Unless you have a degree in psychology or counseling, chance are you’ve never heard of Judith Wallerstein. But it’s a measure of Wallerstein’s impact on the world that you know all about her one big discovery, which is that when parents divorce, it has a profoundly painful and long-lasting emotional impact on their children, even into adulthood.
To be sure, the notion that divorce might be harmful to children didn’t originate with Wallerstein, as anyone who’s ever heard the phrase “They’re staying together for the sake of the children” can verify. But it was Wallerstein, who died on Monday in Piedmont, Calif., at age 90, who actually put in the time and scholarly legwork to determine whether the truism actually was true.
In 1971, Wallerstein began studying 131 children from 60 divorced families in Marin County, Calif., near San Francisco. She continued to follow them for the next quarter-century, conducting extensive interviews at five-year intervals. She found that not only were many of the children emotionally distressed in the immediate wake of the breakup, but that the effects persisted strongly for years, and hindered their ability to form and maintain relationships of their own. As Wallerstein later wrote in a 2001 book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce:
I found that many children of divorce were caught in an intense inner conflict — afraid of repeating their parents mistakes while searching for lasting love. Many were either avoiding commitment or jumping impulsively into relationships with troubled people they hardly knew. I left them feeling worried about their futures, but hopeful that they would find a way to overcome their fears.
Contrary to some of her critics’ assumptions, Wallerstein was not an opponent of divorce itself, feeling that it is preferable to exposing children to continuous conflict. She did question why such a large portion of American couples — 40 to 50 percent, according to the American Psychological Association — ultimately end their marriages. Instead, her work focused on helping divorced families to work though the challenges that they faced.
Wallerstein kept working and writing well into her eighties. In recent years, she was a blogger for the Huffington Post, which has posted this collection of her most memorable insights.
Photo: Huffington Post