Researcher Judith Wallerstein’s New York Times Magazine Article and 1980’s era Book on the Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children–her study shocked even her and her psychologist colleagues.
“Make the Decision, then Move on!” San Diego Divorce Lawyer Lori Karp Viviano advises prospective clients on a weekend morning television talk show in San Diego. She shares her frustrations about her traumatized clients who can’t seem to “just forget about (him/her) and get your sexy back on!” on her “sassier than thou” Facebook page.
“Just move on!”: It’s a common refrain not only from profiteering divorce industry operatives, but also from caring friends and family, “forget about him/her dear, and get on with life.” For many who see emotional attachments as disposable tools for short term gratification or longer-term wealth, “quickie” marriages are the soda-pop of human attachments and, also far too common of a dietary supplement. And as Ms. Viviano is fond of reminding her divorce clients “moving on”—“marriage is grand—divorce is 100 grand”—easily “moving on” is damn good business. For some.
But is it good advice to a client? A loved one? To a child? Is it realistic to expect friends and family who’ve experienced a family break-up to eventually “get better?” If they aren’t “getting better” on their own what, as professionals, friends, and family, can we do? If we’ve mislead them, what do we owe them? A shoulder? An ear? An apology? A refund?
And what, if anything, is anyone telling divorcees and their children of these dangers?
These observations add to the many troubling challenges to the once-beloved notion that no-fault divorce laws would be liberating for women. Since divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970’s long term studies on the effects of divorce are only recently available. Yet what has over the years emerged has been shocking—even to the psychologists themselves. And what they’ve learned tells us that the gloss “just move on!” is not only a temporary a coat of paint on a rusting hull, it’s potentially deadly advice—especially for children. Judith S. Wallerstein is a psychologist and author of Second Chances: Men, Women & Children a Decade After Divorce. Here we give you excerpts and context for our parent community which shows that virtually everything you’ve heard, thought, and hoped about the impact of divorce on long-term mental health, adjustment, and psychological well-being of parents and children alike has been a dramatic underestimation of the impact of divorce known to the divorce industry for years.
But who hasn’t underestimated its impact?
Divorce attorneys will tell you “any dad will do,” but is that true? Even the researchers were shocked at what they found: Parents and children—years, even decades after divorce, exhibit long-term psychological, emotional, financial, and sociological adverse effects; extreme anxieties, fears, disorders, and dysfunction which they themselves attribute to divorce. Poverty or financial stress were ordinary. Career and social displacement and social isolation common.“We planned to interview families at the time of decisive separation and filing for divorce, and again 12 to 18 months later, expecting to chart recoveries among men and women and to look at how the children were mastering troubling family events. We were stunned when, at the second series of visits, we found family after family still in crisis, their wounds wide open. Turmoil and distress had not noticeably subsided. Many adults were angry, and felt humiliated and rejected, and most had not gotten their lives back together. An unexpectedly large number of children were on a downward course. Their symptoms were worse than they had been immediately after the divorce. Our findings were absolutely contradictory to our expectations.”
Dr. Wallerstein’s study indicates that the impact of the process of divorce itself is unexpectedly yet undeniably dramatically more traumatic than even the psychological community had previously expected. Add that trauma to whatever additional irregularity that may have existed leading to the divorce, and it is no surprise that divorced parents and their children suffer psychological, social, personal, and professional trauma and morbidity at rates that are multiples of the rates of the non-divorcing population. In short—skyrocketing divorce rates of the no-fault era have accompanied skyrocketing psychological dysfunction rates for parents and children of divorce that has a undeniable, yet unaddressed affect on our society, economy, and national well-being.
No-fault divorce may be liberating, but it’s also a psychological, financial,and emotional cliff dive for those newly-freed from the bonds of matrimony. “Divorce is tough” is not merely a clever “thoughtful divorce” tag line for a divorce lawyer web page—it’s a fraudulent commercial misrepresentation of an avoidable epidemic of devastating proportions.
Dr. Wallerstein’s eloquent conclusion, now a full generation aged, to a modern audience far wealthier, more educated, more liberated, and … wiser?:
“It is time to take a long, hard look at divorce in America. Divorce is not an event that stands alone in children’s or adults’ experience. It is a continuum that begins in the unhappy marriage and extends through the separation, divorce and any remarriages and second divorces. Divorce is not necessarily the sole culprit. It may be no more than one of the many experiences that occur in this broad continuum. Profound changes in the family can only mean profound changes in society as a whole. All children in today’s world feel less protected. They sense that the institution of the family is weaker than it has ever been before. Even those children raised in happy, intact families worry that their families may come undone. The task for society in its true and proper perspective is to strengthen the family – all families.
A biblical phrase I have not thought of for many years has recently kept running through my head: ”Watchman, what of the night?” We are not, I’m afraid, doing very well on our watch -at least for our children. We are allowing them to bear the psychological, economic and moral brunt of divorce. And they recognize the burdens. When one 6-year-old boy came to our center shortly after his parents’ divorce, he would not answer questions; he played games instead. First he hunted all over the playroom for the sturdy Swedish-designed dolls that we use in therapy. When he found a good number of them, he stood the baby dolls firmly on their feet and placed the miniature tables, chairs, beds and, eventually, all the playhouse furniture on top of them. He looked at me, satisfied. The babies were supporting a great deal. Then, wordlessly, he placed all the mother and father dolls in precarious positions on the steep roof of the doll house. As a father doll slid off the roof, the boy caught him and, looking up at me, said, ”He might die.” Soon, all the mother and father dolls began sliding off the roof. He caught them gently, one by one. ”The babies are holding up the world,” he said.
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 whether they should stay married for the sake of the children, I have to say, ”Of course not.” All our evidence shows that children exposed to open conflict, where parents terrorize or strike one another, turn out less well-adjusted than do children from divorced families. And although we lack systematic studies comparing children in divorced families with those in unhappy intact families, I am convinced 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.
Our findings do not support those who would turn back the clock. As family issues are flung to the center of our political arena, nostalgic voices from the right argue for a return to a time when divorce was more difficult to obtain. But they do not offer solutions to the wretchedness and humiliation within many marriages. Still, we need to understand that divorce has consequences – we need to go into the experience with our eyes open. We need to know that many children will suffer for many years. As a society, we need to take steps to preserve for the children as much as possible of the social, economic and emotional security that existed while their parents’ marriage was intact. Like it or not, we are witnessing family changes which are an integral part of the wider changes in our society. We are on a wholly new course, one that gives us unprecedented opportunities for creating better relationships and stronger families – but one that also brings unprecedented dangers for society, especially for our children.”
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