Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

If we give them the benefit of the doubt, we can assume that the folks who reformed divorce laws, beginning about forty years ago, honestly believed that children would benefit from having happier parents more than they would suffer from the process itself.  But we are four decades along in this social experiment and, as Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues capably demonstrate, it's time to acknowledge that the reformers were catastrophically wrong and that their error has dire and continuing consequences for our society.  It's important to note that the authors are not saying that divorce is bad per se, they well understand that some family situations are so unhealthy that it is better for all concerned that the marriage end, but they do provide important insights into the long term effects that even relatively amicable divorces have on the children of divorce, effects which endure into adulthood.

One of the most important contributions of their study is a point that should be obvious : children don't particularly care that their parents might be happier if they could get out of their marriages, they want them to stay together.  This is a simple function of the fact that children are even more monstrously selfish than the rest of us.  Less obvious, but still commonsensical, is the idea that the divorce of one's parents is likely to permanently shape your own personality, your emotional well being, and your capacity and willingness to trust and love others.  Progressives may not like it, but it is nonetheless true that the nuclear family is the most ancient, powerful, and important social arrangement of humankind.  To imagine that children, the most vulnerable and impressionable members of that unit, would be able to just shrug of its breakdown is absurd on its face.  Divorce quite naturally terrifies children, calling into question the general stability of family and love.  Little wonder then that adult children of divorce experience great anxiety and difficulty when they try to establish relationships and form families of their own.

The authors illustrate these points and many others with examples from actual cases they have studied.  This is very effective as a way of personalizing their arguments, but has left them open to legitimate criticism that their work does not meet rigorous scientific standards.  In the end, you are likely to judge their work by whether it confirms or contradicts your own political viewpoint.  But it's awfully hard to just dismiss their findings.

In the conclusion to the book, they offer some very moderate and tentative proposals for policy changes that would reduce the negative impact of divorce on children.  As they note, we have created a culture of divorce, one in which 45% of all first marriages end in divorce, and 65% of second marriages.  This should be intolerable to us, because it essentially defeats the purposes for which the institution was created and calls into the question the benefits that we extend to married couples.  Personally, I would incorporate some of the authors' suggestions but add several, much harsher ones, of my own :

    (1)    As they suggest, children should be given a strong voice in custody and visitation matters.  It
            should be less important to us as a society what the divorcing parents desire and more
            important what their children wish.

    (2)    Instructing school age kids in good marriage and parenting skills seems harmless enough,
            though unlikely to do much good.

    (3)    Likewise, encouraging businesses to adopt more family-friendly policies--flextime and the
            like--is certainly worthwhile, but doesn't seem likely to have a major impact.

    (4)    Mandatory counseling prior to divorce is also unobjectionable.  Though I'd have it done
            through churches, rather than under government auspices.

    (5)    In addition, just as we extend tax and other benefits to married couples, there should be tax
            penalties associated with divorce, particularly in cases where children are involved.  The
            authors note that people like the current ease of divorce because it provides them with great
            freedom.  But freedom must carry with it certain responsibilities and obligations.

    (6)    Similarly, you should only be allowed one bite at the apple.  Divorced persons should, if they
            are allowed to remarry, not be granted the same benefits as they were the first time.  In law,
            they should be treated as singles.

    (7)    Tax benefits, student loan provisions, school vouchers, mortgage breaks, etc. should all be
            greatly expanded for married couples.  A society has no more important task than the raising
            of its next generation, and anything government can do to make parents task easier should be
            done.  The best way to do this is not through new programs but by making it more affordable
            to have and to raise children.

    (8)    All of these provisions should be waived in cases where there has been physical or sexual
            abuse of either spouse or children or where one spouse has committed adultery.  Divorce
            should be made an unattractive option for couples who are merely unhappy, but must remain a
            viable option where people are genuinely endangered or are sinned against.  At the same time
            courts should punish such behaviors, including adultery, much more severely than they
            historically have.

These reforms, and given time we can probably come up with more, will raise obvious objections.  People don't much care to be forced to accept responsibilities; they much prefer being given freedoms.  Tough.  Marriage is not a right; it is a privilege.  Marriage is a civic institution which exists to fulfill certain set purposes--chief among them are procreation and child-rearing.  It would be great if all married couples were happy, but as a society this is only a secondary concern.  The stability of the institution is more important than the happiness of the participants and their happiness is actually unimportant when it has a negative impact on their children.

