Reconciling Divergent Perspectives: Judith Wallerstein, Quantitative Family Research, and Children of Divorce

Article excerpt

Although Judith Wallerstein's research on children with divorced parents has been influential, many quantitative family scholars have criticized her methods and conclusions. Wallerstein claims that children with divorced parents often reach adulthood as psychologically troubled individuals who find it difficult to maintain stable and satisfying relationships with others. Consistent with Wallerstein's claims, quantitative research suggests that parental divorce increases the risk of experiencing psychological problems, having a discordant marriage, seeing one's own marriage end in divorce, and having weak ties to parents (especially fathers) in adulthood. The accumulated evidence, however, reveals that the estimated effects of divorce are not as strong as Wallerstein appears to claim. I provide examples from the Marital instability Over the Life Course study to illustrate the magnitude of divorce effects. I conclude with a call for a rapprochement between Wallerstein and her critics.

Key Words: children, divorce, marital discord, methodology, parent-child relationships, psychological well-being.

Judith Wallerstein's research on the long-term effects of divorce on children has had a profound impact on scholarly work, clinical practice, social policy, and the general public's views of divorce. The news coverage of her recent book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000), was remarkable, with major stories appearing in Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and most other major newspapers in the United States. The massive interest in Wallerstein's work reflects the concerns of people in a society where nearly 50% of all first marriages continue to end in divorce (Bramlett & Mosher, 2001). With the publishing of her 25-year follow-up study, the time seems right to consider her overall contributions to our field.

A focus on Wallerstein's work also is appropriate given the recent publication of Mavis Hetherington's book, For Better of For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Hetherington argues that the negative effects of marital disruption on children have been exaggerated and that most children recover without long-term harm. Her data indicate that 25% of children with divorced parents reach adulthood with a serious social, emotional, or psychological problem, compared with 10% of children with continuously married parents. Therefore, although parental divorce is a risk factor for subsequent problems, the majority of youth (75%) reach adulthood as well-functioning individuals. This upbeat conclusion appears to clash with the more somber views of Wallerstein. Not surprisingly, the media have framed the issue as a debate between Hetherington and Wallerstein. As an article in Newsweek magazine stated, "Hetherington's main rival in the divorce-book genre is California researcher Judith Wallerstein, whose best-selling studies of children and divorce have highlighted her disturbing findings about the difficulties these children have in establishing healthy adult relationships" (Kontrowitz, 2002, p. 60).

My goal in this paper is to review the strengths and limitations of Wallerstein's research methodology and to examine her main conclusions in the light of the accumulated research of other family scholars. I argue that many of Wallerstein's conclusions about the long-term consequences of marital dissolution on children are more pessimistic than the evidence warrants. However, I also argue that a careful reading of Wallerstein's work reveals many consistencies between her views and the views of other investigators. Most family scholars agree that divorce has negative long-term consequences for many children. The major disagreement between Wallerstein and other social scientists involves a fundamental question: How large and pervasive are the negative effects of divorce on children? …