Once described by Time magazine as the “godmother of the backlash against divorce,” Dr. Wallerstein died June 18 in the Bay Area city of Piedmont, Calif., after surgery for an intestinal blockage, said her daughter Amy Wallerstein Friedman. She was 90.
When Dr. Wallerstein began looking at the effects of divorce, she thought the children’s difficulties would be fleeting. Instead, she found that for half of the 131 children she studied, time did not heal their wounds but allowed them to fester, creating “worried, under-achieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry young men and women” who, not surprisingly, struggled considerably with romantic relationships.
In light of this delayed effect, Dr. Wallerstein came to a controversial conclusion: If parents could swallow their misery, they should stay together for their kids.
“What in many instances may be the best thing for the parents may by no means be the best thing for the children,” she told Newsday in 1994. “It is a real moral problem.”
She wrote about the consequences of divorce in several books, including “Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce” (1989) and “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce” (2000). Co-authored by Sandra Blakeslee, the books made headlines, put Dr. Wallerstein on talk shows and magazine covers and became bestsellers.
Family values proponents embraced Dr. Wallerstein’s research, but detractors found much to criticize. Many critics said her sample was too small, lacked a control group for comparison and was slanted toward families with psychological problems that preceded the divorce. Larger and more scientific studies by other family experts have supported some of Dr. Wallerstein’s findings and contradicted others.
Andrew J. Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who wrote the 2009 book “The Marriage-Go-Round,” said last week that Dr. Wallerstein’s most important contribution “was to show that the effects of divorce could sometimes appear on a delayed basis in young adults — something she called a ‘sleeper’ effect.”
Despite the caveat that her findings apply mainly to troubled families going through divorce, Cherlin said her work remains influential. “People still cite it and argue for or against it,” Cherlin said.
Dr. Wallerstein began her studies at a propitious time. In 1970, California had become the first state to enact no-fault divorce, and other states rapidly followed its lead. Divorce rates began to climb.