Of course, I'm a child of divorced parents, so all of the forgoing may just be sour grapes and the product of my own damaged psyche…


Grade: (B+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Split-Up : Helping People Deal with Divorce
    -BOOK SITE : The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce  : A 25 Year Landmark Study  By Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee (Hyperion)
    -INTERVIEW : Pluck and circumstance : Judith Wallerstein makes a case for marriage, and on rare occasions, a healthy divorce. (Jennifer Foote Sweeney, Oct. 4, 2000, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Judith Wallerstein discusses her latest book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, an analysis of the long-term effect of divorce on children. (Online Newshour, Elizabeth Farnsworth, 12/19/00)
    -CHAT : Online NewsHour Forum: Legacy of Divorce-- December 2000 with Judith Wallerstein (PBS)
    -CHAT : presents  Judith Wallerstein  Author of "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce"   (September 18, 2000)
    -PROFILE : Dr. Bad News :  After conducting a massive 25-year study, Judith Wallerstein concludes that children of divorce are hit hardest after they grow up. (Cathy Young, Oct. 3, 2000, Salon)
    -PROFILE : Is an unhappy marriage better than divorce? : Researchers hope their findings will cause the beginning of a shift in attitudes - toward marriage and away from divorce.  (Marilyn Gardner, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -PROFILE : Split decision on how divorce affects kids (USA Today)
    -PROFILE : Judith Wallerstein (
    -PROFILE : The woman who turned America against divorce : My Amicable split with family expert Judith Wallerstein (Joan Walsh, July 1997, Salon)
    -PROFILE : Historic UC Berkeley study finds profound impact on adult lives of children 25 years after their parents' divorce (Patricia McBroom,  05 Sep 2000, Media Relations)
    -TIME SPECIAL REPORT : SHOULD THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED? : Many Americans are trying to make marriages more permanent - and divorce more difficult (ELIZABETH GLEICK, February 27, 1994, TIME)
    -PROFILE : Judith Wallerstein vs. Divorce (David Van Biema, 1994, Time)
    -ESSAY :   Is Divorce Really the Lesser of Two Evils? (Pat Centner, PCA News)
    -ESSAY : Divorce, nontraditional families, and its consequences for children (Rhona Mahony)
    -SLATE BOOK CLUB : This week, our Book Clubbers examine three  books about divorce: Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's The Case for Marriage and Judith Wallerstein's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, which argue that even troubled  marriages are worth preserving for the kids' sake, and Ann Pearlman's Infidelity, a memoir  by a relationship guru who discovered that her husband had been cheating on her
    -REVIEW : of Unexpected Legacy (Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Unexpected Legacy (Margaret Talbot, The New York Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Unexpected Legacy (Claudia Miller, Children's Advocate)
    -RESPONSE : Divorcing Reality : Other researchers question Wallerstein's conclusions (Stephanie Coontz, Children's Advocate)
    -REVIEW : of Unexpected Legacy (Michael McMannus,  Ethics & Religion)
    -REVIEW : of Unexpected Legacy ( John Atlas, Institute for Community Studies)
    -REVIEW : of   The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee (Joseph C. Atkinson , The Crisis)

    -Center for Divorce Education
    -Family Research Council
    -The Effects of Divorce on Children (Robert Hughes, Jr., Department of Family Relations and Human Development, The Ohio State University)
    -Tables Summarizing the Law in the Fifty States (ABA)
    -DEBATE :  End No-Fault Divorce? (Maggie Gallagher / Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, First Things, August/September 1997)
    -SLATE DIALOGUE :   Divorce :  From: Katha Pollitt  To: David Blankenhorn (Feb. 20, 1997, Slate)
    -GERGEN DIALOGUE : THE DIVORCE CULTURE : David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of "The Divorce Culture," a book about the divorce culture and how it?s captivated this country over the last 30 years. (Online Newshour,  FEBRUARY 24, 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Anti-Divorce Revolution: The Debate on Marriage Takes a Surprising Turn (Pia Nordlinger, The Weekly Standard, March 2, 1998)
    -ESSAY : The nuclear family takes a hit : Census data deals a blow to an American icon -- and the conservative groups that promote it. (Amy Benfer, October 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Divorce (Kerby Anderson, Probe Ministries)
    -ESSAY : Divorce War  (Maggie Gallagher, April 18, 1999, Universal Press Syndicate)
    -ESSAY : My Own Legacy of Divorce (Julia Silvis,  Perspective : Harvard/Radcliffe Liberal Monthly)