10 Quotes on Children and Divorce from Dr. Judith Wallerstein

The late Dr. Judith Wallerstein was a very important family researcher on the topic of divorce and children. She did a key study from 1971 to 1996 following divorcing families in Marin County, California who were referred by their attorneys, teachers, and others for mental health services. Wallerstein screened out children who had seen a mental health professional, and picked 60 families who had normal children. She tracked those 60 families for 25 years and finished the study with the 45 remaining families.

 

Although she described negative effects of divorce on children later in life in her New York Times bestselling book, Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she also wrote that sometimes divorce is best for children, reporting that growing up in a high-distress two-parent family has “tragic” consequences for children in their adult years.

 

Quote: Wallerstein found that 7 in 10 children of divorce in her study turned out average, very well, or outstanding. Far from concluding that children are "destroyed by divorce," Wallerstein found that most were doing well in life.

 

“At the twenty-five-year follow-up we found that 30 percent of the participants in our study were doing poorly, with functioning significantly impaired and below average. Thirty-four percent were in the average range, and 36 percent were doing very well to outstanding in all areas of their life tasks." —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 333

 

Quote 1: Wallerstein

 

“I am not against divorce. How could I be? I’ve seen more examples of wretched, demeaning, and abusive marriage than most of my colleagues. I’m keenly aware of the suffering… I’m also aware that for many parents the decision to divorce is the most difficult decision in their lives; they cry many a night before taking such a drastic step. —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. xxxix

 

 

Quote 2: Wallerstein

 

“Children raised in extremely unhappy or violent intact homes face misery in childhood and tragic challenges in adulthood.” —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 300.

 

Quote 3: Wallerstein

 

“And I am, of course, aware of the many voices on the radio, on television, and in certain… religious circles that say divorce is sinful… But I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children.” —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. xxxix

 

Quote 4: Wallerstein

 

“Many judges who deal with such families do not understand that merely witnessing violence is harmful to children; the images are forever etched into their brains. Even a single episode of violence is long remembered in detail. In fact there is accumulating scientific evidence that witnessing violence or being abused physically or verbally literally alters brain development resulting in a hyperactive emotional system.” —Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 90 

 

Quote 5::Wallerstein   On the first page of Judith Wallerstein’s book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, she writes,

 

“On the positive side, many young adults who weather their parents' divorce are extremely successful in their own careers, having learned how to be independent, resourceful, and flexible…. they are decent, caring adults who manage to build good marriages in spite of their fears.” p. xiii

 

Wallerstein wrote The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce in 2000, more than twenty years ago. I am perplexed as to why Christian marriage ministry Focus on the Family, for example, which claims to give reliable advice under the command of Jim Daly, would post articles quoting Wallerstein in order to send a false message that divorce universally leads to bad outcomes for children.

 

 

Quote 6: Wallerstein   In fact, by 1989, Wallerstein was already saying that divorce was a rational solution to a bad marriage. And notice that she doesn't limit it to physical abuse. (Emphasis mine.)

Although our overall findings are troubling and serious, we should not point the finger of blame at divorce per se. Indeed divorce is often the only rational solution to a bad marriage. When people ask if they should stay for the sake of the children, I have to say, “Of course not." All our evidence shows that children turn out less well-adjusted when exposed to open conflict, where parents terrorize or strike one another, than do children from divorced families.” —Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, A Decade after Divorce, p. 321-322  (Originally published 1989. Referenced Kindle edition, 2018)

 

Quote 7: Wallerstein Wallerstein didn't want people to stay in at cruel, demeaning, or intensely lonely marriage "just for the kids":

 

But for many other people, divorce is the best solution, and staying married "for the sake of the children" (as it is so often stated) is not the wiser path. When a marriage is cruel, demeaning, or intensely lonely, divorce opens new opportunities to build a better life. The details of such unhappy marriages are often shocking. I met one couple who had not talked to each other in three years; they just passed notes back and forth. One man went to bed fully clothed every night for years, sending a not so subtle message to his wife beside him in the bed. Others brought lovers into the home when the spouse was away. In some marriages, in-laws invaded the home at all hours, leading one man to say, “She was never mine!" —Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, A Decade after Divorce, p. xxxiv (Originally published 1989. Referenced Kindle edition, 2018)

 

Quote 8: Wallerstein   In 1989, Wallerstein mentioned the lack of comparison studies between unhappy families and divorced families. But in the 1990s, such studies became available and the gave evidence of the damage done to kids who are brought up in these distressed homes. She felt divorce was better for kids in these cases.

