Judith Wallerstein: Children of Divorce ‘Feel Cheated, Betrayed, Unable To Trust’

Here’s a piece by the always sensible, thoughtful and informed Judith Wallerstein (Huffington Post, 11/8/10).  She’s a psychologist who’s been around since at least the 1970s studying divorce and its effects on children.  She’s done longitudinal studies and has now followed some of her subjects into young adulthood.  As such, she’s got a lot to say about divorce, children and parenting after divorce.  Note that I said she’s informed; there’s no shooting from the hip from Wallerstein. 

In the first piece, she makes the point that should be made continually in every imaginable forum.  It’s a point that every person running for public office and every elected officeholder should repeat ad infinitum – divorce harms children.

Wallerstein says it as clearly as it can be said.  If you’re dissatisfied with your marriage, your partner, your life, etc., and think that you need a divorce, if you have children, think again.  And while you’re doing that, know that what you are contemplating will likely harm your children.

It may be shocking but you need to think about this. When your children grow up, do you want them to feel cheated or betrayed and unable to trust a man or a woman?

I quote a gaggle of young adults from divorced families. A 22-year-old man tells me, “I’ve never seen a man and a woman on the same beam.” A 21-year-old woman says, “It’s not sex I’m afraid of. It’s getting close that scares me.” Or a 23-year-old: “You can hope for love, but you can’t expect it.” And a 24-year-old: ” My mom never taught me about men. She didn’t know anything.”

If you’re contemplating divorce, ask yourself squarely and honestly “is this what I want to do to my child?”

To most parents, the answer is “no,” but some will still go ahead.  For some continuing the marriage will look worse than ending it, even for the kids.  So Wallerstein has some sound advice about how to best care for the children before, during and after divorce.

Her main advice is what many have given before – make sure the kids know they are not the cause of the breakup and that the parents will do everything they can to make life as stable and loving for them after the split.  That’s something that may need reinforcing time and again, and if it does, parents must do everything they can to let the kids know that it’s the parents who are at fault, not the children.

In her description of “the conversation,” i.e. the one in which the children are informed that mommy and daddy are splitting up, Wallerstein makes a point that can’t be overemphasized – tell the truth.  I know that may sound obvious, but often, when adults talk to children, they fail at that most basic of tasks.  It’s understandable that the urge to sugarcoat the facts is strong; that comes from the parent’s instinct to protect their children and as such, it’s laudable.  But in the long run, parents must speak the truth as well as they understand it.  (I suspect that the failure to do that in all areas of life is one of the main ways in which children learn to distrust adults.) 

Do not trivialize and do not lie. Only the truth will hold up over time. Keep in mind that your children will remember every word you say and they will believe what you say only if they trust you. Talk simply, without embellishments. Ask for questions and answer simply, directly. Address their fears. Do not deny them the truth. If you are having an affair and the children know that, say that you love someone else. Say you are truly sorry about the divorce and mean it. Announce that everyone will have to be brave and help one other because things won’t be the way they were, life will be mixed up for a while but it will settle with everyone’s help very soon.

Good advice from a good source.

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