From the May/June 1994 issue
“THE SOCIAL SCIENCE EVIDENCE IS IN,” ANNOUNCED THE COVER story of The Atlantic Monthly last spring. “Though it may benefit the adults involved, the dissolution of intact, two-parent families is harmful to large numbers of children.” With that troubling and incendiary opener, author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a research associate at the Institute for American Values, proceeded to lay out an encyclopedic body of research suggesting that by several standards of well-being, children in families split by divorce are worse off than children raised in intact (two-biological-parent) families. In other words, as The Atlantic’s headline read, “Dan Quayle was right.”
Citing the research of noted sociologists Sara McLanahan, Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg, along with the two best-known longitudinal studies of the effects of divorce on children, Nicholas Zill’s National Survey on Children and Judith Wallerstein’s California Children of Divorce Study, Whitehead wrote that children
in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor and two to three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than children from intact homes. According to Whitehead, kids of divorce are more likely to drop out of high school, become pregnant as teenagers, have weak relationships with their fathers and mothers, abuse drugs, get in trouble with the law and ultimately get divorced themselves.
Whitehead disputed the prevailing wisdom of the last two decades, which held that kids bounce back after the initial pain of divorce has subsided. She noted that more than one-third of those children surveyed largely middle-class kids-suffered from depression and under-achievement five years and longer after their parents divorced. Children whose divorced parents regrouped into stepfamilies did even worse, experiencing greater emotional insecurity, less involvement with their parents and a significantly higher probability of physical or sexual abuse than their peers from intact families or even stable single-parent families. Describing the vulnerability of “children of divorce” to crime, poverty, frequent moves and educational disruption, White-head dramatically concluded that the cumulative effect of divorce has been nothing less than the erosion of the foundations of American society.
With that, indignant Murphy Browns poured out of the woodwork and the vituperative public debate was on. “I was furious. It was a terrible backlash piece to the whole business of women having options,” says Marianne Walters, co-founder of the Women’s Project in Family Therapy. “It says that the traditional family is best for children, and it’s one of many recent articles saying to women, ‘You are the problem you divorce your husbands, you don’t stabilize your marriages, you don’t stay in your place, you hurt your kids.'” Some questioned Whitehead’s interpretation of research findings. “If you use averages, you’re going to find that 20 to 25 percent of kids from divorced families have behavior problems about twice as many as the 10 percent from nondivorced families,” says leading divorce researcher E. Mavis Hetherington. “You can say, Wow, that’s terrible,’ but it means that 75 to 80 percent of kids from divorced families aren’t having problems, that the vast majority are doing perfectly well.” Whitehead’s story provoked more letters to the editor than it has for any other story in The Atlantic’s history.
The controversy Whitehead stirred up is only one small battle in the famous larger war, underpinned by ideological fervor over family values. On the one side are social conservatives who see the preservation of the traditional family as vital for the good of society; on the other are social liberals who see themselves as defending diverse family arrangements from an organized campaign to stigmatize them.
The liberal side is so bolstered by political correctness, as E. Mavis Hetherington has often discovered on speaking engagements, that the mere suggestion that two-parent families are easier than one-parent families is lambasted as heresy by many feminists. One prominent feminist family therapist interviewed for this article privately believes that children are better off with two parents, but nevertheless refused to say so on record.
Within the small universe of family therapy, the debate goes far beyond political rhetoric and finger pointing, for it is in the therapist’s office that abstractions about marriage and divorce become flesh. Every day, warring and desperate husbands and wives show up in our offices agonizing over divorce. Have we been too blithe in encouraging them to go ahead, too quick to reassure them that their children will make out okay? What about children, who may lose not only a parent, but a home, a best friend, a neighborhood, a secure financial base, and a familiar school? And in our desire to get that abrasive, miserable couple out of our offices, have we too often given up on their marriage too soon?
