Breakup Backlash

More than a quarter of Americans aged 18 to 44 have divorced parents, but psychologists have known little about the long-term effects of growing up in a divorced family--until now. After 25 years of research, Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D., a psychology lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley, has the first official results, and they're not pretty.

Wallerstein began interviewing children of divorce when America's divorce rate was skyrocketing in 1975. She followed the lives of 93 children, comparing their experiences to those of children from intact families, and reached a startling conclusion: Contrary to previous notions that kids work through divorce-related issues by adolescence, divorce's effects instead seem more potent during adulthood. In fact, people are most affected by their parent's split when in their twenties and thirties.

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"We've made a mistake in thinking that the breakup is the high point of impact," Wallerstein explains. "Divorce is a cumulative experience." Her findings suggest that growing up in a divorced family hurts adult relationship formation, stemming from expectations of failure and fears of loss, change, conflict, betrayal and loneliness. And while children of divorce aren't cynical--they highly value love and family--they lack a healthy "couple template" or marital partnership model, making it difficult to decide who they want to marry and whether or not they should have kids.

While more research is necessary to determine how best to resolve this problem, Wallerstein, who records her findings in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study (Hyperion, 2000), suggests that divorced parents owe their children an explanation for their decision to split. "In most families, it's a black hole of silence," she says. "Parents need to try extra hard in a divorced family to help their children not feel tied to the same fate."

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