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November 11, 2000
Column #1002
(First of a two-part series)

''THE UNEXPECTED LEGACY OF DIVORCE'' - 1 - CHILDREN'S PAIN

     If you are an adult child of divorce, a divorced person, someone considering divorce, or anyone professionally involved, such as judges, lawyers or pastors - you must read ''The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce'' by Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee. 

     Already on the top ten bestseller list, I predict it will remain there for years.

     Dr. Wallerstein interviewed 60 families, both parents and 131 children at the time of their divorce, and reinterviewed them five, ten, 15 and 25 years later! America's only longitudinal study of divorce is profoundly disturbing and shatters major myths about divorce: 

Myth 1: If parents are happier after divorce, the children will be too. In fact, children of divorce become more aggressive than those in intact homes, suffer more depression, have more learning difficulties, are more promiscuous, bear more children born out of wedlock, are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce.

Myth 2: Divorce is a temporary crisis whose most harmful impact is at the time of divorce. A related myth is that if the parents don't fight in front of the children after divorce, and show love for them, they will be all right. But as Dr. Wallerstein writes, only after seeing these children grow into adulthood, did she see the whole picture:

 ''Divorce is a life-transforming experience...The whole trajectory of an individual's life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience...The divorced family has an entirely new cast of characters and relationships featuring stepparents and stepsiblings, second marriages and second divorces, and often a series of live-in lovers. The child who grows up in a postdivorce family often experiences not one loss - that of the intact family - but a series of losses as people come and go.''

In fact, adult children of divorce say flatly, ''The day my parents divorced is the day my childhood ended.'' Their new world is ''far less reliable, more dangerous place because the closest relationships in their lives can no longer be expected to hold firm.'' Most lost not only a father, but their mother as well as she became fully engaged in rebuilding her life economically, socially and sexually. Parenting cut loose from marriage is ''less stable, more volatile, less protective.''

Myth 3: The best time to divorce is when children are very young. In fact, ''youngest children tend to suffer the most. At an age when they need constant protection and loving nurturance, these young children have parents in turmoil.'' Half of the million children whose parents divorce annually are under the age of six.

Wallerstein depicts Paula whose whole world collapsed. Her father was an affluent pharmacist, an attentive husband and parent. Her mother devoted herself to Paula, active in her school activities, taking her to swimming lessons. After her father's business went bankrupt, he disappeared. Her mother, able only get a minimum wage job, transformed from a cheerful person into a strained, desperately tired, silent and resentful woman with no time for Paula. 

Only as an adult could Paula put the magnitude of these losses into words: ''Suddenly there was no one there. I spent so much time alone that I tried to become my own company. But how can you do that as a four-year-old child? I would go for days without saying a word.''

Myth 4: The major impact of divorce occurs in childhood or adolescence. Untrue. It is ''in  adulthood the children of divorce suffer the most. The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment...Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding'' all relationships.  

At 15, Paula dressed like a slut, boasted about being high every day on drugs or alcohol and was very promiscuous. Six years later she was living with a man who she planned to marry. Why? ''He loves me, he's kinda hyper, and he likes to party. I said to him, `It's my birthday, marry me.'' They had a child who was neglected in their drinking bouts. After a divorce, she was in the same spot as her mother years earlier - ''no money, no training, no home, with a child to support.''

By contrast, ''many young men from divorced families are immobilized,'' not having had any relationships. This is a major reason the number of never-married Americans has doubled. 

Myth 5: Staying in an unhappy marriage is not good for children. Wallerstein interviewed friends of those whose parents divorced, who went to the same schools as but whose parents remained intact, even when marriages were unhappy. Few realize that ''children can be reasonably content despite the failing marriage,'' she says. But if they divorce, ''the parents have failed at a central task of adulthood,'' which builds in their children a fear, `If they failed, I can fail too.'''

     What can be done to ease children's pain of divorce? See next week's column.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus. 

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