THE VIEW OF DIVORCE AS A MERE inconvenience was the prevailing wisdom when William Doherty, a family therapist and family social science professor at the University of Minnesota, began teaching in the mid-1970s. At that time, Americans had spent a decade and a half shedding repressive stigmas against divorce. While most Americans in the 1950s believed that parents should stay in unhappy marriages for the sake of their children, by the 1970s a majority had rejected that position. The 1960s brought a new social emphasis on self-determination, of which feminism was a part, and consequent two- and threefold increases in the divorce rate. The new social idealism of the 1960s also ushered out antiquated notions of divorce as pathological, socially deviant and destructive for children.
“When I started teaching, the research was fairly optimistic,” remembers Doherty. “I taught what was the standard belief at the time: that divorce causes about a year of stress and pain for adults and children, and that most recover fine.” In his clinical practice, Doherty challenged those patients expressing a desire to stay together for the sake of the children. “I would consider that an excuse and tell them that kids do okay when their parents do.”
Today, Doherty has entirely reversed his position. “The ’80s sobered me,” he reflects. Both the emerging research and Doherty’s clinical observation of the suffering that children of divorcing families experience persuaded him that divorce is indeed a risk for its youngest participants. “Before, when patients expressed fears about the effect of divorce on their children, I’d reassure them that their children would be fine,” he says. “Now I tell them that I think that’s a valid concern. I no longer believe that there’s a one-to-one relationship between what’s good for the parents and what’s good for the kid.”
Adds Boston family therapist David Treadway, “Divorce is a lose-lose proposition. It can be done in ways that are parentally appropriate, but not without consequences, not without hurting kids. The issue isn’t about whether or not you’re having the happiest time in your couple relationship. Once you have kids, your primary responsibility is to them and not to yourself.”
For some therapists, this kind of sober talk framing a client’s actions in terms of responsibilities to others is a radical departure from an older standard of therapeutic neutrality. That’s just fine with Atlanta therapist Frank Pittman, a strong advocate of preserving marriages. “I make sure that I’m never neutral,” he says. “When a couple comes in talking about divorce, I’ll react by saying, ‘Oh, that’s terrible! Why in the world would you want to do such a drastic thing?’ If I just nodded politely and asked how they felt about it, I’d be conveying an attitude that this was acceptable behavior. But it’s not. It’s an amputation that does great damage to the children.”
The outspoken Pittman, who regrets finding himself on the same side of any issue as Dan Quayle, still figures that “even a blind pig gets an acorn once in awhile,” lies at the most extreme end of the marriage-advocating spectrum. He can quote divorce researchers like Judith Wallerstein chapter and verse, but backs up the data with a lifetime of clinical experience. When reminded that Waller-stein’s research has been challenged, he replies in a voice crisp with exasperation, “The roundness of the earth has been challenged. The divorce industry is filled with people who believe that children are little adults masquerading as infants, trying to trap their parents into feeling guilty. They will not be convinced by anything. And yet we see it every day in our offices, that the most significant event in a person’s life is the parental divorce. That is what we keep working on.”
To Pittman, the function of a therapist is not to be neutral “like Helen Keller after a stroke” but to develop wisdom, pass their knowledge on and point out to clients the consequences of their actions. He supports wholeheartedly the notion that has gained acceptance among many therapists over the last decade: that neutrality is a fiction and that therapists betray their biases even in the questions they ask. “If someone comes in feeling unfulfilled and depressed, and at that point the therapist asks about the marriage, a connection is being made,” says Pittman.
Doherty, who informs his patients except in cases of abuse that he’ll be “biased toward the marriage until one of you calls me off,” concurs. “I put it to my students this way: ‘Are you neutral when a couple with two kids under 10 is talking about divorce?’ Most say, ‘Yes.’ Then I ask if they’re as neutral as they would be on the question of, say, a client switching jobs from IBM to Control Data Systems. Then they see the difference between something they really are neutral about and something that involves vulnerable people.”
“I’m willing to assert as an ideal that, all things being equal, children need and deserve to grow up in a family with two parents who love them and who love each other,” Doherty sums up. “And I think the possibility of that should be promoted. Without suggesting it’s the only environment in which kids can grow up well, I liken it to the medical fact that we have two kidneys and two lungs and can live healthily with one of either. There’s redundancy built in. But if we can work it out living with two, so much the better.”
