Gordon, R.M. (2005a) The Doom and Gloom of Divorce Research: Comment on Wallerstein and Lewis (2004). Psychoanalytic Psychology,22, 3, 450-451.

Gordon, R.M. (2005a) The Doom and Gloom of Divorce Research: Comment on Wallerstein and Lewis (2004). Psychoanalytic Psychology,22, 3, 450-451.

Abstract

The Doom and Gloom of Divorce Research: Comment on Wallerstein and Lewis (2004)

Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) conclude from their correlational research of 45 divorced families that divorce causes lasting damage to children. The authors attribute the subsequent psychological problems in the children to the divorce itself as opposed to the psychopathology of the parents, the trauma of their parenting and their conflicted marriage. Other researchers have found that just after divorce, children have more symptoms than those in high-conflict non-divorced families, but as the children adapt to the new situation, the pattern of differences reverses. When divorce is associated with children moving into a less stressful situation, children from divorced families have similar adjustment to those from normal intact families.

THE DOOM AND GLOOM OF DIVORCE RESEARCH: COMMENT ON WALLERSTEIN AND LEWIS (2004)


Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) conclude from their longitudinal research of 45 divorced families, “This 25 year study points to divorce not as an acute stress in which a child recovers but a life transforming experience for the child.” (p.367)

The authors attribute the subsequent psychological problems in the children of divorced parents to the divorce itself as opposed to the psychopathology of either or both of the parents, the trauma of their parenting and their stressful marriage. They drew a causal relationship from correlational data, and give parents and those that advise them a very pessimistic view of divorce. Their conclusion is that divorce is the primary cause of the children’s later life problems.

Wallerstein and Lewis used a comparison group of children from intact families who came from otherwise similar backgrounds as the children of divorced families. The children of divorced families had much worse psychological problems than the comparison group. But this comparison does not help us understand what may have caused the problems in these children. It would have been more helpful if the authors compared children from divorced families in which neither parent suffered from mental illness with children from intact families but with at least one mentally ill parent.

Wallerstein and Lewis blame divorce for the later psychological problems of the children without considering the more likely conclusion that the same factors that contributed to divorce also contributed to the emotional problems in the children of divorce. It is difficult to remain married to an individual whose mental illness involves abuse, meanness, addictions, defensiveness, neglect of children, lack of empathy, selfishness and remoteness. A mentally ill parent can influence the child both genetically and by the early and continuing traumatic environment.

Wallerstein and Lewis conclude that children of divorced parents go on to have poor relationships. However, it is more likely that temperament and the quality of bonding and parenting affect how well adults attach to others. Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell and Albersheim (2000) looked at relationship patterns in 50 young adults who were studied 20 years earlier as infants. Overall, 72% of the infants received the same secure verses insecure attachment classification in early adulthood. Additionally, negative life experiences also affected the type of adult attachment such as: loss of a parent, parental divorce, life-threatening illness of a parent or the child, parental psychiatric disorder and physical or sexual abuse by a family member.

Kelly’s (2000) review of ten years of research on children’s later adjustment found that many of the psychological symptoms seen in children of divorce could be accounted for in the years prior to the divorce. Kelly concluded that, “the view that divorce per se is the major cause of these symptoms must be reconsidered in light of newer research documenting the negative effects of troubled marriages on children.”

Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan (1999) found that although soon after divorce, children display more symptoms than those in high-conflict non-divorced families, but as the children adapt to the new situation, the pattern of differences reverses. When divorce involves children moving into a less stressful situation, children from divorced families show similar adjustment to those in normal intact families.

It is not surprising to hear children complain about the divorce of their parents, as expressed in Wallerstein and Lewis anecdotal interviews. Children are often not able to as easily discern the psychopathologies of their parents as they can a concrete trauma such as divorce. The children of divorce might more easily talk about the divorce than the dysfunctional aspects of the parent(s) that caused both the divorce and their problems.

Wallerstein and Lewis promote a rather pessimistic and unbalanced view of divorce that can give false evidence for extremist, religious and political groups to pressure families to remain together, often in contraindication to the safety and the welfare of the children. There are many children who would rather escape from a toxic family system than remain in one. A divorcing parent could model that resolving trauma in a supportive relationship can lead to ego resiliency and a better life.

References


Hetherington, M. E., and Stanley, M. (1999). "The Adjustment of Children with Divorced Parents: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective." Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 40(1), 129-140.

Kelly, J. (2000). "Children's Adjustment in Conflicted Marriage and Divorce: A Decade Review of Research." Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 39(8), 963-973.

Wallerstein, J. S., Lewis, J.M. (2004). "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce-Report of a 25 Year Study." Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21(3), 353-370.

Waters, E. M., S.; Treboux, D.; Crowell, J. and Albersheim, L. (2000). "Attachment Security in Infancy and Early Adulthood: A Twenty-Year Longitudinal Study." Child Development, 71(3), 684-689

The Institute for Advanced

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1983-2011 Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D. ABPP.
Licensed Psychologist All Rights Reserved.

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