 

“And while we lack systematic studies comparing unhappily married families and divorced families, I do know that it is not useful to provide children with a model of adult behavior that avoids problem solving and that stresses martyrdom, violence, or apathy. A divorce undertaken thoughtfully and realistically can teach children how to confront serious life problems with compassion, wisdom, and appropriate action." —Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children, A Decade after Divorce, p. 322 (Originally published 1989. Referenced Kindle edition, 2018)

 

Quote 9: Wallerstein  In a PBS interview in 2000, Judith Wallerstein admitted to being shocked by the percentage of horrible U.S. marriages.

 

“In a PBS interview in 2000, [Wallerstein] said, “It’s hard for me to believe that 45 percent of marriages are so bad that they really need to divorce, and that’s what’s happening in this country.”  —Concerned Women for America, June 22, 2012, retrieved 10/29/2020 https://concernedwomen.org/judith-s-wallerstein-divorce-analyst-dies-at-age-90/

 

 

Quote 10: Wallerstein In 2003, Judith Wallerstein authored another book on kids and divorce. When asked when is the “best” time to divorce, she wrote (emphasis mine):

 

“The trouble is, there’s no simple answer… If there’s chronic violence at home, the answer is ‘the sooner the better,’ unrelated to the age of your child. By violence I mean physical attack—hitting, kicking, throwing objects—or chronic threats of physical violence. Exposure to violence has serious consequences for a child’s development that may last well into adulthood. They fear for your safety. They fear for themselves and their siblings. If there’s repeated high conflict in your marriage, accompanied by yelling, screaming, and pounding the table, then I’d also say the sooner the better... In some high-conflict homes, serious differences between the partners are a recurrent theme in everyday life.”
—Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, What About the Kids? (New York: Hachette Books, 2010), pp. 127-128.

 

Other researchers quoted in Christian marriage websites are Dr. Paul Amato, Dr. Alan Booth, Dr. Andrew Cherlin, Dr. Sara McLanahan, and Dr. Mavis Hetherington. But they don't suggest all divorce is tragic for kids either. Here are their conclusions.

Quote 11: Amato, Loomis and Booth

“Our results show that if conflict between parents is relatively high, offspring are better off in early adulthood if their parents divorced than if they remained married.” — Paul Amato, Laura Spencer Loomis, Alan Booth, "Parental Divorce, Marital Conflict, and Offspring Well-being during Early Adulthood, 1995, p. 895

 

Quote 12: Amato, Loomis and Booth

"This result is consistent with the notion, advanced by a number of observers, that children are better off in divorced single-parent families than in two-parent families marked by high levels of discord..." Paul Amato, Laura Spencer Loomis, Alan Booth, "Parental Divorce, Marital Conflict, and Offspring Well-being during Early Adulthood, 1995, p. 911

 

Quote 13: Sara McLanahan  McLanahan is known for her book in 1997 about the poor outcomes of kids brought up by single parents. But 15 years later she concluded this:

"We have long known that while the average effect of divorce is negative, for some families it may actually improve family functioning and child well-being. Work by Amato (1993), for example, shows that in families with high levels of conflict, divorce improves child outcomes. More recently, Jaffee et al. (2003) have found that children are better off not seeing their fathers in cases where these men are violent or antisocial." — Sara McLanahan and Elizabeth Thomson, Reflections on “Family Structure and Child Well-Being: Economic Resources vs. Parental Socialization,” Social Forces 91(1) 45–53, September 2012

 

Quote 14: Mavis Hetherington  The late Dr. Mavis Hetherington did a study that was more than 20 times larger than Wallerstein’s. (Emphasis mine.)