THERAPISTS LIKE DOHERTY AND Pittman send shivers up the spines of therapists who adhere to a therapeutic ideal of ethical neutrality. “I have problems with therapists taking a moral tone,” says Lillian Rubin, a California sociologist and therapist and author of Families on the Faultline, a study of working-class families. “It’s not for us to tell people how to live. It’s bad therapy to say to a patient, ‘My God, he said that and you still live with him? There are options. You could get a divorce.’ And it was equally bad in the days when a therapist told women, You know how men are. But you have children and they are your primary concern.”
New York therapist Don-David Luster-man is leery of what he calls “rhetorical therapy,” which is based on the premise that a therapist knows what’s good for a couple. “By contrast,” he says, “therapy that confronts people with the consequences of their actions empowers them to make decisions about their lives without telling them what to do.” Boston private practitioner Jill Harkaway concurs. “I think a therapist should remain neutral about outcomes,” she says. “As a therapist, I don’t look at staying together as morally or clinically superior.” Harkaway”s words distill the thinking of the ethically neutral school, which advocates for nothing except, to borrow Luster-man’s phrase, “the good marriage or the good divorce.” For these neutral clinicians the great majority of family therapy practitioners the question, to quote Harkaway, “is not how to keep families together, but how to keep families healthy.”
But have therapists, in their supposed neutrality, failed to be realistic and not warned their clients just how difficult divorce can be, not only for children, but for the parents as well? Michelle Weiner-Davis, herself a child of divorce and author of the best-selling Divorce Busting, thinks so. Known for her controversial commitment to “doing whatever I can to preserve marriages,” Weiner-Davis specializes in solution-oriented brief therapy. She isn’t as inspired by Whitehead or Wallerstein as she is by her clinical and personal impressions of the “hole in the heart,” sociologist Claire Berman’s term for the child’s feelings of loss after divorce. “While people can learn to overcome the divorce of their parents, and do so successfully, it’s my premise that people wouldn’t have to if more divorces were seen as unnecessary,” she explains.
Weiner-Davis’s thesis is that divorce not only doesn’t solve the problems it purports to solve, it creates problems of its own. “When people are upset, they look for the cause of their unhappiness, and often point the finger at their spouse,” she believes. “Then they’re disillusioned to find that they have the same or similar problems with their next partners. Divorce is not the panacea it was purported to be in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Furthermore, when children are involved, divorce cannot result in the clean resolution that battle-scarred couples often fantasize about. Barry Dym, founder and director of the Family Institute of Cambridge, who was for many years himself a single parent, admits that he has influenced many couples away from divorce. I’ve seen divorce and lived it,” he says simply. “I have a very vivid idea of the difficulties after divorce. In helping couples to imagine the scenarios following from each of their options, marriage advocates remind their clients that they will still have to deal with each other as long as their kids are around. To women contemplating divorce who complain that their husbands can’t be relied upon, Dym often counsels, “I hope you don’t think this will change with divorce. He’ll make an arrangement to pick up the kids and he’ll be just as late, and you won’t have as much leverage.” Weiner-Davis simply takes that caution a step further. “The research shows that the kids who do best from divorce are the ones whose parents coparent,” she says. “What I believe is that if you can cooperate with your ex-spouse, you could probably learn it in a marriage situation.” Weiner-Davis says it’s easier than many therapists think to transform relationships in which the partners have been attacking each other for decades. Her basic therapeutic message to couples is: if it works, do more of it and if it doesn’t work, do something different. Little successes, she says, “generate immediate feelings of well being, love and couple-ness,” and these can generate hope and be built on. “So much of traditional psychotherapy is based on the idea that if you have a problem, you must analyze the cause, which will lead to understanding, which will hopefully lead to change,” she explains. “What I discovered is that simply understanding something still gives you no clue how to solve it. It doesn’t work, and it’s not fast enough. So the simple but incredibly powerful tactic I take is to help the couple focus on what’s different about the times in their life when they’re not having the problem. Each partner comes up with a list, and from there we start to build on the unique solutions that are possible within each couple’s marriage.”
