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Divorce and Children

Lawrence Bush
June 17, 2017

Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist and researcher in California and Israel who wrote five best-selling books on the impact of divorce upon children and adults, died at 90 on this date in 2012. Wallerstein’s work was centered around her “California Children of Divorce Study,” begun in 1971 with Joan B. Kelly, which followed 131 children between the ages of 3 and 18 from sixty divorced families in Marin County for twenty-five years. Through intensive interviewing, Wallerstein found that only 40 percent of those she followed got married; that the effects of divorce were long-lasting and most strong when young adults were entering into romantic relationships; that rates of financial support for college decreased after a divorce due to the financial burdens of divorce; that children of divorce were often “worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry young men and women.” Her work was criticized for not including a control group, for studying only educated, middle-class families, and for discouraging the dissolution of oppressive marriages. “I don’t want to say don’t divorce,” Wallerstein told the New York Times, “but I think the children might even prefer having an unhappy family.” Nevertheless, she wrote, “A divorce undertaken thoughtfully and realistically can teach children how to confront serious life problems with compassion, wisdom and appropriate action.”

"Wallerstein softened her message a bit over the years, writing in her book Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce, published in 1989, 'When people ask if they should stay married for the sake of the children, I have to say, ‘Of course not.' . . . She went on to say that being exposed to open conflict could be more damaging to children than divorce." --Denise Grady, New York Times

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.