Judith Wallerstein

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

VTR Date: September 21, 2000

Judith S. Wallerstein discusses the effects of divorce on children.


GUEST: Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein
VTR: 9/21/2000

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I would begin our program today by saying that its subject is simply too emotion-laden for me, too difficult for me as the proud and loving father of a divorced son and the loving, doting, devoted grandfather of his son — a child of divorce — to be able wisely and well to do more than elicit from my guest whatever it is she means to convey to our viewers without any of the raised eyebrows or perhaps the taking exceptions and the pointed questions that Open Mind guests occasionally face.

Hyperion has just now published “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce”, written by Judith S. Wallerstein, Senior Lecturer Emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, together with Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee.

Her book, of course, is a landmark 25 year follow-up study of the effects of divorce upon a very specific population of children of divorced parents. It’s quite extraordinary. And if you think that this question of what divorce does to kids is anything less than highly, highly controversial, just look at Time magazine’s September 25th, 2000 cover story the Judith Wallerstein book with its cover copy, “new research says the long-time damage is worst than you thought”. And it’s inside copy indicating that other scholars disagree vigorously with my guest on many levels.

But, as the kids say … “whatever”. So let me turn to Dr. Wallerstein to make her own case. What is it that you most want to say in this quite extraordinary book, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce”?
WALLERSTEIN: I want to call people’s attention to the long-term impact of divorce. And I was … I’ve been in this field for 30 years and I was very instrumental in shaping the central view of divorce which is that the major impact occurs at the time of the breakup and that children are not naturally resilient … I don’t know why we have this fantasy that children, rather than grown-ups are naturally resilient. Some people are at every age … some people aren’t. And … but the … in following this group over 25 years my finding is that the major impact is in young adulthood, when the man/woman relationship is center stage and when the ghosts rise from the basement and when these young people, at the point where they really want love and commitment and passion and starting a family, perhaps … are frightened. Very frightened that they’re going fail. And they say so in a thousand different ways that are profoundly moving. And I think what makes the book so moving, and I know it is … is that I’ve told life stories, not vignettes. So you see these children from when I started with them when they were three to eighteen. Now, they’re 28 to 43. I’ve seen them every five years … I know them like I know my extended family. There’s no other study like this in the world. It takes 25 years to do it. And it takes building a trusting relationship to do it. And what emerges is that their lives, all along, are different from the young people across the street, who live in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, and especially at this key point of entry into young adulthood, there’s … I mean it’s an anxious time for everybody … nobody’s sure about courtship, but they have the conviction that they’re going to fail.

HEFFNER: Why then is this book so controversial? And it is.

WALLERSTEIN: Well, it’s first of all controversial because it strikes a chord, and because what I say is what a lot of people don’t want to hear …

HEFFNER: Yes, but you say …


HEFFNER: … “strikes a chord” … do you mean a negative chord?

WALLERSTEIN: I think I’m saying what a lot of people know. In fact, it’s been complicated for me. I’m used to people calling up on a radio show or whatever and saying … you know challenging what I say … and even in as an excited a place as the Bay Area, where everybody disagrees with everybody … all I’ve gotten is calls saying, “I almost left my marriage ten years ago. The most intelligent choice I ever made was to stay in my marriage, when I look at my kids. When I look at my own life”. So ‘ve gotten a lot of confirmation … not only from call ins, but from a whole lot of people who are saying, “you’re right. That its been hard for me” … and the statistics are on my side … the divorce rate is much higher among children of divorce compared with those in intact families. The … there’s much more non-marriage. There are a whole of … I mean there are a lot of problems … we’ve always known about … a lot of out of wedlock pregnancies, a lot of school drop out. And we’ve sort of ignored putting those statistics together. And I’ve put together in three dimension the lives of a whole lot of people and it’s a very convincing picture and it’s a … makes a lot of people feel they have to change their opinion. And change is never welcome.

HEFFNER: But you know, you say, essentially divorce begets divorce … begets divorce …

WALLERSTEIN: Well, not only I say so …

HEFFNER: No, no … your figures …
WALLERSTEIN: … the census figures …


WALLERSTEIN: Yeah, right.

HEFFNER: Okay. What about all those people who seem to be saying, “Yes, and then what. Or so what?” You’re dealing with …


HEFFNER: … a society now that does seem to be somewhat, or perhaps even largely indifferent to that notion ….


HEFFNER: … that divorce begets divorce.