Josh and Sarah were referred to Weiner-Davis by the divorce attorney whom Sarah had contacted. They’d been married 17 years. Seven years earlier, after years of unsuccessful attempts to carry a baby to term, Sarah had given birth to a boy they both considered their miracle child. Over the years, they had become devoted parents, but warring partners. Neither liked the others’ parents. Josh (who handled the finances) felt Sarah used the credit cards frivolously; Sarah felt shut out of the family’s financial picture. By the time they made it into Weiner-Davis’s office, Sarah was hardly eating or sleeping and cried all the time; they communicated through their son and had cut off all physical contact with each other. Sarah told Weiner-Davis that every morning she’d wake up and wonder if today would be the day they’d file for divorce.
The first thing they told Weiner-Davis was that, since they’d bought Divorce Busting, things had been going better. “They sat down expecting to go into great detail about their problems; instead, I asked what had been different since they’d read the book.” Weiner-Davis says. “I’m convinced that the decision to make the appointment is the decision to change, to do things differently. Often on the first appointment you’ll hear, ‘We’ve just had the best week in a long time.’ Most therapists don’t ask about it, but what it means is that the clients already have begun to solve the problem. The greatest percentage of people who divorce do so without going to a therapist. So my starting point is always this: there’s something different about the folks who find their way to us.”
Josh and Sarah explained that the night before their session, they’d had one of their fights over in-laws, which normally would escalate into a five-day silent treatment. Heeding the advice in Weiner-Davis’s book about doing something different, Sarah interrupted the argument by taking the car keys and going for a drive, which broke the intensity and cooled her off. On her return, they had one short spat, after which the fighting ended. “They knew that they had to work out their in-law feelings, but I didn’t address them in the first session,” Weiner-Davis recalls. “My premise is that if you get people to stop picking the wound, some of the hot issues begin to resolve themselves. I help people tip the first domino, then give them lots of time between sessions. It’s amazing how much begins to take care of itself.”
Indeed, in subsequent sessions, Josh and Sarah began to find all sorts of solutions: he explained the family budget and included Sarah in writing the bills; they made an earnest effort not to talk through their son. Sarah’s crying jags ended, and she began to eat and sleep better. For Josh and Sarah, “doing something different” has made all the difference in their marriage.
For Weiner-Davis, old-fashioned optimism is the therapeutic bottom line. “I’ve discovered the salient ingredient of therapy is the ability to instill hope,” she reflects. “The reason my therapy works is that my clients leave at the end of the first session with the idea that there is a solution.” This is not to be confused, she insists, with talking couples into staying together. Though Weiner-Davis believes that a therapist’s values ultimately influence the direction of therapy, she allows that she’ll switch gears away from marriage preservation the moment a couple concedes they have nothing more to give.
It’s reassuring to hear that even Weiner-Davis sometimes reaches that point. The solution-focused approach, after all, can sometimes sound almost too good to be true a little hope, a focus on solutions, and voila, the old conflicts disappear. “We all do well with couples in which both members are highly motivated to keep their marriage together,” argues Constance Ahrons, author of the forthcoming book, The Good Divorce. “But the frequent situation is that one wants in and one wants out.”
Even then, maintains Bill Doherty, there is still hope. He believes that people almost always express ambivalence about their desire for divorce and he usually amplifies their doubts about splitting. Recently, for instance, a successful businessman, separated from his wife after 18 years of marriage, came to Doherty in turmoil. He had an affair, and although it had ended, it had showed him what a passionate, communicative relationship could be like. He didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in the boring arrangement he had with his wife, who had never worked outside the home and rarely asserted an opinion of her own. Yet the man believed in his marriage vows, and Doherty chose to dwell on the man’s doubts, rather than reassure him that life after divorce does indeed go on. He got the man to bring in his wife, to stop protecting her feelings, and to speak truthfully about his dissatisfaction.
“These were not pleasant sessions,” said Doherty. “The husband was saying, ‘I don’t love you, I haven’t been happy with you for a long time and you’re boring.’ And she was saying, ‘You haven’t been so hot to live with either, and I have not lived the life I wanted to live.”
