The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce…

I have been reading a very interesting and sad book that is right up my line of education.  It is called, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee.  It is unique in that it explains the findings of a 25 year study where Wallerstein has followed children of divorce into their adult lives to discover how divorce has affected them.  It is heart-breaking!

It has been a most interesting read (because I like that kind of stuff anyway–not the heart-breaking stuff, but the information about families).  Plus for me, it is like reading about myself.  I fit one of the profiles to a T, although I didn’t follow in the path that most of them do.  (More on that later.)

It was interesting because divorce obviously influences the development of children, but so do other factors, like what kind of a family they grew up in, what their structure was like, what were the dispositions of the parents, education, socioeconomic status, etc…   Wallerstein divides her children of divorce into four profiles—the care-taking child, the children of violence, the parent-less child, and the vulnerable child.  She then profiles each of them and compares them to similar children of similar families, who grew up in the same neighborhoods, were the same ages, attended the same schools, but whose parents remained married.  Thus doing the best she can to compare and contrast the children of divorce to children raised in intact families.

Would you like to know some of her findings??  First, you should also know some of her qualifications.  I’ll just quote from the jacket-cover:

Judith S. Wallerstein is widely considered the world’s foremost authority in the effects of divorce on children.  The founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition, she is a senior lecturer emerita at the School of Social Welfare of the University of California at Berkeley….”

Here are just a few of the things I have read in her book.  It is really packed with information!

  • The younger the child is at the time of the divorce, the more they suffer.  Younger children need more attention, love, affection and physical hands on care with a consistent routine and structure.  Divorced households are typically more chaotic and unstructured, particularly immediately following the divorce.
  • Children younger than about 9 do not understand adults’ reasons for the divorce.  They see the divorce as the cause of their problems, not for instance, daddy hitting mommy as a reason for the divorce.  In their minds, just because he did it once, in no way means it may happen again.  Also, many feel that if they can rectify the divorce (bring their families back together) then they can fix the problems they are experiencing.  [I thought about this a lot.  I wonder if it is just the basic nature of children under 8 (as we are taught) to just be so forgiving and have all of the qualities mentioned in the scripture Mosiah 3:19:   becometh as a jchild, ksubmissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father, that they can’t really fathom that behavior can be so bad that something needs to change.  And I thought it was interesting that they seem to have an internal understanding that families have a mom, dad, and kids…..not some other arrangement.]
  • Children do not like court-ordered joint custody arrangements where they are sent back and forth between parents’ homes.  In their words, they feel ‘like second-class citizens,’ with no say in how and where they spend their time.  Often during the negotiations for custody, children are not even consulted or asked about their opinion, even when a parent is violent or abuses substances.  Mediators are not trained in child development and as the child grows, custody arrangements are not renegotiated without considerable effort and expense.  If a parent feels the current arrangement is not in the best interests of the child and seeks counsel from their attorney, they are usually told that complaining will be seen as anger directed at the previous spouse and that you have ulterior motives for seeking a change.  If you pursue this course, your custody time will be diminished, so do not complain.  Thus the child is left without an advocate.
  • One aspect of divorce not well documented or researched is the idea that children of divorce experience the loss of their mother even if she has custody.  Usually trying to be a financially responsible parent, the mother now has to find a full-time job and try to put herself through school to increase her ability to provide.  This schedule stretches her thin, thus she has less emotionally available to care and nurture her children.  Where once the mother was engaged with parenting, the stresses and strains of the post-divorce family leave little time or energy left to manage the needs of growing children.
  • One idea supporting divorce is that children experience one loss of a troubled family to get into a better, more stable family.  This is a myth.  Most divorces have several relationships or cohabiting partners (called transitions) before a second marriage.   The more transitions a child experiences, the more detrimental it is to the child because the loss is cumulative.
  • Even divorces that happen after the children are grown have a negative effect on the families.  Married children begin re-evaluating their relationships—thinking, ‘if it can happen to my parents, it can happen to me, I am not safe.’
  • Conditions for the child often got worse after the divorce.
  • Even when parents are unhappily married, if they are able to maintain good parenting, the children are usually happy and doing well.
  • Second marriages with children are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages with children.
  • Children of divorce tend to avoid conflict because they have not seen it resolved successfully.  They either explode or run away.
  • Trust and stability is always an issue with children of divorce even decades after the divorce.  They have trouble with commitment.  They are always waiting for ‘the other shoe to drop,’ or waiting for something bad to happen, because that has been their experience.
  • It takes children of divorce longer to navigate the period of adolescence.  Many are still trying to figure out what they want in a relationship into their late twenties.  They finally seem to settle down into an adult role in their early thirties.

Wallerstein was quick to say that she was not opposed to divorce.  But she has definitely seen throughout her career and research that divorce and the court system increases children’s suffering.

I have not finished the book yet.  I’m sure there are many, many more things I will learn.  But I cannot help but think what problems the gospel can solve, especially in families that are in turmoil and transitions.  I will save my thoughts on this subject for my next post.  Family First Friday!  Stay tuned.

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