The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study
by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee
Hyperion. 347 pp. $24.95
The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially
by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher
Doubleday. 260 pp. $24.95
Not the least noteworthy aspect of these two complementary books is the background of their principal authors. Neither Judith S. Wallerstein, a senior lecturer emeritus at the school of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, nor Linda J. Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, can be written off as a conservative. Indeed, each has emphasized the surprise she felt at the—conservative—findings to which she was led by her research.
Wallerstein does so in the very title of her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. Why unexpected? As she explains in the preface, she had begun a study of 131 children of divorce in 1971, and had already reinterviewed these children eighteen months, five years, and a decade after their parents’ breakup. Assuming that there was nothing new to add, she had not intended to continue beyond that point. But an encounter in 1994 with one of the participants in the original study, by this time a woman of thirty-four, spurred Wallerstein to reconsider. She tracked down 93 of her original subjects and, to help illuminate their experiences at the 25-year mark, also recruited and interviewed a “comparison group” of 44 adults similar in age and socioeconomic status but whose parents had not divorced.
Wallerstein and her co-authors, the psychologist Julia M. Lewis and the journalist Sandra Blakeslee, bring their subjects to life in an array of vivid, individualized stories. The first section of the book juxtaposes a child forced by divorce to take on adult responsibilities with another whose unhappy parents remained committed to their marriage. The second contrasts two children who had witnessed chronic violence at home, one whose parents divorced, the other whose parents stayed together. Subsequent sections examine the cases of a “parentless” child who lost her father to divorce and her mother to an exhausting schedule of study and work; a child born with a heart condition, whose special needs went unmet as his parents became caught up in their new families; and, finally, a divorce in which devoted parents and a gracious child, helped along by plenty of money and career success, behaved with consideration through the years.
Interwoven throughout these beautifully rendered personal histories are the authors’ broader findings and reflections. One recurrent theme is how radically different a divorce looks from the vantage point of children as opposed to adults. For most of the children in the study, even those who had witnessed frequent fighting, their parents’ decision to separate came as a bolt from the blue. For their part, the parents often operated by what the authors call the “trickle-down theory of family happiness.” Believing that everyone would be better off once the adults were happier, they never acknowledged their children’s dismay, thereby increasing the latter’s anguish and sense of isolation.
Much of this confirms what Wallerstein herself had concluded in her previous books on this group. Defying progressive reformers, she had suggested that divorce was not just an upsetting event from which children quickly recover as their parents remarry and their lives regain stability. To the contrary, the worlds of many of her young subjects were permanently altered for the worse. Though Wallerstein had taken care to choose children who were flourishing at home and school at the time of their parents’ divorce, years later she found many of them “caught in intense inner conflict.”
What, then, to repeat, is the “unexpected” news? It is that divorce, as Wallerstein puts it, is “a life-transforming experience” whose psychological effects are cumulative, reaching a peak in young adulthood in the form of acute anxiety surrounding romantic attachment and the establishment of a family. Wallerstein’s subjects, though often displaying a high degree of self-reliance in their careers, have tended to make their way toward domestic commitments far more slowly, circuitously, and painfully than the offspring of intact families. And fewer have even made it to that point. After 25 years, and ranging in age from twenty-eight to forty-three, 40 percent of her children of divorce have never married—as compared with 16 percent in a national sampling of counterparts from intact families—and two-thirds have decided never to have children.
Wallerstein attributes these effects to various aspects of life in post-divorce families. As both parents reenter the dating arena, she observes, children are liable to undergo repeated experiences of attachment and loss, thus reinforcing their sense of the fragility of relationships. And because for second marriages the divorce rate is much higher than for first, many children—indeed, two-thirds of Wallerstein’s original subjects—go through more than one family breakup. As a result, the children of divorce never acquire what others unwittingly derive from years of home life: an “inner template” of how a committed husband and wife cooperate and play, fight and make up, and generally live out their lives as a couple.