Over time, Doherty said, the wife seized the opportunity created by the separation to develop in ways that were important to her. She flowered and became more assertive, the couple’s sex life became passionate and tender, and the husband learned that the wife could tolerate much more of his truth than he had assumed. “They had an amazing turnaround, which I believe would not have happened unless I was willing, right from the get-go, to encourage his doubts about divorcing.”
In contrast, Doherty says, many of the couples he has seen tell him about previous therapists who gave up on their marriages too soon. One therapist reportedly informed a client after two sessions that she and her husband were incompatible. “That anti-commitment stance is really prevalent,” sighs Doherty. “I think most therapists aren’t aware that their primary value orientation is individual self-interest.” Rails Frank Pittman, “There are a great many therapists left over from the ’60s who believe that the secret to happiness is to run away from home at any age. They see divorce as the universal solution to life’s ennui, what you do if you’re having a bad day, or feeling unfulfilled because your life is not in a constant state of ecstatic wonder.”
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE COUPLES whose lives are in a constant state of grinding conflict? Aren’t they harming their children just as much as divorcing couples? Aren’t there cases, beyond the obvious ones involving incest, physical abuse and alcoholism, in which children and couples are better served by being helped to part? Does keeping the children’s interest in mind always mean advocating for a couple to stay married?
Barry Dym has been wrestling with all these questions ever since Mona and Jim, high-powered professionals with three children under 7, arrived in his office with a full-blown case of what Dym calls “a toxic marriage.” “Normally, couples are on much better behavior at first, aware of being in the public view,” recalls Dym. “This couple didn’t have that at all. My guess was they weren’t modulating their fights for the children either. They were mean; there was no listening, no compromise. My own experience was of feeling blown away, and I’m not overwhelmed very easily. If I tried the simplest thing, like clarifying, they just ignored me. I couldn’t even get in. When I tried an intervention ‘Try saying what’s right about the other before criticizing’ they could not sustain it.”
At the end of the first session, Dym put his foot down. “I said, ‘I want you to stop fighting like this.’ They were shocked. They’d both been in a lot of therapy, and they said, ‘What do you mean? We came here to discuss our problems.’ I told them this wasn’t helping them at all. My strategy at that point was to try to contain them, to provide a place where they couldn’t go out of control.”
It wasn’t until the third session that Jim and Mona even raised the issue of their children. “They said something like, ‘I suppose it’s better for the kids to have two parents in the house,'” Dym recalls. “I just let it pass. I have explicitly refrained from encouraging them to stay together. At one point I even said, ‘Frankly, I can’t imagine what it’s like being a child in your home.'”
The couple is now on their 15th session, and although they fight a little more reasonably, nothing much has changed. “I’d like to keep my hands on them and see if I can help them to grow up, to help them be less narcissistic and to keep advocating in the kids’ interest,” muses Dym. “But in this case, I honestly don’t know what the kids’ interest is.” For children in marriages like this, the school disruption, father’s absence and lowered standard of living that often accompany divorce start to look a little less grim. Indeed, some researchers hold that the well-being of children of divorcing families should be compared with that of children of marriages like Mona and Jim’s, because these are the families they would resemble if divorce did not take place.
Are such children better or worse off than the children of divorce? At this point, the research is too inconclusive to say much more than “it depends on the family,” or to call to mind Tolstoy’s famous dictum that happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. Both marriage evangelists and divorce-neutral researchers can quote studies that support their points of view, and point out the flaws in those that don’t.
Virtually every leading divorce researcher in the country, for example, has criticized Judith Wallerstein’s research for its narrow clinical sample (60 families in suburban Marin County, California) and its lack of a control group comparing the long-term fallout of hostile marriages or for that matter, plain life on children. Some researchers claim that when Wallerstein notes that two-thirds of the young girls whose parents divorced were later afraid of betrayal and unable to make lasting commitments, she may be ascribing to divorce a symptom more attributable to modern existence.
