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FOR THE GOOD OF THE CHILDREN?

This is what it comes down to in the world of divorce: irreconcilable differences. I'm not talking just about the conflicts between husbands and wives. I'm talking about the contradictory ways in which our entire culture views the breakup of a marriage.

When the marriage of a friend shatters, we wish this husband or wife another shot at happiness. We believe in the possibility of a second chance. Yet if they have children, we have an equal and opposite wish. We wish the children a chance to grow up with both parents in a stable home.

Not that long ago, when the divorce statistics first began to rise, many Americans comforted themselves with the belief that parents and children shared the same perspective. A child in an unhappy home would surely know it, surely suffer from it. What was right for parents - including divorce - was right for children. Today that seems like a soothing or perhaps self-serving myth.

One of the myth-busters is Judith Wallerstein, who has been studying the children of divorce for over 25 years. Her latest book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," is written about and for the offspring of splintered families, children who carry the family rupture into their adulthood.

This psychologist followed 131 children of 80 California families, a small and not-so-random sample of the 1 million children whose parents divorce each year. Today a quarter of all adults under 44 come from divorced homes, and Wallerstein takes a handful of these children to show in rich detail the way divorce was and remains a life-transforming event.

Her book echoes with the laments of their tribe. These are adults who spent childhood negotiating between two parents and two homes. Some were emotionally abandoned, others were subject to the crazy post-divorce years. Some still wait for disaster, and others are stronger for the struggle.

But as the elder to their tribe, Wallerstein makes one central and challenging point: "The myth that if the parents have a poor marriage, the children are going to be unhappy is not true."

She says bluntly, "Children don't care if parents sleep in separate beds if the household runs well and if the parenting holds up." A good enough marriage, a marriage without violence or martyrdom or severe disorder, will do for the children.

But if it will not do for the parents, then families face that irreconcilable difference: "The central moral dilemma of divorce which we have not been willing to acknowledge is that in many families what may benefit the parents may not benefit the children."

Indeed, divorce may be the solution for the parents' troubles and the cause of the children's troubles. "If children had the vote," she writes, "almost all would vote to maintain their parents' marriage."

Not surprisingly, this study has raised hackles among the divorced who hear a new spin on the guilty adage: "stay together for the sake of the children." But Wallerstein is suggesting something much more subtle than that. And more intractable.

Even as the advocate of the children, she agrees that "no one has the right to tell an unhappy woman to give up her chance at love," nor does anyone "have the moral right" to tell a troubled man "to stay put." We can tell them the hard road ahead and offer guidelines, but short of granting every child a happily married set of parents, what can reconcile the differences?

Indeed Wallerstein herself includes a comparative interview with the offspring of an unhappy intact marriage. Was it better for him than divorce? she asks the man she calls Gary. "Of course," he answers. But as an adult Gary now sees things with the same complexity of our entire society. "I have no idea how unhappy my parents were or whether they had regrets," he says. "After all, there are a lot of other things in life besides kids. I would have liked to see them both happier with their lives. Now that I'm an adult, I feel terribly sorry for both of them."

So divorce remains at the intersection - the collision point - between our belief in the pursuit of happiness and our desire to protect children. We pass along another unexpected, unresolved legacy to the next generation.

Boston Globe Newspaper Co.

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