WALLERSTEIN: And that’s what I’m saying is fine as long as you don’t have children. Because it’s harder, it’s harder for children. It’s harder for them to grow up in divorced families and it’s harder for them to enter adulthood. Now some of them make it really well, and they make it … the zig-zag their way in. And by the time they’re in their early thirties a lot of them are doing very well. They’re very successful … in the workplace. In fact the skills that they bring to the workplace are the ones that they’ve … they’ve honed since they were four years old. As they say …

HEFFNER: Negotiation.

WALLERSTEIN: … if I can get along with my mother and father … when … this man is an attorney … says “I get the most difficult clients in my firm”. Because I can deal with them, I’m not afraid of them. I know how to mediate, I’m a great diplomat, I’m good at that. And they are good. And they do well, when they get their education paid for. That’s a whole other issue I’d like to get to that … is that they get much less financial support during college. That the numbers are staggering, only 30% of them got financial … substantial financial support from their fathers to go to college. And 70% … 90% of the kids who lived across the street … got that support from their families. I just want to say that that’s when they also said … and meant, bitterly … “I paid for my folks divorce”.

HEFFNER: You know, I was shocked when I read your statistic there that when they get to be 18 the father in a sense is not their. It’s certainly in terms of the sense of supporting them through college, or giving as much as the non-divorced father.

WALLERSTEIN: Yeah. And these … the fathers were well educated and they didn’t plead poverty. I know the whole family, so when I talked to the fathers, they said “look, I paid all my child support, on time” … for the first whatever, I don’t know when they divorced, “and I’ve discharged that obligation. That was a legal obligation, I’ve discharged it”. Now, the kids and the father … they’re not kids, but I mean … the young adults and their fathers were visiting, it isn’t that they had disrupted their contact, as you would think would be logical.

HEFFNER: What did happen?

WALLERSTEIN: What happened is that 75% of the men re-married, they remarried very soon after the break-up, much more so than the mothers. And they … many of them acquired brand new families, or they had new families. I was … a large percentage of those that divorced a second time, partly I think, maybe that early marriage was a rebound marriage … stands to reason … and so you’re looking at how many families can you take care. It’s not only how many families can you take care of, but how many families are you willing to make sacrifices for. Because the central accusation of these youngsters was, “My Dad’s a very bright man, he’s a very successful man, he has a wonderful sense of humor, but he’s never made sacrifices for anybody.

HEFFNER: Do I understand correctly … my reading of “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” is that the fathers come off rather poorly.

WALLERSTEIN: No, I don’t think so. I think they come off poorly in terms of higher education

HEFFNER: And that’s all?

WALLERSTEIN: I hate to talk about “the Fathers”. I mean …

HEFFNER: You mean “to generalize”.

WALLERSTEIN: To generalize. Yeah. I mean I think we’re looking at very individual instances. There were some situations in which the father stood by the kids and the kids were … were it was entirely different and where the father/child relationships were very well. I had a number of situations which took me by surprise where the father/daughter relationship was very limited while the child was growing up. And when she had her first child, so he became a grandfather … the father called up … this was one specific instance, and he says to this girl, who had dropped out of high school … he says to her, “Mary, you ought to go to college”. And she said, ‘Sure. Sure”, you know. And he said, “no I mean it. I’ll support you, I’ll get you a car, I’ll pay your tuition. And she said, “you know, some people say the most important day of their life is their wedding day or whatever. For me the greatest day of my life was when I graduated college. And she graduated in science and she had been a high school dropout. And she said about her father, “he’s changed, ever since he became a grandfather”. So there … I mean what that speaks to is very hopeful. There’s a great plasticity in adult relationships, it isn’t like … the way you are when your daughter is 15 is the way you’re going to be when you’re daughter’s 25. But being a father outside, or being any kind of a parent where you’re in different custody arrangement is very difficult. And you don’t … you’re not there all the time. You don’t have an on-going relationship, you don’t have a chance to kiss and make up. It’s sort of fitting a relationship into an artificial kind of pattern. It’s very difficult for many people.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this question … years ago when Margaret Mead quite frequently was on this program …

WALLERSTEIN: I knew her well.

HEFFNER: Wonderful, wonderful woman and we’re going to be celebrating the centenary …


HEFFNER: … this coming year. There was a time, I remember, when she said, “look, I believe …”, well I don’t know whether it’s fair to paraphrase it, but essentially she believed in free love and she thought “marriage is fine”, but people could do whatever they wanted … until … there was a child.

WALLERSTEIN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And then she made it very, very difficult, would make it very, very difficult. Does all of this reflect what you want to find because you are essentially opposed to divorce when there are children.

WALLERSTEIN: I’m not opposed to divorce.

