Ten years after, the children were still acutely troubled.
The most extensive study of divorced families ever undertaken has yielded grave findings and has seriously challenged the conventional wisdom on the subject.
The Children of Divorce project, begun in northern California in 1971, studied 60 divorced families spanning a variety of racial and economic backgrounds. The 131 children involved ranged from 3–18 years of age
Judith Wallerstein, founder of the project, is a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and also operates the Center for the Family in Transition in nearby Corte Madera. Her interest in the effects of divorce on children began when she moved to California after 17 years at the Menninger Foundation. When schools and social agencies asked questions about children and divorce, she found no adequate research on the subject and began her own. One of her goals was to test the “dogma” that a divorce that allegedly promotes the happiness of the adults is also good for the children, something she calls a “typically adult argument.” She interviewed all members of the 60 families at various stages during the study. Originally, she expected the project to last only one year, after which time she assumed that most of the damaging effects of divorce, like those of bereavement, would have abated. Such did not prove to be the case. She found the damage to be acute still—10 years after the study started.
Many of the children—37 percent—were found to be “consciously and intensely unhappy and dissatisfied with their life in the post-divorce family.” Many of them were “intensely lonely” and complained of coming home after school to an empty house. Divorced parents’ readjustment to single life often made them feel left out. Even in remarried families, children felt abandoned or shunned by the newly married couple, whose main concern often seemed to be privacy.
Strong anger—especially directed at the father—remained years after the marriage breakup. Older boys and adolescents were among those most likely to exhibit outbursts of temper or violent behavior. Others refused contact with their fathers, even returning their birthday gifts to them unopened.
Wallerstein expected that children who had been rejected would feel powerless and troubled, but she was unprepared for the depths of misery in some of them. One nine-year-old, reminded of his policeman father by the sound of a siren, launched into a 35-minute crying spell in the presence of interviewers.
Twenty-nine percent of the 131 children represented a middle ground of psychological health between those described as “depressed” and those who were “coping.” This group showed average academic and social progress, but Wallerstein noted “islands of unhappiness” in them that did not bode well for future development.
Thirty-four percent of the children, a group representing both sexes and all ages, were found to be psychologically resilient and coping well with their changed life. However, even among this group, many of them still felt lonely, unhappy, or sorrowful about what had happened. They harbored vivid, detailed memories of the breakup even after 10 years.
In almost all cases, the first news of the divorce came as a shock, with the children neither seeing it as a solution to their problems nor experiencing feelings of relief. They considered their situation to be no worse than that of anyone else and would have been content to carry on. The divorce, Wallerstein says, was “a bolt of lightning that struck them when they had not even been aware of a need to come in from the storm.”
The faithfulness of the children to their original families surprised the researchers and proved unsettling to some of the parents. Many children clung to fantasies of a magical connection between their parents; still others replied “which one?” to questions about their fathers years after the divorce.
Fatherly visits did help to diminish dependency on one parent, but Wallerstein describes these relationships as “offering the children little in fully addressing the complex tasks of growing up.” Neither new friends nor grandparents, although helpful, were found able to fill the voids in the children’s lives.
Brother-sister relationships among children from divorced families continued to be strong. The enduring ties Wallerstein describes as almost constituting a kind of “subfamily.”
The older children of divorce showed a surprisingly strong commitment to the concept of the family and definitely did not want to wind up divorced themselves. In many cases, they wanted to delay both marriage (often desiring to live together first) and having children.
Concerning the causes of divorce, Wallerstein believes that in most cases, “there was never really a marriage.” Where true intimacy and oneness were lacking, the marriage was unable to bear the stresses of life—children, deaths in the family, change, and economic woes. Wallerstein acknowledges that many people have been “carried away” in equating eroticism with happiness in recent years. A number of husbands in the project had been having extramarital affairs.
In spite of finding it “clear” that the divorced family is, “in many ways less adaptive economically, socially, and psychologically to the raising of children than the two-parent family,” Wallerstein believes that divorce should remain “a readily available option.” But impulsive, frivolous divorce she views as disastrous, especially in cases where the couple has been married for many years. She values highly the institution of marriage and supports all efforts (such as Marriage Encounter and similar projects) to strengthen the marriage bond.
With the millions who are already victims of divorce, she has encouraged clergy and church groups to become involved. “Divorce is like no other stress,” she says, pointing out that the emotional support that is quickly forthcoming in cases such as death is absent in a divorce; relatives tend toward aloofness or abandonment. The church, she avers, should marshal its resources to “fight loneliness.” Those who would be effective therapists and comforters she counsels to acquire training with children.
Wallerstein and her associates are currently planning a study of children from nondivorced families, intending to compare the results with the Children of Divorce project.
