Research Charts Effects of Divorce

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A former UC Berkeley faculty member released a book this month documenting a 25-year study about the impact of divorce in adult lives.

Judith Wallerstein, a senior lecturer emeritus who taught in the School of Social Welfare for 26 years, began a study in 1971 of 130 Bay Area children with divorced parents. Initially planning an 18-month project, Wallerstein kept prolonging her study, and finally completed it in 1996.

Wallerstein's book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study," tells the stories of 93 of her subjects, now aged 28 to 43. Julia M. Lewis, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, and Sandra Blakeslee, science correspondent for The New York Times, co-authored the book.

The research results contradict the long-prevailing view that the greatest impact of divorce on children occurs after the initial breakup.

"Originally I had proposed that the period of the time of the breakup was the most serious, the most upsetting for the children, (but) the most upsetting time for the children is when they become adults," Wallerstein said.

Wallerstein found that her subjects, while eventually overcoming the effects of the divorce, made more mistakes in attempting to establish relationships and families than did adults who had come from intact families.

At the 25-year mark of her study, Wallerstein also interviewed 44 adults from intact families who had grown up with the children of divorced parents, living in the same neighborhoods and attending the same schools.

"Most people from intact families have a thousand and one images of how their parents figured things out," Wallerstein said. "Without a model it's hard to believe that (a successful marriage) is possible."

Dr. Mickey Fenzel, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola College in Maryland, agreed that persons coming from divorced families would be less well-equipped to make their own relationships and marriages work.

"I think the broader issue is what kind of role models were (the parents) for relationships," Fenzel said.

Among Wallerstein's subjects, 60 percent of the adults from divorced families are now married, compared to 80 percent of the adults from intact families. The adults from divorced families also had fewer children - only 38 percent of them have children, 17 percent of which are out of wedlock. By contrast, 61 percent of the adults from intact families have children, all within marriage.

The children from divorced families also had a higher rate of drug and alcohol use during youth, and received far less support for higher education from their fathers.

Fenzel noted that Wallerstein's research was conducted with people who, among children of divorced families, probably had the best chances of achieving future success.

"Her research is done with a socioeconomic group where the children of divorce are going to have the best possible opportunity of doing well," Fenzel said.

While the adults from divorced families strongly desired to find lasting relationships and build families of their own, they were often held back by the memory of their own parents' divorces, Wallerstein said.

"They're afraid they're going to fail just like their parents failed," she said. "So they're trapped between their strong wishes (for a relationship) and their fear."

The work lives of the study subjects, however, were relatively unaffected by the divorces of their parents. Wallerstein attributed this trend to the fact that most children of divorced parents are forced to take greater responsibilities and become independent early in their lives.


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