So what should miserably married parents do? Wallerstein is no dogmatic opponent of divorce; she recounts here the harrowing experiences of a child whose chronically violent parents never thought of parting. But she also writes from a mature recognition that what is commonly called happiness is not everything. For those who can manage it, she therefore strongly urges that they remain married for the sake of the children. She holds up the example of a father who, “despite his own serious disappointments,” struggled to care for his depressed and fearful wife and to protect his children. In a memorable conversation with his son, then in junior high school, this father was candid about the choices he had made, conveying, as Wallerstein puts it, “a world in which the values of honesty, patience, working at life’s problems, love, and loyalty shine like beacons.”
Wallerstein’s critics have objected that her work does not meet the rigorous standards of social science. If what they want is knowledge derived from replicable experiments, they are right. But human histories are not like that. No two marriages or children are the same, nor can it be proved how a given child of divorce would have fared had his parents stayed married. On the other hand, Wallerstein’s cases put flesh on the bones of what researchers have long told us: that many forms of pathology—trouble at school, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, early sexual activity, unwed parenthood, marital instability, and so on—occur at higher rates among children of divorce than among children of intact families.
For those who prefer such quantifiable truths, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage provides a veritable mountain of evidence. Gallagher, the word-smith of the pair, is an author and newspaper columnist who has written widely on marriage. Waite, by contrast, is a newcomer to this controversial field. A former president of the Population Association of America and immediate past chairman of the family section of the American Sociological Association, she stumbled onto her subject a few years back while doing work on mortality rates for the National Institutes of Health.
Demographers have long known that married people live longer. But Waite was struck by the sheer magnitude of the difference, and especially by the “amazingly large survival advantage enjoyed by married men.” All else being equal, she found, nine out of ten married men alive at age forty-eight would be alive at sixty-five. For never-married men, by contrast, the figure was six out of ten, and divorced and widowed men were barely better off.
Inquiring further, Waite discovered that scattered social scientists in numerous specialties had documented the edge married people enjoy in physical and mental health, income, wealth, sexual satisfaction, the risk of being victims of crime, and happiness in general. Intrigued, she set out to assemble the most methodologically sound studies. The resulting book, with its 50 pages of footnotes and bibliography, cites these findings and explores the reasons behind them.
Take the matter of married men’s greater longevity. While allowing that “selection bias” may be part of the explanation—that is, the possibility that married men are healthier because healthier men marry in the first place—Waite reports that “even sick people who marry live longer than their counterparts who don’t.” Other studies show that adults generally, when married, drink and smoke less, keep more regular hours, eat better, and get more sleep. Companionship is good for health, but married companionship is best; the boost that single people get when they move in with others is smaller than the one for single people who marry.
And then there is wealth. It is well known that divorce impoverishes, but Waite contends that “being married in itself seems to encourage the creation and retention of wealth.” Some of the reasons are obvious. Two can live more cheaply than one—and the division of labor in most marriages means that two are more productive together than apart. People also tend to be more careful about money when they have a spouse to answer to, and a spouse and children to answer for. Finally, marriage changes the economic behavior not only of the married but also of their kin: married couples more often receive help from extended family.
Waite also demolishes a number of the “post-marriage myths” now commonly invoked to disparage the institution. Most illuminating in this connection is what she has to say about “spouse abuse.” “Domestic violence,” Waite writes, “is perhaps the only area in which social scientists casually use the term ‘husband’ to mean any or all of the following: the man one is married to, the man one used to be married to, the man one lives with, the man one is merely having sex with, and/or the man one used to have sex with.” It is a neat technique, she observes, for masking the ideologically unacceptable fact that “only a tiny fraction of marriages become violent” and married women are at the lowest risk for domestic abuse.
Like Judith Wallerstein, Linda Waite deems marital stability an important public good and suggests ways we might help to reestablish the cultural centrality of marriage. Their several recommendations range from Waite’s call for improving our “disgraceful” national system for gathering data on the subject to Wallerstein’s insistence that courts adopt “a more realistic view of the postdivorce family,” attending not just to the wishes of parents but to the long-term needs of children. Useful as these recommendations are, however, they are perhaps not as important in the end as the broader contribution made by these two fine books—powerful antidotes, both of them, to the destructive and still astonishingly widespread view that marriage is just one “lifestyle” option among many, and that all “intimate relationships” are interchangeable.