Lessons to lessen the impact of divorce on children
With divorce rates nearly unchanged since the 1970s, parents, society and the courts need to start paying closer attention to the consequences of the long-lasting, emotionally crippling effects of divorce on children, says a San Francisco State University psychology professor who has co-written a new book based on a landmark 25-year study of children of divorce in Marin County.
"We cannot continue in the belief that divorce is a transient crisis and that as soon as adults restabilize their lives, the children will recover fully. It doesn't work that way, but there are ways we can lessen the impact of divorce and protect our children as they grow up," said S.F. State's Julia Lewis who co-wrote the book "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-year Landmark Study" with leading psychologist Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, a science correspondent with the New York Times.
The new book is a look 25 years into the personal lives of 93 adults who were first studied in 1971 as children when their parents divorced. Wallerstein and researchers interviewed them again 18 months, five and ten years later.
Lewis, director of SFSU's Psychology Clinic and coordinator of the university's clinical psychology graduate program, is co-principal investigator of the 25-year study. She led much of the new research comparing the lives of Marin adult children from intact families with the original study group. The participants in this comparison group of intact families were the same ages and had grown up in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools with the children of divorce.
The book, published by Hyperion of New York, reveals that the major impact of divorce doesn't come until adulthood when serious romantic relationships emerge. Research found that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but also with the relationship between the two. "The absence of a good image of a woman and man together as marital partners over the long haul negatively influences their search for love, intimacy and commitment. Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise or avoiding relationships altogether," said Lewis, who added that demographers have shown that adults from divorced families are more likely to never marry and those who do marry are twice as likely to divorce than adults from intact families.
The book is organized around the stories of five adults raised in divorced families and several others who were raised in intact families. Each story represents the experiences of a larger number of people in the study.
The study's key findings revealed:
Lewis said the important lessons of the book come in its advice to parents, society, and the courts and even to the children of divorce.
To help protect children, parents should discard the belief that if divorce is good for the parent, it will automatically be good for the child and instead seriously consider staying together for the sake of the children. "To divorce is an intensely personal and painful decision and you don't want to feel martyred," Lewis said. "But if your children are protected and well parented in the family and there is no violence, they are probably better off if you try again to work things out and stay together."
If parents decide to divorce, they need to realize what raising children will require in the future. "Parenting is harder not easier when families split up," Lewis said. "Children need more time, more support and more encouragement just when newly single parents need to spend time and energy recalibrating their own work and social lives.
Society could create agencies to help divorcing parents make long-term plans for their children. These agencies could provide education, counseling and mediation to divorced and remarried parents not just at the time of divorce but also at regular intervals as the children grow and their needs change. Children should also have a voice in the new system to help end their sense of isolation.
The courts need to take a less restrictive view of the post divorce family. Visiting orders for children should be flexible and subject to change at regular intervals as the child matures. "Children locked into inflexible, court-ordered visiting arrangements until age 18 grow up rejecting the parent who insisted on the plan," the authors write. Lewis said that the courts should reject the thinking that a policy can be applied across the board for all children. "One type of custody or living arrangement will never fit all or even more children," she said.
And the children of divorce can help themselves as well. If comfortable enough, they can talk with their parents about what motivated the divorce, Lewis suggests. The answers may not be believable or easy to hear, but they may provide new and useful information that would help the adult child reconstruct what happened in the family and provide clues as to how to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
The authors also give a cautionary bit of advice for the children of divorce: delay marriage or commitment until learning more about yourself and what you want in your partner. Learn about what works for you and what doesn't before making a lasting commitment. "By facing why you are anxious and developing confidence that you can do things differently, you can set yourself free," Lewis said.
To speak with Julia Lewis, professor of psychology at S.F. State, call Ted DeAdwyler of the S.F. State Public Affairs Office at (415) 338-7110 or book publicist Grace McQuade of Goldberg McDuffie Communications at (212) 446-5101.
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