Santa Clara University

After words

Children pay the price of divorce

by William C. Spohn
William Spohn
William C. Spohn, professor of religious studies and director of the Bannon Center for Jesuit Education.

"Don't stay together just for the sake of the children." If divorce is better for you, it will be better for your kids." For the past 30 years Americans have used these ideas to justify their increased recourse to divorce. However, mounting empirical evidence indicates that these justifications are illusions. Divorce may solve some problems for adults, but its tragic cost has been borne by children.

The first major longitudinal study of children of divorce was conducted by Marin psychologist Judith Wallerstein. She has followed 131 children from middle class and affluent, educated families since 1971. In a series of books, she has described how divorce has a lasting effect on children, a fact that American society has largely ignored until recently. The experience of divorce appears to be entirely different for children than for their parents. If, in many cases, the effects of divorce diminish over time for adults, its effect on children is cumulative.

Five years after divorce, only one-third of the children in the study were doing well. Thirty-seven percent were depressed, could not concentrate in school, had trouble making friends, and suffered a wide range of other behavioral problems. Ten years after, 45 percent of the children were doing well, but 41 percent were doing poorly; they were entering adulthood as anxious, underachieving, and sometimes angry young men and women.

"Children of divorce are held back from adulthood because the vision of it is so frightening. ...They lack the template...of how a man and woman live together and resolve their differences.."
-The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

Most troubling was what Wallerstein called the "sleeper effect." Between the ages of 19 and 23, 66 percent of the young women experienced great fear of betrayal, inability to commit to someone of the opposite sex, and anxiety over their capacity for marriage. Half of the young women were derailed by it. Although little girls often seemed to weather the divorce better than their brothers, it hit them when they approached love and sex as young adults. Forty percent of the 19- to 23-year-old men in the study still had no set goals, a limited education, and a sense of having little control over their own lives.

By almost every measure children in divorced families, at all income levels, fare worse than their counterparts in intact families. They have more emotional problems, start experimenting sexually earlier, are more likely to drop out of school, be delinquent, use drugs, and get pregnant as teenagers. Is remarriage a solution? Unfortunately, children in step-families are two to three times more likely than their counterparts to suffer emotional and behavioral problems and twice as likely to have learning problems.

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Wallerstein writes that after 25 years, "Children of divorce are held back from adulthood because the vision of it is so frightening....Without any guidance and family history, their own marriages begin without an internal compass for telling them which way to turn when difficulties arise. They lack the template...of how a man and woman live together and resolve their differences."

Another view in the emerging debate comes from E. Mavis Hetherington, who studied a larger sample of children of divorce but with less direct contact and fewer in-depth interviews than Wallerstein. In For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, she estimates that about a third of children of divorce have continuing deficits because of it.

More than a million children experience divorce each year in the United States. The solution to their suffering is not to outlaw divorce, but to make parents realize that the way they treat each other in marriage will have a lasting impact on their children. The real issue is not "Should we stay together for the kids?" but "How can we improve our marriage for their sake?"

For more information on the Bannan Center, see
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