Reviews & Media

Divorce Lingers On: Adverse Effects On Kids Often Delayed Until Adulthood

By Michelle Quinn
San Jose Mercury News
Wed., November 10, 2004

For Beth Wolff, the effects of her parents' divorce almost 30 years ago can crop up during stressful moments.

One came a few months ago. Frustrated with her husband's staying late at work and not calling, Wolff began to imagine escaping with their two toddler boys to a hotel.

Even though the couple resolved the issue and say their 5-year marriage has been joyful and one of little strife, Wolff still struggles with her reflex to get away, a direct result, she said, of her parents' unexpected divorce when she was 12.

"For most people leaving isn't an option," said Wolff, 41, a Los Altos stay-at-home mother. "For me, it's the first thought. It's a deep-seated, primal thing. I'm a runner."

Thirty-five years after California made history by passing no-fault divorce, American society is still wrestling with how the legacy of divorce follows children into adulthood.

For parents, the question can be excruciating. "Most adults want the freedom to end an unhappy marriage," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "But they don't want to harm the lives of their children. The question of long-term effects tells us whether the difficulty of divorce will last into the next generation."

For adults whose parents divorced, it's hard to know what behaviors or impulses, such as Wolff's I'm-outta-here reflex, are a result of their parents' divorce or other events that helped form their character and behavior.

With researchers estimating that 50 percent of children in the United States will live in a household not composed of their two married parents, a new wave of research is trying to determine what factors in a divorce can hurt children.

Two new books provide evidence that, with good parenting, most children of divorce do fine in adulthood.

Relationship risks

But some long-term research suggests that children of broken marriages face a higher risk of divorce, difficulty forming relationships and serious psychological problems.

Given the potential reverberating effects of divorce through a child's life, some divorce experts say that broken marriages have become a serious public policy question. Some states have marriage promotion programs, such as Louisiana, where couples voluntarily renounce their access to no-fault divorce. But so far, only four percent of couples have taken advantage of these programs. Other states have mandated that divorcing parents take a parenting class.

Constance Ahrons, a senior scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit national organization, found that about 80 percent of adult children of divorce said they did not suffer adverse effects into adulthood. According to Ahrons' phone interviews of 173 adults in a 20-year study, almost 80 percent said they feel their parents' divorce had been a good decision.

In her book, "We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce" Ahrons describes how her subjects, whose mean age was 31, married and divorced at about the same rate as the general population. Some attributed fears about long term commitment to their parents' divorce. Others pinpointed their parents' marriage, not divorce, as the reason they are slow to commit.

"They want to do it differently than their parents," Ahrons said.

In "The Truth about Children and Divorce," Robert Emery, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, tried to bridge the two camps among divorce researchers -- the "divorce causes lifelong problems for children" camp against the "divorce is just one of life's challenges" camp.

In earlier research, Emery found that most children of divorce had no obvious long-term problems. But the problem with empirical scientific research, he says, is that it does not look more "more closely beneath the surface."

In a recent study of 99 college students, Emery found that pain related to parents' divorce lingered. Nearly 50 percent believed they had a harder childhood than others (compared to 14 percent among adults whose parents marriage remained intact) and 28 percent wondered if their fathers loved them (compared to 10 percent among adults whose parents marriage remained intact).

"They are not free from all sorts of worries," Emery said. "There are some costs of coping."

'Sleeper effect'

Perhaps no one has brought more attention to the long term effects of divorce on children than Marin County researcher Judith Wallerstein. It's her work, the 2000 "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study," that many researchers either counter or confirm. Wallerstein identified what she called divorce's "sleeper effect." The consequences of divorce, she argues, might not appear until the child is an adult.

"Divorce is a cumulative experience," Wallerstein wrote. "Its impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood."

In an interview, Wallerstein said she is not against divorce and that many children of divorce turn out to be fine. But what has been overlooked, she argues, are the ramifications of divorce on children once they are in adulthood and trying to form their own relationships. "They are very frightened that they will fail like their parents," said Wallerstein.

"They are entirely ignorant about what goes into a marriage. Their first solution is flight."

Other researchers have confirmed many of Wallerstein's findings, but they have argued that her conclusions are often too sweeping and too focused on the negative effects of divorce.

In one study of 297 married couples, in relationships where there was marital discord but the couple stayed together, the grown children were more unhappily married years down the road, according to Paul Amato, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of "A Generation at Risk."

Amato zeroed in on an issue that may surprise parents:
In marriages where there is little conflict before the divorce, children can struggle even more once they are adults.

That is what happened to Beth Wolff. Her parents' divorce when she was 12 came as a shock. They never fought in front of her. One day everything was fine. The next, both parents calmly walked through the house with a clipboard picking out which possessions they wanted.

The divorce and chaotic post-divorce household left Wolff with a sense that anything can go wrong at any time. "I don't have a sense of permanence," she says.

Her husband, Eric, 44, whose parents divorced when he was 5, says that before he met Beth, he may have delayed getting married because of his parents' divorce.

"I was seeking a perfect relationship because I swore I wouldn't allow a divorce in my life," says Eric, a product marketing manager at Brocade Communications Systems. He overcame his fear by reassuring himself that he could leave a bad marriage if he had to. He proposed to Beth five months after meeting her.

Now that he's a father, Eric Wolff says his thinking about divorce has shifted again.

"I would tolerate a lot of misery -- but fortunately I'm happily married -- for the kids."