The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

The debate rages on: "What is the long-term impact of divorce on children?" Married couples who are considering divorce often try to convince themselves that the kids would be better off if mom and dad were peacefully apart as opposed to together and in conflict.


I was introduced several years ago to a book by Judith Wallerstein called The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. Today, I came across a great blog posting by a pastor named Steve Cornell that reminded me of it. I have attached his thoughts below. Enjoy...


Many who endure the unhappiness of a failing marriage see divorce as their only way out. But while obtaining a divorce is relatively easy, it almost always results in what one has called "an emotional bombshell." No matter how much anticipated, divorce is more difficult and painful than imagined.


On the personal level, divorce shatters self-confidence; rouses guilt, anger and insecurity. Socially, it complicates interpersonal relationships - especially when children are involved. Financially, it is a lose-lose arrangement. Divorce is never an easy solution to a troubled marriage.


And if divorce is difficult for marriage partners, it is far worse for the children. In her landmark study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce Judith Wallerstein and her co-authors present sobering evidence of the long-term negative effects of divorce on children. All those dealing with divorce, especially parents who are questioning whether they should keep their marriage vows for the sake of the children, should read this book.


For 25 years, Wallerstein followed the lives of more than a hundred children from the time their parents went through a divorce into their adulthood experiences. The book focuses in detail on five of the children who characterize the common experiences of the larger group. The study is a firsthand challenge to the long-standing notion that ending an unhappy marriage is better for the children. It debunks the suggestion that if divorce allows the parents to be happier, the children will be happier.


This myth is usually joined with the mistaken idea that, "...if the children are distressed by the divorce, the crisis will be transient because children are resilient and resourceful and will soon recover." Arguements claiming children will eventually be happier if their parents divorce are most oftetn used to alleviate parental guilt for pursuing divorce.


The study also exposes the myth that “… divorce is a temporary crisis that exerts most of its harmful effects on parents and children at the time of the breakup.” The authors state that, “People who believe this leap to the happy conclusion that the key to the child’s adjustment is the settlement of conflict without rancor.” It is the misleading notion that, “If the two parents don’t fight, at least in front of the children, and if they rationally and fairly settle the financial, legal and parenting issues that divide them, why then the crisis will resolve itself in short order.”


A sad consequence of this myth is that, “… it has prevented us from giving children and adults the understanding they need to cope with the divorce experience over the long haul.” “Adult children of divorce are telling us loud and clear that their parents’ anger at the time of the breakup is not what matters most. Unless there was violence or abuse or unremitting high conflict, they have dim memories of what transpired during this supposedly critical period … It’s the many years living in a post-divorce or remarried family that count, according to this first generation to come of age and tell us their experience. It’s feeling sad, lonely and angry during childhood. It’s traveling on airplanes alone when you’re seven to visit your parent. It’s having no choice about how you spend your time and feeling like a second-class citizen compared with your friends in intact families who have some say about how they spend their weekends and their vacations. It’s wondering whether you will have any financial help for college from your college-educated father, given that he has no obligation to pay. It’s worrying about your mom and dad for years - will her new boyfriend stick around, will his new wife welcome you into her home? It’s reaching adulthood with acute anxiety. Will you ever find a faithful woman to love you? Will you find a man you can trust? Or will your relationship fail just like your parents’ did? And most tellingly, it’s asking if you can protect your own child from having these same experiences in growing up?”


Most couples are not adequately prepared for marriage. Most are also unwilling to patiently work at relationship building. We want great marriages and we want them now. Far too many couples enter marriage with unrealistic expectations of easy and sustained happiness. We must do a better job helping young people understand the effort, sacrifice and commitment necessary for maintaining a good marriage.


An internationally respected counselor recently wrote that the secret to life long love and companionship is "an iron-willed determination to make it work." Sound romantic? Not really. But it's true. And the rewards of such determination are worth the effort - especially compared with the alternative of divorce.


If you’re in a troubled marriage and you’re thinking about divorce, read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. If you’ve been unable to resolve your marital difficulties, it’s wise to seek a marriage counselor. In my 23 years of pastoral ministry, I have seen a number of seriously troubled marriages become stable, satisfying relationships of love and companionship. In each case, it required time and effort but it was always worth it. Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:5).

-Steve Cornell