Bay Area psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein, founder and former executive director of the Marin County-based Center for the Family in Transition, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on children of divorce. Now, in The Good Marriage (Houghton Mifflin), she investigates what holds marriages together. In a two-year study of 50 white, middle-class, avowedly happy couples, she discusses basic types of marriage. Among them: “traditional” marriages, with a wage-earning husband and a caretaking wife, and “companionate” marriages, in which both partners juggle the pressures of work and home.
Q: We have the highest marriage failure rate in the world. What does that say about American culture?
A: What it says to me, since I’ve spent 25 years of my life studying divorce, is that we’re in serious trouble in terms of what we offer our children for the future.
Q: Yet we’re wedded to this nostalgic ideal of marriage and family. Why?
A: Family does represent a sense of acceptance, a sense of warmth, a sense of being loved, of belonging, and that’s become even more important in contemporary America. People are more isolated, more lonely, and more in need of intimacy.
Q: You described marriage as the only refuge from the essential loneliness of modern life. Is that a pipe dream?
A: I hate to think that it’s a pipe dream. One of my findings is that there are happy marriages out there. What gets in the headlines is the terrible violence in families, the hate in families, and the sense that the family is a disappointment.
Q: Where is the family headed?
A: I think the family is here to stay. It’s the only really good way I know to bring up children. That doesn’t mean a single mother can’t be a perfectly fine mother. But it’s twice as hard, or three times as hard.
The purpose of my book was really to learn what goes into a happy family, a happy marriage. I really think of it as a pilot study. We have everything to learn about how to make a good marriage in contemporary society. What I argue is that marriage used to be held up from the outside. You had an extended family that kept the couple together, you had a church, you had a village, you had a community that kept everybody together; but we’re into a new period in marriage. The only thing that holds it is if it holds from within. And I’m arguing that therefore we have to put an entirely different level of effort and understanding and knowledge into that marriage or we won’t have it.
Q: You say that in a good marriage probably the most important ingredient is flexibility.
A: What people need in a marriage today is a greater recognition that you don’t have the same marriage in your 20s that you have in your 30s, that you have in your 40s. That the marriage without children that you start with–that most people start with–is not the marriage with children, is not the marriage at midlife, and so on. What’s striking about these 50 couples is that they were very open to new ideas. They value change.
Q: Should we also be flexible as a society, valuing change in the structure of the family?
A: We have to value change, but we also have to recognize that what people want has to stay there. What they want is love. They really do want love. And they want friendship, and they want respect, and they–women and men–want equality.
Q: The breakdown of the family has been cited for all sorts of social ills. Is that a realistic assessment?
A: The breakdown of the family has a lot of ramifications in this society. What [Erik] Erikson called “the twilight of the father,” that’s serious. It would be equally serious if it were the twilight of the mothers. I’ve been very worried about children for a long time because they’re less protected and nurtured in a single-parent family.
Q: What can we as a society do to help?
A: I don’t think government policy has caused divorce, and I don’t think government policy can make a good marriage. But the climate of a society affects both.
Q: In the current political climate, we seem to be moving toward a cultural consensus that the traditional two-parent family is the only good family.
A: I’m arguing that there’s a wide range of different kinds of marriage. And that people have a greater choice than ever. I am not buying into the notion that the traditional family–by that we mean a man and a woman and children; the woman stays home and the man works–is what most people want.
It’s a very important finding that, of these 100 people who had created marriages they loved, only five wanted marriages like their parents had. Part of their pride was that they had created something new, something important, something that they thought was good for them and good for their children. The children were very valued in all these marriages, but they did not expect the same kind of conformity in their children that their parents expected from them. So there is a sense of greater freedom to shape the marriage, but there’s also a tremendous respect for the marriage and the willingness to make sacrifices. Which is very important. It wasn’t only “me, me, you, you.” It was “us.”
Q: Is there a policy role for building stronger marriages?
