Few people have had such a profound influence on American culture, yet Judith Wallerstein was not a household name. When her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), was published, it prompted a national debate over the effect on children when their parents divorced. Beginning in 1971, Mrs. Wallerstein interviewed 131 children from 60 divorced families every 5 years for 25 years. She found, not surprisingly, that the children were “extremely distressed” after their parents’ divorce; she also found that the children’s problems continued for 10 to 15 years with half of them suffering permanent damage. She found that the grown children of divorced parents often become “worried, underachieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women.”
More recent research by Elizabeth Marquette and others has corroborated Wallerstein’s analyses. In addition, Wallerstein continued to write about the affect of divorce on children, publishing 70 articles in professional journals and five books. In a PBS interview in 2000, she 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.” Among her findings: children of divorce have a harder time forming intimate relationships (half the rate of those in the general population) and were more likely to divorce than are children from intact families. In her second book about divorce, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce (1989), Wallerstein offered advice to couples who divorced, including ensuring that custody arrangements were beneficial to the children rather than convenient for the parents.
With divorce rates relatively stable, but still too high and no-fault divorce still an option in many states, Wallerstein’s research (and that of numerous others corroborating her findings) needs to be introduced to a new generation who have grown up hearing that divorce is better than living in an unhappy family. Wallerstein showed, through her careful longitudinal research, that casual divorce is not always the best solution for children.