Research to Practice, the Marriage-Preservation Debate: Reexamining the Research on Divorce

By Lebow, Jay | Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

Research to Practice, the Marriage-Preservation Debate: Reexamining the Research on Divorce


Lebow, Jay, Psychotherapy Networker


FROM RESEARCH TO PRACTICE

BY JAY LEBOW

The Marriage-Preservation Debate

Reexamining the research on divorce

During the past decade or so, a movement of "marriage savers" comprised of therapists, marriage-education programs, and religious and secular promarriage organizations has been pushing back against what many feel is a divorce culture run amok. To cement their case against divorce, many marriage savers, particularly social conservatives, quote liberally and publicly from what they call "definitive" research on the damaging effects of broken marriages on individual spouses, families, and, most of all, the "children of divorce."

You'd never know, listening to this polemicized use of evidence, that the social-science research on divorce actually presents a far more nuanced and less pessimistic picture. What then does the research about divorce tell us?

The Impact of Divorce

To understand the controversy about the impact of divorce, it's helpful to take a look at the history of research into the issue. Perhaps most famous among the early research were the longitudinal studies of Judith Wallerstein, now of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition in California. In 1976, she conducted a study in which she interviewed a sample of 131 young children and their parents from middle-class, white, urban, northern California families who'd recently gone through a divorce. In the years following, she interviewed the children of these divorced families at several junctures in their lives into young adulthood, although only 93 of the original 131 children were reinterviewed at the 25-year mark.

In their initial study, Wallerstein and her then collaborator, Joan Kelly, found a range of reactions among the children in their sample just after the divorce. Some seemed to be handling the disruption without major emotional difficulty, while others were struggling with depression, school difficulties, and other types of psychopathology.

After the first study of these children, Kelly (who came to doubt Wallerstein's conclusion that children were "scarred for life" by divorce) left the project. Over the next 20 years, Wallerstein alone conducted three follow-ups of the children from these divorces, and came to increasingly dark conclusions about the long-term effects of divorce. By the time she'd produced her last follow-up study in 2001, she believed that divorce not only was harmful to children when it happened, but led to what she termed a "sleeper effect," which crippled their ability to form romantic relationships as adults.

Wallerstein's view was adopted wholesale by socially conservative "family values" proponents, and widely trumpeted as proving beyond a doubt that virtually all children whose parents divorce suffer traumatic and lasting emotional injury.

Yet the methodology underlying Wallerstein's famous study is today considered primitive by most social-science researchers.

In the first place, she's criticized for basing her conclusions on interviews with a small sample of divorced families representing only one particular kind of family--urban, middle class, and Caucasian. The study, critics contend, is thereby low in what's termed "external validity"--the ability to represent the general population.

A more serious objection is that Wallerstein's version of the effects of divorce may not accurately represent even the population she studied. There was never a control group--a set of comparable individuals at the same junctures in life who hadn't experienced divorce in their family--which is now virtually de rigueur in this kind of study. Therefore, it's impossible to know how many of the difficulties Wallerstein observed in the children of divorce might also hold true for those whose parents remained together.

Additionally, Wallerstein's data-gathering methods have been challenged. Rather than being a dispassionate observer, she clearly developed relationships with many of the children she followed, and encouraged them to read her books. …

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