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The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,
by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee

My book review

Unexpected Legacy cover

The subtitle "The 25 Year Landmark Study" distinguishes this research from some other studies of children of divorce, such as that by Elizabeth Marquardt. The study which this book discusses is a fairly small sample of only 130 children and from a relatively limited socioeconomic background -- but it is a longitudinal study which covers the same people over 25 years from childhood into adulthood. By comparison, Elizabeth Marquardt had a study of 1500 adult children of divorce, but only at a point in time. (Other such social-science data is summarized in a paper Why Marriage Matters which is available from FamilyScholars.org.) Together, the evidence is compelling.

Most of the critical reviews consider this book as being anti-divorce. I have the opposite view: it is too pro-divorce. Though Wallerstein has described serious long-term effects of divorce on children of divorce, still she says that she is not against divorce. The conclusions have a only weak suggestion for couples to try to stay together for the sake of the children if possible; nobody could disagree with that.

I was disappointed that she considered "No-Fault" divorce even without the agreement of the defendant as a positive change. Wallerstein makes little mention of the legal reasons for our current high divorce rate. In the chapter The Custody Saga Continues, she notes some of the many problems of our existing family law, but then gives up: "I don't have an alternative solution short of enabling the courts and mediators to play the role of moral arbiter." The fact is that even without automatic acceptance of "irreconcilable differences, courts wouldn't have to be "moral arbiters" any more than they are for any other kind of contract violation. They would just need to verify that either the two parties agree about the divorce, or that the divorce plaintiff has some reasonable grounds for a divorce which the defendant would have legal recourse to defend.

A few examples show a viewpoint that is in some ways pro-divorce:

One of the stories is about Paula leaving Brad and taking away their son, because she recovered from her drinking problem before he recovered from his. The author praises Paula's "courage" even though it caused their son to have long commutes between parents and a disrupted life. True courage would have been staying with Brad to try to help him as well as helping their son to have a more stable life, not yet another divorce to cause trouble for a new generation. We should not buy into the myth that people who choose to unilaterally divorce their spouses are somehow “stronger” or “more courageous” than those who remain committed to their marital vows and who are willing to work on problems rather than running away from them.

Another story is about Lisa's hesitation at leaving Jim and feeling that "I couldn't do that to another human being". This is commendable and a sign of maturity, not a "ghost of the past"

In another place, talking about Debbie leaving Billy: ".. not only careful planning but a towering rage that builds over time until it explodes"-- how can the author possibly do this kind of analysis of "Debbie" that she hasn't even met? There could be many other possible explanations. This isn't good science. This is perpetuating another myth that lies at the root of our divorce culture -- that most divorces and breakups are due to very serious issues and great anger even though in reality divorce is easy and convenient.

The books has a bit of anti-father bias. For example, she criticizes fathers for often not supporting their kids in college. Left unsaid are the facts that mothers usually get custody and fathers often must pay huge amounts of alimony and child support for years.

On the other hand, the book has many good points:

  1. Most importantly, it convincing debunks the myth that children will be fine from a divorce as long as the parents get along after the divorce. In general divorce is harmful to kids, long term as well as short-term, even if the defendant fully cooperates with the plaintiff, though as Wallerstein points out there are exceptions.
  2. We learn that in general kids don't notice marital problems if their parents stay together for sake of their kids. The example of Gary's parents is great.
  3. We learn that when the kids grow up and are able to understand the true causes of the divorce, their relations with the parent who caused the divorce and forced them into unwanted custody arrangements will be affected.
  4. It shows that our family law system really has very little idea of what is good for kids.
  5. The explanations of how to talk to your kids about divorce are valuable.
  6. Differences between step-parents and real parents are clarified.
  7. It has good information about long-distance separations

In conclusion, if you are involved with divorce, read this book, then read Baskerville's Taken into Custody or Parejko's Stolen Vows to get a more complete view.