Review - The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce
A compelling look at our culture of divorce
I never hesitate to tell people that the most significant force separating youth culture past from youth culture present is the changing nature of the family. And perhaps the biggest change in family structure is the growing prevalence of divorce. The brokenness and ugly reality of growing up in a home ripped apart by divorce is no longer the exception. Sadly, itâ€™s become the rule. Each one of the 1 million children a year who have experienced parental divorce since 1970 is an individual face. Behind each face, lies a story. And contrary to what the â€œexpertsâ€ believed 30 years ago, those stories rarely have happy endings. Instead, they are complex plot lines marked by heartaches and struggles that continue from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood.
The early 1970s was a time when Americaâ€™s moral backbone was bending and breaking in new and significant ways. The quest for liberation from the â€œconstraintsâ€ of conventional morality was playing itself out in our attitudes, values and behaviors toward the institution of marriage. As the stigma of divorce disappeared from the cultural radar, multitudes of married couples with children were ending their marriages for a variety of reasons. Some believed divorce would allow them to make better choices and happier marriages by letting them undo earlier mistakes. Others thought the choice would bring personal freedom and benefits to their kids. Today, we find ourselves â€œliberatedâ€ with many people thinking divorce is a perfectly â€œnormal experienceâ€ that might hurt the people involved for only a little while until time heals these temporary relational wounds.
When psychologist Judith Wallerstein set out in the early 1970s to research the effects of divorce on children and parents, she believed they would rally and recover a sense of normalcy rather quickly. On a quest to prove her point, she recruited and interviewed a core group of 131 children and their divorced/divorcing families in 1971. Since then, sheâ€™s continued to meet with these children at least every five years, following their lives in intimate detail while sitting through thousands of hours of interviews where these â€œchildren of divorceâ€ respond to her open-ended questions. In addition, sheâ€™s counseled over 6,000 children whose parents are divorcing. Wallerstein has not only earned their trust-sheâ€™s learned she was wrong.
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Hyperion, 2000; ISBN 0-7868-6394-3) is Judith Wallersteinâ€™s compelling and riveting summary of what sheâ€™s learned about divorce and its effects on children after 25 years of listening to their stories and watching them grow up. â€œDivorce is a life-transforming experience,â€ she writes. â€œAfter divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood-with the decision to marry or not-is different. Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individualâ€™s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.â€
Now 78 years old and married to the same man for over 50 years, Judith Wallerstein puts a face on divorce by telling the stories of the young people sheâ€™s grown to know and love. Not only is The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce full of the latest demographic data on divorce, but Wallerstein brings to life the stories of these children who are now in their late 20s to early 40s and struggling to live as adults. Convinced we have not fully appreciated nor understood how divorce continues to shape the lives of young people after they reach full adulthood, Wallerstein offers convincing proof that divorce is not a temporary crisis that exerts its most harmful effects on parents and children at the time of the breakup. Instead, â€œthe major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo ... the absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy and commitment. Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.â€
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce follows the lives and tells the stories of seven children in vivid detail through their childhood, teen years and into adulthood. The stories are not only gripping, they are challenging. They challenge readers pondering divorce to work on their marriages. They challenge those working with kids to understand the agony and pain kids go through when mom and dad split up. And for those married to a child of divorce, Wallerstein makes sense of the struggles a child of divorce brings to his/her marriage.
Judith Wallerstein does not consciously write from a Biblical perspective. She makes no claims to be a follower of Christ. You might find yourself disagreeing with some of her presuppositions and analysis. But The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce reflects a high view of marriage, a refreshing approach in a culture that is increasingly committed to being uncommitted! Wallerstein is a voice in the mainstream building a case for commitment and selflessness thatâ€™s diametrically opposed to our cultureâ€™s skewed ideas of personal freedom. She writes, â€œIf the truth be told, and if we are able to face it, the history of divorce in our society is replete with unwarranted assumptions adults have made about children simply because these assumptions are congenial to adults needs and wishes.â€ Thatâ€™s something every couple should be required to hear before theyâ€™re allowed to take their newborn baby home from the hospital!
Who should read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce? Judith Wallerstein says sheâ€™s written the book for four different groups of people: â€œthose of you who grew up in divorced families and want to know why you feel and act the way you do; those of you who are married to a child of divorce; those parents standing at the crossroads; and concerned judges, attorneys, mediators and mental health professionals who work with the courts and families.â€ I would add another group to the list of people who must read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: those who work with children and teens. If you are a youth worker, counselor, pastor or educator, you will find the book to be a valuable source of information that will lead to a deeper understanding of the children of divorce you know and love. This is a book that will take you deeper into their heads and hearts, exposing the reality of the spiritual, emotional and relational struggles that are part of the legacy of divorce.