Clearly, divorce is not the only condition that puts children at risk. Researchers, for example, have found that parental depression, marital conflict and even the seemingly benign condition of emotional distance can damage kids in subtle ways. “We’ve found that a marriage that puts children at risk is one in which the father is angry and withdrawn,” explains John Gottman, a former student of Hetherington’s, who is now a psychology professor and marriage researcher at the University of Washington. “These kids develop internalizing disorders anxiety, withdrawal from peers, depression. It can be extreme.”
Judith Wallerstein concurs, “One effect of the loveless marriage is that the kid has an example that is very discouraging for future choices. That’s very serious, and true if the loveless couple divorces or stays married. But a loveless marriage also clearly influences the parent-child relationship. The parent, needing emotional replenishment from somewhere, might turn more to the child for it, making separation and growth very difficult.” Similarly, when the alternative to divorce is a marriage like Mona and Jim’s, filled with resentment and belligerence, many clinicians believe that ending the hostility through divorce brings about the most stability for a child.
Lusterman is convinced that what he calls “noisy marriages” are very bad for kids. His position is based not on research, but experience. “The kids that come to me from those marriages are miserable, confused,” he says. “They go on in adult life very much like kids of divorce, to be extremely skittish about marriage. I was just on the phone with a woman whose mother and father never divorced, but they had a crazy marriage, filled with deceit, gambling, drugs and so on. Now this young woman is experiencing in her own marriage a terror of becoming intimate with her husband, fears of trusting a man, and her siblings have had similar problems. This is typical, not unusual.”
In fact, some recent research studies, criticized by pro-marriage researchers as inconclusive, seem to support Luster-man’s clinical experience. Data from Furstenburg and Cherlin, Hetherington, Zill (The Children of Divorce Project) and Gottman all suggest that children from intact, high-conflict homes fare worse in the long run than children of divorce. Hetherington’s study, in particular, supports the point of view that she has held since the 1970s that two or three years after divorce, children begin to bounce back. “In the first two years following divorce, kids look worse off than kids from intact families, even bad intact families,” she says. But two to three years after the divorce, the kids who lived in one-parent households, with a competent mother, were doing better with half as many behavioral problems than the kids in the conflict-ridden homes.”
In 1986, Gottman began seeing a sample of couples, all with kids, whose marriages registered variously along the spectrum of compatibility. He’s since seen them at regular intervals some have divorced, some have hostile marriages, and others are peacefully married and logged reports from teachers on their children’s behavior. His findings echo Hetherington’s: after an initial problem period, kids of divorce were better off than kids whose parents remained in hostile marriages. “The advice to stay together because divorce destroys kids is just dead wrong,” declares Gottman. But just how hostile must a marriage be to damage the kids? “We find that by itself,
anger is not that bad for children,” he says. “To qualify as hostile, a marriage has to have contempt anger blended with an insulting insinuation and belligerence anger that provokes.”
Parental conflict, per se, does not always damage kids. But some forms of conflict inexorably draw in the children, forcing them to choose between Mommy’s love and Daddy’s approval, making them listen to how irresponsible Daddy is, or express a misguided loyalty to one parent by getting in trouble with the other. Says Jill Harkaway, “There are lots of couples who remain unhappily married for a lifetime whose children are not traumatized. It’s when the child becomes part of the unhappy marriage, for instance if the parent turns to the child for intimacy, that the kids become symptomatic.” This is a view with which Frank Pittman concurs. “Like amputation, there are times when divorce can save lives,” he says. “But does it hurt children to grow up with boring parents? I think there are some people whose capacity for change and empathy is so limited that marriage to them would be really quite unfulfilling. But not necessarily dangerous. Children don’t require great passion from their parents. They require stability.”
Few therapists argue that all marriages can and should be saved. Church basement meeting rooms across the country are full of adults who still remember, with horror, alcoholic and incestuous parents from whom they should have been protected. And some family therapists shiver when they look back at the families they blindly kept together in the ’50s and ’60s, when structural and strategic family therapy emphasized shoring up the authority of parents, particularly fathers. “I remember the family of a school principal and his 12-year-old daughter, where I think, in retrospect, there was probably incest going on,” recalls Tread-way. “The kid was saying, ‘There’s something bad going on,’ and the family said that was preposterous. I ended up supporting the hierarchy and this kid got hung out to dry.”