“In the short run, divorce is brutally painful to a child. But its negative long-term effects have been exaggerated…“ "Twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems. But most of the young men and women from [the study] looked a lot like their contemporaries from non-divorced homes. Although they looked back on their parents’ breakup as a painful experience, most were successfully going about the chief tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives for themselves.” —E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002), p. 7

 

"...the big headline in my data is that 80 percent of children from divorced homes eventually are able to adapt to their new life and become reasonably well adjusted.... However coming from a non-divorced family did not always protect against growing into a troubled young adult. Ten percent of youths from non-divorced families, compared to 20 percent in divorce and remarried families were troubled." —E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002), p. 228   

 

On the next page (p. 229), she went on to talk about the 20 percent who were troubled, writing: "A piece of good news about our youths was that their antisocial behavior declined as they matured."

 

Quote 15: Cherlin

In Dr. Andrew Cherlin's textbook on families, he points out that in Wallerstein's study the children may have been normal, but 70% of the parents in her group had a history of moderate to severe mental problems, many with extensive psychiatric histories (Wallerstein, Surviving the Breakup, p. 328, 330).  Cherlin wrote:

 

Although she [Wallerstein] screened out children who had seen a mental health professional, many of the parents had extensive psychiatric histories. Troubled families can produce troubled children, whether or not the parents divorce, so blaming the divorce and its aftermath for nearly all the problems Wallerstein saw among the children over 25 years may be an overstatement. —Cherlin, Public and Private Families, 2013 edition, p. 397

Focus on the Family mentions Dr. Andrew Cherlin as talking about the negative effects of divorce on children in their article "How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?" They attribute this to him: "Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress." BUT, in reality, that's not the whole story. Dr. Cherlin talks about the affects of marital conflict, addictions and violence on kids:
"...part of the seeming effect of parental divorce on adults is a result of factors that were present before the parents’ marriages dissolved."  (p. 2)
"It is likely that, in many cases, elevated behavior problems at [age] 7 were a reaction to other sources of stress in the family such as continual marital conflict, substance abuse, or violence..." (p. 28)
—Andrew Cherlin, Johns Hopkins
Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, McRae, Effects of Divorce on Mental Health Through the Life Course, 1997, p. 2, 28

 

Quote 16: Waite

Marriage-at-any-cost organizations, such as Focus on the Family, love to quote the Waite 2002 study, Does Divorce Make People Happy? Their articles suggest that all marriages will improve in 5 years if you just give it more time, and they suggest that you will be very unhappy if you divorce.

But those claims are wrong.
The Waite study actually found the opposite. That people in destructive marriages are better off by divorcing, and that 81% of those individuals who remarried were happier in the next marriage! The main quote you'll hear from Dr. Linda Waite's study is this: "Almost two-thirds of unhappy spouses who stuck with the marriage forged happy marriages down the road" (emphasis mine).
But that means that one-in-three did not ever become happy.  Here is in the last sentence of this report:

 

"Both people and marriages are likely to be happier in communities with a strong commitment to marital permanence. While some marriages are so destructive that divorce or separation is the best outcome, marriages are more likely to be both happy and stable when marriage is highly valued — a key relation in whose success family, friends, faith communities, counselors, family-law attorneys, and the wider society have an important stake."  — Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley, Does Divorce Make People Happy, Institute for Family Values, 2002, p. 34.

 

Stating the obvious!  So why put that admission in that last sentence of the study? And why phrase it this way? Well, perhaps it was because the study was privately funded by a small anti-divorce organization.

But that's not the only place where the truth about destructive marriages comes out.

Here are 6 more quotes where Dr. Waite claims that marriages with high-conflict or domestic violence are unlikely to become happy.

