Ahrons and Hetherington infuse some much-welcomed optimism into the divorce debate. Many experts, including Judith Wallerstein, one of the grande dames in the field, paint a far darker picture of what life is like for children of divorce. In her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, Wallerstein details how many of the children in her study never got over their parents' divorces and spent years battling emotional, social, and behavioral problems.
They were more likely than children of "intact" families to abuse drugs and alcohol. Often, their substance abuse problems led to poor academic performance. Many of the girls in Wallerstein's study became sexually active at an early age. And, according to Wallerstein, "children of divorce suffer the most" in adulthood. She writes, "The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly" when, as young adults, "they go in search of love, sexual intimacy and commitment" and have great difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships.
But Wallerstein's work has come under fire from scholars who question her research methods and the study's small sample size—60 families.
Young Kids and Marital Conflict
While researchers dispute whether divorce spells disaster for children, both sides agree that conflict within the family, both pre- and post-divorce, is harmful. "That's horribly stressful for children," says Ahrons. "If parents are yelling and screaming, it threatens a child's sense of stability. And so even a toddler picks up on that kind of tension."
She divides divorcing couples' marriages into three basic categories: good-enough, devitalized, and high-conflict. Ahrons writes that the good-enough marriage is one that is "good enough to meet the needs of the children." The parents' own problems do not interfere with their parenting.