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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2000 / 25 Elul 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

The sleeper effect

A new book ups the price that children pay for divorce -- A STARTLING THOUGHT is occurring to the folks who study the impact of divorce on children: A good divorce may be much worse than a bad marriage. The conventional wisdom that followed the rapid spread of divorce in the 1970s and 1980s–that children are resilient and usually overcome the shock of divorce–has been mugged by a brutal gang of facts. Some children cope well and thrive. But taken as a group, the children of divorce are at serious risk.

For a decade now, the evidence has piled up. Children of divorce are more depressed and aggressive toward parents and teachers than are youngsters from intact families. They are much more likely to develop mental and emotional disorders later in life. They start sexual activity earlier, have more children out of wedlock, are less likely to marry, and if they do marry, are more likely to divorce. They are likelier to abuse drugs, turn to crime, and commit suicide. One study shows that the children of divorce, when they grow up, are significantly less likely than adults from intact families to think they ought to help support their parents in old age. This is an indication that resentments do not fade and that the divorce boom could create disruption between generations. A report in June from the Heritage Foundation began: "American society may have erased the stigma that once accompanied divorce, but it can no longer ignore its massive effects."

Now this discussion among researchers and policy experts is becoming part of the national conversation thanks to Judith Wallerstein and her important new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. The "unexpected" part is that divorce produces "sleeper effects," deep and long-term emotional problems that arise only when the children enter early adulthood and begin to confront issues of romance and marriage. The "powerful ghosts" of their parents' experience rise only in later life, Wallerstein told a seminar in New York City last week.

Sense of dread. Wallerstein is a psychologist who has been studying 131 children of divorce since 1971, interviewing them intensively at different stages of life. Now these children are ages 28 through 43, and the news about them is not good. Their parents' divorce hangs like a cloud over their lives. Compared with similar grown children from intact families in the same neighborhood, the children of divorce were more erratic and self-defeating. Some sought out unreliable partners or dull ones who at least would never leave. Others ran from conflict or avoided relationships entirely. Expecting disaster, they often worked to create it. Some grew up to achieve success in work and romance, Wallerstein says, but even they are filled with a sense of dread and foreboding that it could all col- lapse at any moment, like the intact home they once had.

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Wallerstein's work undercuts the notion that divorce saves children by eliminating the open conflict of parents. She finds that kids generally tune out their parents' bitter quarrels and aren't much bothered by them. They don't much care whether their parents like each other or sleep in different beds. A cordial divorce doesn't help. The children just need parents to stay together. Wallerstein says that the loss of the powerful mental image of the intact family inflicts the crucial harm. The damage is compounded by the loss of attention from frazzled parents trying to rebuild their lives.

She has her critics. Her sample is small and not necessarily representative, drawn entirely from an upscale neighborhood in Marin County, Calif. But she has reached deeper into the psyche of children of divorce over a longer period of time than any other psychologist, and her fellow researchers seem to be leaning her way. Her most strident critic, sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University, now acknowledges that divorce has significant long-term negative effects on children. David Blankenhorn, head of the Institute for American Values, calls this a sign of "the shift"–a major turnaround in thinking about divorce.

Part of the shift is the growing realization that divorce is more widespread than it needs to be. In their book, A Generation at Risk, researchers Paul Amato and Alan Booth report that 70 percent of American divorces are occurring in "low-conflict" marriages. In the study of some 2,000 married people, just 30 percent of divorcing spouses reported more than two serious quarrels in a month, and only 25 percent said they disagreed "often" or "very often." So three quarters of divorcing couples don't say they quarrel often or even disagree much.

Even bad marriages are likely to improve, according to sociologist Linda Waite of the University of Chicago. Analyzing data from the National Survey of Families and Households, Waite found that 86 percent of people who said they were in bad marriages, but who decided to stick it out, said five years later that their marriages had turned around and were now happier. Sixty percent said their marriages were "very happy." "Bad marriage is nowhere near as permanent a condition as we sometimes assume," Waite says in her new book, The Case for Marriage. Considering what we now know about the impact of divorce on children, that should give many divorce-minded couples some second thoughts.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

© 2000, John Leo