times are occasions for anxiety. What will happen over summer vacation? Who will show up at the school play? Will there be money for college?

Later on Wallerstein writes, "Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise." They struggle because they lack what Wallerstein calls an "internal template" of a successful relationship. Those who do make it emerge "stronger for their struggles," she says. So the answer to her original question is yes, there can be happy endings. But the sad memories never completely fade away.