HEFFNER: In general, you seem here to say, “fight it out, fight it out … stick it out, make it work, and if it doesn’t work all that well, remember what this will do to the children”. Is that a fair statement.

WALLERSTEIN: It’s a fair statement up to a point. The most … the worst family that I describe in this book is one where the two parents stay together, where the children are marginalized, where they are the victims of the parents’ mutual and obviously erotically exciting violence. And for that girl, whom I describe in detail, it was worse because there was not model of somebody doing something active to exit a disastrous relationship.

HEFFNER: But that demonstrates your fairness. That you are willing to tell that story. The fact is it seems to me that what you’re saying is, by and large, absent that kind of neurotic, almost psychotic situation, “I really don’t want to see divorce when there are kids around”. And this is what I’m setting out to prove.

WALLERSTEIN: I’m not … I mean I’m glad to be called “fair”. I think it has to do with my perspective, not my fairness, although I’ll accept both. The … I don’t think that anybody can tell anybody else what to do. In that situation. I don’t think that if a couple came to me and they said, “should we divorce, or shouldn’t we divorce?”. That I or anybody else should answer that for them. I do want to make people realize that it’s an intensely personal, extremely difficult decision. It’s not something that one should rush down to do. And that in comparing the families that stay together with the families that divorced, it was very hard to distinguish the tensions in those families. That it was the notion that the family that comes to divorce is out there screaming and throwing dishes, isn’t an accurate presentation of what goes on in families that come to divorce. They begin to fight like that when they approach the legal system, they begin to fight like that in the final scenes of a dying marriage, but they haven’t. Many of them have kept the family and the structure and the household life going.

HEFFNER: But your major point is the consequence for the children … long range … “the legacy” as you call it.

WALLERSTEIN: Well, partly because I’ve tried to puncture certain myths sot hat you can have a realistic path and if at that point you make a decision, and I think I show how to make that decision, and I spend six pages telling parents how to talk to their children about divorce when they make the decision to do so, because most parents do, what I call a “real estate explanation of the divorce”. “Well, from now on, your Dad’s going to live here and your Mom’s going to live here”. And so the child has no way of understanding the central crisis in her life. And then how can she deal with something she doesn’t understand? And then when she comes to adulthood, she says, “if I don’t understand what happened, how the heck do I know lightening isn’t going to hit me?”

HEFFNER: Knowing what you know. Having researched what you’ve researched, would you make divorce more difficult to obtain?

WALLERSTEIN: I would not, you see. I would not . I’m not in favor of blocking the exit or delaying the exit to divorce. I am in favor of better education for a marriage, an improving marriage. But of course I am, everybody is … the problem is how to do it. But the … I think that might increase the risk for children. I think we might see more abandonment and I think there would be less protection of children; if we just “blocked” the exit.

HEFFNER: Oh, I don’t mean “just block” the exit. I’m, I’m really though asking you, as I think Dr. Mead wanted to make it, wanted to make it very simple, almost a declaratory statement if … if there were no children. And considerably difficult, if there were.

WALLERSTEIN: And I think her distinction is absolutely sound. A distinction between marriages in which there are no children, and marriage in which there are children …

HEFFNER: That’s why I asked you the question. Where there are children, wouldn’t you make it somewhat more …

WALLERSTEIN: Well, maybe we have to …

HEFFNER: … difficult?

WALLERSTEIN: Now, let me … let’s get clear. If you mean blocking it … make it more difficult legally. I don’t think that’s a good idea. If I think people, if we educated them, and maybe I’m over-emphasizing the usefulness of education … and you can argue with me there, we don’t know. But if people had a more realistic view, if they didn’t go by this platitude … which people love … or what I call a myth.

HEFFNER: “It’s better for the kids”.

WALLERSTEIN: Yeah. Or kids are resilient. Or if I’m unhappy, then my children are unhappy. The fact of the matter, as I report, is that a lot of children are relatively content, and they think that arguing or difference, or sulking, or whatever, that goes with the territory of families … that’s what families are about.

HEFFNER: Which happens to be true.

WALLERSTEIN: Which happens to be true. And when I say you couldn’t distinguish a lot of these divorcing families from those who stayed married … but you see, I’m putting in another proviso, which I think is very important. I’m saying … you should seriously consider staying married if … and this is what I’m underscoring … if you can maintain the parenting. And that can be done is a major finding. It doesn’t mirror. The parenting is not a mirror of the relationship between the man and the woman. Kids don’t really care if you sleep in separate beds. As long as … I’m not talking about being a martyr. I think that would be the worst example for kids. “Let’s stay together for the children, darling … da-da-ta-da … I think that’s nonsense. But if ;you can stay together and because of the rewards of parenting, you can throw that into the balance and not be deluded into thinking that the parenting will go down hill because you’re feeling whatever you’re feeling, then we have a different … then I’ve posed the problem differently.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you know, I must ask you … why do you say … I’m not saying … or you, you dismiss the, the notion of “let’s stay together for the kids”. Why? What’s the matter of staying together for the kids?