In the 1980s, when the feminist movement hit family therapy, all that changed a reflection of changes already occurring in the wider society. Women, bolstered not only by feminist ideology but more crucially, by paychecks of their own, had begun walking out of abusive and alcoholic marriages and into newly founded womens’ shelters or rented apartments. As divorce rates climbed, feminism was often blamed (or credited) with unleashing a sense of entitlement, freedom and anger in women who had formerly accepted the marriage status quo. No longer could husbands or therapists assume that a woman would stick it out with a philandering or depressed husband, or even tolerate far less dramatic difficulties. “What feminist therapy was concerned about wasn’t saving or ending marriages,” says Marianne Walters. “It was about encouraging a greater degree of equity between partners.”
Walters sees no reason to save marriages simply because they are marriages. “Marriage doesn’t provide any more stability for a child than good relationships do,” she says. “I don’t care if people are married. The important thing for me is how they are leading their lives.” She also maintains that the current focus on the effects of divorce on children stigmatizes them further and creates self-fulfilling prophesies. “The whole concept of ‘children of divorce’ means that we understand these children as structured and constructed primarily by the divorce,” she says. “What a terrible idea.”
The divorce debate is often framed as a war between the interests of women and their children. Children, so the argument goes, are paying for Mom’s new independence, her feminism. Feminists argue that it is not the willful independence of mothers, but the economic and emotional abandonment of children by their fathers that causes many of divorce’s most damaging effects. Mothers, after all, rarely abandon their children when they abandon marriage, but fathers often move across the country to better jobs, buy new cars rather than pay child support or balk at paying college tuition. According to one study cited by Whitehead, only one child in six, on average, saw his or her father as often as once a week in the first year after divorce. Ten years after a marriage breaks up, more than two-thirds of children report not having seen their father for a year. The income for mothers and children declines, on average, about 30 percent after divorce, while fathers experience a 10- to 15-percent increase in personal income in the year following separation.
The succession of practical and economic blows that usually follows a family’s private, emotional splitting apart may hurt children far more than the loss of their parents’ marriage. About 38 percent of divorced mothers and their children move during the first year after a divorce, and mothers frequently must change jobs or increase their working hours. Children face increased school disruption and the loss of neighborhood friends factors that many believe are far more closely tied to childhood unhappiness than divorce itself. “Divorce is deceptive,” says Wallerstein. “Legally, it is a single event, but psychologically, it is a chain, sometimes a never ending chain, of events, relocations and radically shifting relationships strung through time, a process that forever changes the lives of the people involved.”
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF FAMILY therapy, it was an article of faith that restoring the parents’ relationship was the crucial first move. Today, many therapists see things differently: the child’s needs for protection and nurturance have primacy and can be restored even if the parents don’t get along that well. Family therapists who want to be advocates for children make sure that fathers remain emotionally franchised and connected to the family; they encourage parents to agree to adequate financial settlements, to let the children grow up in the family home, or not to move away until the children are grown. In some cases, a therapist even fills a role that society no longer fills in helping insure that parents act in the best interests of their kids.
William Pinsof, of the Family Institute of Chicago, often alternates between confronting and supporting divorced parents. He “works like crazy” to keep fathers involved, and he often insists that therapists whose work he supervises bring noncustodial parents into therapy. “Most fathers don’t want to abandon their kids, but it’s painful for them,” he says. “When you go after them, they want to be involved. The noncustodial parent is a major resource and has got to be included in therapy.”
Kitty LaPerriere, a Manhattan family therapist, acted almost like a great-aunt when she saw one couple through divorce when the sons were 5 and 8. “I remember working hard to tether the father,” recalls LaPerriere. She focused on the mundane details of the children’s visits to their father’s small apartment, making sure that he took them one at a time, that he had somewhere for them to sleep and didn’t just park them with a sitter. “I followed up. I’d get on the phone to the father,” says LaPerriere. ” I acted like a member of the extended family.”