(Emphasis in these quotes is mine.)

 

Quote 17: Waite

 

"Among those unhappily married spouses who stayed married, what factors predicted happier marriages down the road? Marriages with high conflict and domestic violence were less likely to become happy five years later." p. 11-12  (Editor: She's saying that you can tell in advance which marriages are likely to become happy, and it's not the destructive ones.)

 

Quote 18: Waite

"If the problem is marital violence, divorce appears to offer significant relief."  p. 12   (Editor: So, I guess we can say people who escaped unhappy marriages are often happier, can't we?)

 

Quote 19: Waite

"When an unhappily married adult experiences violence, divorce and remarriage significantly reduce the likelihood he or she will experience domestic violence (at least from spouses)." p. 12

 

Quote 20: Waite

"...24 percent of those unhappy spouses who divorced or separated ended up in a second marriage within five years. Eighty-one percent of those second marriages were happy." p. 12  (Editor: So the vast majority of unhappily married spouses found better partners the second time.)

 

Quote 21: Waite

"Does divorce make unhappily married people happy? The answer, surprisingly, in this research, seems to be no....With the important exception of reducing the incidence of marital violence for unhappy spouses (in violent marriages), divorce failed, on average, to result in improvements in psychological well-being for unhappy spouses." p. 13-14  (Editor: So divorce makes you unhappy if your marriage was okay or even so-so, but when it was toxic, divorce made people happy.)

 

Quote 22: Waite   What kinds of marriages improved? The marriages whose problems were "outside stressors" that did not involve the bad behavior of their partner.

"Many spouses we interviewed who survived marital unhappiness did not see problems within the relationship as the cause. Instead they blamed outside forces for causing both unhappiness and relationship stress: Spouses became ill, lost jobs, got depressed, children got into trouble or created marital stresses by their financial and emotional demands." p. 15

 

Waite lists one story of a serious relationship problem that improved: a husband who stopped drinking after two years. (Two years? All wives of drug and alcohol addicts wish they could be so fortunate!)

So why am I not a fan of this study? In part because of the way it's worded. But also because another study was done three years later by another team of researchers using the same data. They didn't just look at five years, they looked at twelve years. They used the same national survey Waite did, but they did a more thorough job and they measured more than just "happiness," they measured three more factors, including the person's overall health.  They found that—

 

"Remaining unhappily married is associated with significantly lower levels of overall happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem and overall health along with elevated levels of psychological distress compared to remaining otherwise continuously married. There is also some evidence that staying unhappily married is more detrimental than divorcing, as people in low-quality marriages are less happy than individuals who divorce and remarry. They also have lower levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem and overall health than individuals who divorce and remain unmarried. Unhappily married people may have greater odds of improving their well-being by dissolving their low-quality unions as there is no evidence that they are better off in any aspect of overall well-being than those who divorce." —Daniel N. Hawkins and Alan Booth, Unhappily Ever after: Effects of Long-Term, Low-Quality Marriages on Well-Being, Social Forces, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Sep., 2005), pp. 451-471, from the abstract

 

So don't listen to those who tell you that all marriages will become happier if you just hang in there. In unhappy marriages your marriage may become even more toxic as time goes on, and both Waite and other researchers have found that.

Graph: About Happiness After Divorce

Focus on the Family articles often suggests that if you divorce, you will be unhappy. But Baylor University's Religion Study of 2014 showed that nearly 7 in 10 Christians who divorce are happy after divorce.

 

 

Ryan Burge final bay_happ_after_div

 

Further, many Christian marriage ministry articles ignore the massive 19,000-participant ACE Study in 1998 that shows that children brought up in a home experiencing or witnessing physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, or violence to a parent, substance abuse, mental illness, or criminality may have lifelong health effects evident when they reach adulthood.

 

Organizations that refuse to admit that divorce is good for kids when the home is highly abusive are unsafe for those in these destructive marriages.  UNSAFE.

 

 


 

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