A: First of all, we’re going to have a variety of marriages in the future. But if we’re going to have traditional marriage, you have to have a society that provides salaries that can support them. And you have to have very good re-entry plans. Neither of which we have right now.
The issue is whether one could build insurance for someone who stays home and takes care of the family, so that person could get scholarships to go back to school. We have to have better educational opportunities, but mainly we need better opportunities in the workplace.
In companionate marriages where you have two adults in the workplace, we’re going to have to work out a better interface between the workplace and the family. For example, in Sweden, for the first year of a baby’s life, the woman or the man can stay home at 80 percent salary. There is an attempt in the workplace to recognize the importance of the family. We don’t have these policies; we fought hard to get leave without pay.
Q: What about some of the current conservative ideas for making divorce more difficult? Reinstituting fault, for example, even stigmatizing illegitimacy?
A: I’m a little worried. In America we tend to rush into things without thinking what their unintended consequences may be.
Q: Like what?
A: One possibility: If you make divorce very difficult, you may get higher abandonment. You might get children even less protected economically.
Q: What can we do for younger people?
A: There’s a lot we can do in the education of adolescents. The place to talk about relationships is in high school, and we have to, because 30 percent of America’s children are coming out of divorced families.
These kids say to me, now that I see them as adults, “I’ve never seen a happy family.” They’re taking that inner template into adulthood. And they’re just as lonely for a relationship, they’re just as lonely for intimacy and love and security and safety and all the things that a good marriage can provide, but they’re starting off with a sense of, “I won’t get it.” They’re scared.
Like a 23-year-old from my divorce work who said, “My husband and I have two strikes against us. We’re both from divorced families.” If you start off that way, you’re going to have a very hard time when that baby’s born.
Q: How can we apply what you’ve found in happy middle-class marriages to people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds?
A: For a long time in social science we neglected class differences, and that’s a mistake. But now the pendulum’s gone the other way. It isn’t true that divorce is different for a poor child than it is for a rich child, in its emotional content, and so the psychological tasks of marriage that I wrote about would apply across the board.
Q: Some people on the progressive left are critical of the work you’ve done.
A: In a review of my last book, the last line was, “Doesn’t that woman know that the family is dead?”
What could I say? The notion that women don’t do well in marriage, that all they do is serve men. I mean, that’s nonsense.
So if I’m in favor of the family, I’m by definition in favor of oppressing women? That’s silly.
Q: How do you feel about the tendency of some people on the right to cite your work as evidence that what they’re saying about “family values” is true?
A: I’ll tell you, I’ve been so misquoted in America [laughs]. I cannot worry about it anymore; I’m happy if they spell my name right. So many things have been attributed to me that I never would have dreamed of saying. I’m not against divorce; in some cases, it’s the best choice.
Q: Is the high divorce rate because our values are askew, or because it’s easier to get divorced?
A: We have a higher divorce rate for many reasons; for one thing, women are able to support themselves. But also–and I take this very seriously–people have higher expectations of marriage, and they’re right. One of my findings is that the higher expectations can pay off.
Q: Should society’s expectations of marriage change?
A: I do think it’s important for society to value it, but that doesn’t mean you can only value the little house with the white picket fence. Women are not going to give up their hard-won gains. Why should they? We’re into a period of transition, but, as I say, I think the family is here to stay because it’s the best method ever invented by human beings for dealing with the stresses of adulthood and bringing up children.
Q: There was some talk in Washington state about putting warning labels about spousal abuse on marriage licenses–
A: Oh, that’s nonsense.
Q: If you were going to put some kind of warning label for women on the box that is marriage, what would it say?
A: I wouldn’t put a warning. Not even hypothetically. I would say this is a great opportunity and what you do with it is your whole adulthood. This is the central relationship of adulthood.
There’s you, there’s your husband, and there’s the marriage, and all three need to be taken care of.
Mary Ann Hogan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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