At Judith Wallerstein’s Center for the Family in Transition in Marin County, California, therapists teach nonresident fathers how to have rewarding, age-appropriate visits with their children in the first year after divorce, when the patterns are first laid down. “The father may not know how to talk to a preschooler,” says Wallerstein. “So we try to set up the visiting relationship then and there, and talk to fathers and their children in a playroom. Otherwise there’s no dress rehearsal.” Divorce, Wallerstein says, does not have to be a disaster for children. “People just have to know that divorce makes raising children harder,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t bring up healthy, happy children. But it will take much more effort, knowledge and money.”
Beyond the polemic about whether or not to “save” marriage, a more fundamental shift is taking place in therapists’ practices around the country. The focus is shifting from the interests of the parents, who are articulate, forceful, and who, after all, pay the fee, to the interests of their children. It is this increasing concern about the long-term interests of children that may raise far more illuminating and answerable questions for therapists than whether simply to keep couples together or let them split apart.
Boston family therapist David Treadway recently counseled a couple who “acknowledge pretty openly that they’re not together for any other reason but for the kids. And they’re pretty disciplined in their effort not to contaminate the children.” Both parents are actively involved in their children’s lives and go to their sports events. The kids have a sense of stability and continuity. They don’t get to see a particularly warm or connected or loving marriage, but they aren’t going to get that by divorce either.
When parents and therapists put a child’s interests first like this, they are swimming against the cultural tide. As Whitehead dared to point out in The Atlantic, children have been the great losers in the social fracturing and economic decline of America’s past two decades. Their poverty rate has increased more dramatically than that of any other age group and their schools have deteriorated. The teen suicide rate has more than tripled. More children than ever are being raised by a single parent or have had to adjust to first one stepfather and then another. Their mothers have gone to work in a marketplace that has made few accommodations to the needs of families in a society in which even children with two parents often face long hours alone after school.
When their parents’ marriages fail, children become the unwitting shock absorbers of our social breakdown, putting clean underwear into their knapsacks to take to Daddy’s house, and waiting on the stairs two days later for Mom to pick them up and take them “home.” They rarely have much say in the family break-up, but their emotional and economic dependence on the adults who gave birth to them remains absolute.
Many people who have taken a hard look at their divorced friends’ lives or their own have seen bratty and neglected children, exhausted mothers, exasperated stepmothers and stepfathers who try to balance the needs of a second family with the claims of the first. The Atlantic article may overstate the case, but even the most divorce-neutral researchers concede what is in front of our eyes: that divorce puts children at increased economic and psychological risk.
The therapist who chooses to confront a warring couple with such hard truths is taking a risk. In few situations is the moral position of the therapist more likely to be at variance with the economics of psychotherapy. He or she is advocating for people who do not pay the bill at the end of the hour. If the parents don’t like what they hear, they can go elsewhere. They may want to be reassured that their children will be all right, that life does, indeed, go on, or that the abandoned spouse will, at least, have a professional shoulder to cry on. The therapist who wants to give more than immediate relief is on the moral hot seat. But if a therapist can form a connection of trust and credibility with such a couple, and speak positively of obligation and moral choice, he or she can help us all stumble toward a society in which children shoulder fewer of the burdens of divorce or less-than-perfect marriage.
Such a therapist will confront couples with a mixture of hope and pessimism. Yes, life after divorce does go on. The odds are against the children, but not overwhehningly so. A good therapist, and good parents, can help to counterbalance those worsened odds by creating a stable coparenting arrangement between the divorced spouses.
But in this fractured and fracturing world, a therapist, despite the miracles everyone hopes for, has limited authority. Neither modern divorce rituals in which couples throw their wedding rings into lakes nor pious stay-together lectures will do the trick. Instead, therapists and couples will continue to choose among imperfect and unknowable outcomes. The crucial difference now is that the children, whether or not they are in the therapy room, are no longer invisible.
Kathryn Robinson is a staff writer for The Seattle Weekly.