THE CHILDREN OF DIVORCE
CURRENT ISSUES: ANALYSIS
Nineteen seventy-four was the first year that more marriages in America were ended by divorce than by death. This made it a watershed year, for at that point the majority of family change became something we chose to do to ourselves rather thansomething that happened to us. Today, approximately 45 percent of children bern to married parents are likely to see their parents divorce before they reach the age of18. Prior to the late 1960s, it was generally believed that a child's need for family security was greater than a parent's need for maritalhappiness. It was thought, therefore, that significant effort should be invested in keeping rocky marriages together "for the sake of thechildren." But then a psychological revolution emerged that focused on the well-being of the individual rather than the larger social fabric. Thisspawned a new and influential profession of family therapists and child-welfare advocates who believed that a child's greatest need was not stability but parentshappy in their relationships. This would be guaranteed, the therapists said, if parents could move freely out of bad relationships into "better," more fulfilling ones. Onlythen could children have the loving, nurturing parents their fragile development required. This thinking is seen in psychologist Fritz Perls' mantra of individualism, which became the tacit wedding vow of many couples marrying in the early '70s: I do my thing, and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful. If not, it can't be helped.
Therefore, divorce shifted from constituting a social ill to virtually being a personal good, a liberating and enriching event for parent and child. The country plungedinto a new age of family formation, exhibiting near-absolute confidence that family health and child welfare would blossom. In the intervening quarter century, social scientists have observed, collected data, and reported on the outcome of this experiment with the American family. Whathave the researchers found? WALLERSTEIN'S PIONEERING WORK
One of the first scholars to undertake a long-term study of divorce's impact on children was Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist who founded the Center for theFamily in Transition in Corte Madera, California. When she started her work in 1971 at the University of California at Berkeley, little was known about how people copedwith the death of marriage, and she wanted to conduct a serious and thorough analysis. The conventional wisdom at the time was that divorce was a brief crisis that soon resolved itself, leaving life better for all concerned. But very little serious work hadbeen done in this area. Based on this early understanding of divorce, Wallerstein sought enough grant money to observe 60 just-divorced families over a period of 12 to 18 months. Sheassumed the families would resolve their problems and move on with their lives. She wanted to learn the processes by which families coped with and overcamedivorce. But what she found stunned her. At the one-year mark, most of her subject families had not resolved their problems. "Their wounds were wide open," she explained. "An unexpected number of children were on a downward course. Their symptoms were worse than before. Theirbehavior at school was worse. Our findings were absolutely contradictory to our expectations."...