In a day and age when the church must do more to build families, preserve marriages, and prepare children and teens for a life-long marital commitment that brings glory to God, Judith Wallerstein spurs us on by offering evidence of how the other options continue to fail. This book will serve to shape the churchâ€™s prophetic, preventive and redemptive response to our current culture of divorce. That said, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce is a must-read.
A statistical summary from The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce
Â· Nearly half of all first marriages end in divorce, while 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
Â· Since 1970, at least a million children a year have seen their parents divorce.
Â· Half of the children whose parents divorce are under the age of six when the breakup occurs.
Â· 25 percent of all children will spend part of their childhood in a step-family.
Â· A quarter of adults under the age of 44 are children of divorce.
Â· Children from divorced and remarried families are three times more likely to be referred for psychological help at school than their peers from intact families.
Â· 40 percent of all married adults in the 1990s have already been divorced.
Â· 40 percent of all marriages in the 1990s involve one or both people who have been married before.
Â· Children from divorced and remarried families are more aggressive toward their parents and teachers, experience more depression, have more learning difficulties, and suffer from more problems with peers than children from intact families.
Â· One in four of the children in this study started using drugs and alcohol before their 14th birthday. By the time they were 17 years old, over half of the teenagers were drinking or taking drugs.
Â· Children of divorce and remarriage are sexually active earlier, have more children out of wedlock, less marriage and more divorce. In this study, one in five female children of divorce had her first sexual experience before age 14. Over half were sexually active with multiple partners in high school.
Â· Adult children of divorce have more psychological problems than those from intact marriages.
Â· 40 percent of the men and women in this study have never married.
Â· Two out of three adults in the long-term study of children of divorce have decided not to have children.
What Wallersteinâ€™s learned about their reality
I get anguished letters from all over the country every week that pose the same questions, asking for advice. One that came yesterday is typical. â€œDear Dr. Wallerstein, I am a child of divorce. Iâ€™m 39 and have a loving husband and two wonderful sons. Yet I go to bed every night worried that when I wake up, theyâ€™ll be gone. Can you help me?â€
I think I can. The phrase they all use is, â€œI am a child of divorce.â€ I hear it repeatedly when I talk to people in their 30s, 40s or even 60s. What exactly does it mean? Divorce in childhood creates an enduring identity. Because it typically occurs when a child is young and impressionable and the effects last throughout her growing up years, divorce leaves a permanent stamp. That identity is made up of the childhood fears that you canâ€™t shake despite all the successes and achievements youâ€™ve made as an adult.
These are the consequences of the broken template I talked about earlier. You were a little child when your parents broke up and it frightened you badly, more than you have ever acknowledged. When the family split, you felt as if you were splitting in two. When one parent left, you felt like there was nothing you could ever rely on. And you said to yourself that you would never open yourself to the same kinds of risks. You would stay away from loving. Or you only get involved with people you donâ€™t care about so you wonâ€™t get hurt. Either way, you donâ€™t love and you donâ€™t commit. You would trust no one since you could not trust your own parents to be faithful to you. You would stay free of emotional entanglements. Your fears and your ways of responding to your fears, which were eminently sensible and logical at the time, became a part of your character and have stayed with you up to this day.
There is more. Some of you went another route. You turned on your own feelings. Since feelings are so painful, you damped them down. Because you were a child, you could convince yourself that you donâ€™t feel. Feelings hurt, you said to yourself. So I wonâ€™t have them. It worked for many years. Bad news or good news, you felt invulnerable.
And still more. The divorce disrupted your life. It came suddenly, unexpectedly, but you realized it was caused voluntarily by the people you loved best and trusted the most. You concluded again, logically and sensibly, that nothing is stable. Anything could happen and change is probably for the worse. Since your parents assured you that things would be better but they werenâ€™t, you drove your feelings underground even more-where they became more powerful. Like most children, you kept all these terrifying conclusions to yourself because you loved your parents and you didnâ€™t want to upset them. They were so upset already. And finally, like a child, you blamed yourself for the breakup. You must have done something bad to drive them apart. You thought you were the most powerful villain responsible for the family disaster. If your parents were fighting over you and if you hadnâ€™t ever been born, then they wouldnâ€™t have quarreled. You donâ€™t deserve to have good things happen. You certainly donâ€™t deserve to love or be loved.
(Excerpted from The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, pp. 62-63)
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