WALLERSTEIN: Well, I … the example that I use … that you say that I did out of fairness …

HEFFNER: Okay. Yup.

WALLERSTEIN: Is a wonderful answer. I mean … staying together for the kids and showing them an example every day of two people who are really dreadful … where the relationship is disastrous … is terrible. In the relationship that I … I tell this life story of this young man from a violent family …


WALLERSTEIN: And, of course, that is the other issue, you see. The kids are neglected even when they divorce … in learning why they divorced. In this violent family, the mother doesn’t explain to the children, and the little boy is seven … why she’s divorcing. She doesn’t sit down and say “let’s talk about what was wrong with this marriage”. And “it’s wrong, what happened, and it’s wrong to hit people, and I want you to learn that … alright”. And the father continues to say, “woman are terrible. You’re my favorite child. Your sister is an idiot”. So that the family continues post-divorce.

HEFFNER: Let me …

WALLERSTEIN: So I’m saying … I’m saying unless we make the divorce meaningful …

HEFFNER: Gotcha. Gotcha. Got it. But we have five minutes left.

WALLERSTEIN: It’s serious. Okay.

HEFFNER: And I want to ask you … your thing about the judicial system … you’re not very friendly toward those who preside over the dissolution …

WALLERSTEIN: No. I, I scold judges … [laughter] …

HEFFNER: You dare do it. I know that.

WALLERSTEIN: I do. I scolded … I met with all the fifty chief justices of the fifty states. And I scolded them.

HEFFNER: What’s their problem?

WALLERSTEIN: Oh, I think there’s a profound mis-match between the culture of the courts and the needs of children. I think the adversarial system is very bad, it polarizes people, it escalates conflict. But in addition, courts inevitably, always deal with the now … what’s a good plan for Jimmy “now”. What’s … and Jimmy is a different child a year from now. And orders that are given when that child is age six are inappropriate when that child is 12. And the only route left to those parents is to go back to court. And that is so expensive financially and emotionally, that unless you’ve seen it, you really don’t … I mean it’s a very difficult process. So a lot of the children that I’ve seen have felt like second class citizens because whereas their friends help to choose their vacation and help to choose their weekends, they are locked into a court order that may have been appropriate …

HEFFNER: What would you do?


HEFFNER: Overall.

WALLERSTEIN: Overall I would, I would have orders that are revised in terms of the child’s developmental growth. And … number two, which is as important … I would have plans made primarily for the child and not just for the parents. The child now is divided up because the father and the mother each have attorneys and they have “rights” in the courtroom. The child’s play is not protected, the child’s activities are not protected, the child’s friendships are not protected. And I realized that when I did this study. In comparing those children … how much they had missed out on their childhood and when they reached adulthood and decided whether or not to have their own children, what they had said … as if they had caucused together … “I don’t want any child of mine to have my childhood. The day I divorced, was the day my childhood ended”. So, I mean that’s the most telling statement.

HEFFNER: What do you think’s going to happen in this area?

WALLERSTEIN: Well, I’m hopeful that all that I called attention to in this book will have an impact. I don’t want to be identified as somebody who’s against divorce, because that is not my perspective. I am hopeful that people will hesitate. Stand at that threshold longer and think … when they think in terms of planning for the children, that they’ll think in terms of that particular child. And they’ll think in terms of the long haul, not just “how we’re going to get through the crisis of the break-up”.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication … in the half minute we have left … that what you want to have happen is happening?

WALLERSTEIN: Well, a very good indication is that the adversarial system is being mitigated by more emphasis on mediation. That’s very good. That’s out there. But mediation also has to start with ‘what’s best for Jimmy?”. Not, “what’s your plan, madam; what’s your plan, sir”. Is there an indication? I think maybe I’ve gotten the wrong perspective from being on a book tour, but I think I’ve hit a chord. I think it’s no accident that Time magazine put it on the cover. I think they … if I accept their vote, they’re saying “people are ready to talk about this”.

HEFFNER: No questions but that you’ve hit a cord, and “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” is a book that’s obviously going to continue to create a lot of controversy. And thank you so much for joining me again today.

WALLERSTEIN: You’re welcome. I enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.