LLOYD BILLINGSLEY in Berkeley
Missions Interest Grows Among United Presbyterians
“This summer our church commissioned five overseas missionaries,” said pastor Arnold Nelson of the First Presbyterian Church of Salinas, California. “What a shame that not one of them could go out as Presbyterian, though they would have liked to.” Nelson went on, “I don’t believe that even if we gave [the Presbyterian mission board] the money they would send them. There is a difference of philosophy.”
But most leaders at the eighth Presbyterians United for Mission Advance (PUMA) conference, meeting last month in Redwood City, California, seemed to disagree. “We think we are beginning to see daylight,” said Frank Seidelburg of the United Presbyterian Center for Mission Study. He cited a recent $1 million fund established by the denominational mission agency, whereby Presbyterians can give specifically for new evangelistic missions to so-called hidden peoples. The United Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, associated with Ralph Winter’s U.S. Center for World Mission, is behind the fund.
Winter sees PUMA as a hopeful sign in the United Presbyterian church. Once one of the largest mission-sending organizations with 1,400 missionaries, the United Presbyterian church now has about 300. PUMA began as a layman’s study group in 1974, spurred by encouragement from Winter and Fuller Theological Seminary’s Arthur Glasser. At the time, there was little or no missions emphasis among the several hundred Presbyterian churches in northern California. Now PUMA brings together over 50 missionaries for two days of fellowship with pastors and mission committees, and sends them out for multiple speaking engagements in over 40 supporting Presbyterian churches. The result seems to be increased interest in missions. The Menlo Park church, one of the leaders, now has about 100 laymen active on various mission task forces, and allocates a budget of half a million dollars. PUMA-like organizations have spread to southern California, Portland, Cincinnati, and Buffalo, conference officials said.
Most of the 50 missionaries present at the October meeting were from non-Presbyterian missions, though many had Presbyterian background or affiliation. PUMA tries to invite as many United Presbyterian missionaries as possible, said Neil Elsheimer, president-elect and key founding member. But there simply are not enough available. The makeup of the conference was representative of the missions interest of participating churches. Many large, evangelical Presbyterian churches in the area have supported non-Presbyterian missions handsomely. Several speakers mentioned the impact of Inter-Varsity’s Urbana conference on their young church members. Unable to go out as Presbyterian missionaries, these young people have joined other missions, and their churches have supported them.
Nonetheless, PUMA leaders seemed bent on good relationships with the denomination, PUMA is recognized by the denomination. The United Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and the United Presbyterian Center for Mission Study are also recognized. Bill King, associate synod executive for the Synod of the Pacific in the United Presbyterian Church, acknowledged tension between denominational leaders and PUMA over the philosophy of the church as it relates to national leadership in Third World churches. But he said, “There’s good creative tension here. I think it’s healthy.”
Church politics were not high on the conference agenda. Speakers emphasized conventional evangelical concerns in missions, and missionaries seemed to particularly enjoy fellowship with each other. Josif Ton, a Romanian pastor recently expelled from his country, made perhaps the greatest impact of the conference with his talk on suffering. Many missionaries spoke enthusiastically of great opportunities where they work. PUMA’s main emphasis is educational, helping churches form active missions committees and have effective missions emphasis weeks. Robert Thorp, a Presbyterian missionary to Guatemala for 34 years, has become full-time executive secretary, and spends much of his time organizing seminars for missions committees as well as the annual PUMA conference. Would denominational leaders be concerned over the non-Presbyterian missions represented? “They’re the ones who taught us to be ecumenical in the first place,” said Thorp.
Ralph Winter and his crusade to spur a revival of missions appears to function as the unofficial guiding light of PUMA. Winter presented his analysis of Protestant missionary history, seeing the beginning of a new era of mission advance in the realization that many “people groups” have never heard the gospel.
The second era, as Winter sees it, began with Hudson Taylor’s realization that China missions had never penetrated the coastline. He established the China Inland Mission, and indirectly inspired numerous new “faith” missions aimed at the inland frontiers, such as Sudan Interior Mission, Africa Inland Mission, and Unevangelized Fields Mission. These began while many “first era” missions were pulling back, since their work was well established and national leadership was ready.
Similarly, the insights of Cameron Townsend of Wycliffe and Donald McGavran of Fuller have led to an awareness of new frontiers among ‘hidden peoples”—distinct ethnic groups that have no witnessing church. Winter made the point that while older missions were initially resistant to Hudson Taylor’s initiative, they soon outstripped the newer “faith” missions. Winter hopes to see the same phenomenon recur. “We [Presbyterians] don’t have a lot going on out there, but with our background and experience the independent missions will be left standing still.” Winter does not restrict his hopes to Presbyterians. “Within ten years, churches in the National Council could have 50 percent of the missionaries, where now they have 3 percent.” PUMA may not share Winter’s confidence, but they certainly share his hope.
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