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Goodbye to Judith WallersteinEarlier this year on June 18th, 2012, Judith Wallerstein passed away at the age of 90. For the majority of readers who probably don’t know who Judith Wallerstein was (admittedly, I didn’t before this morning), let us oblige: Judith Wallerstein was a prominent psychologist who focused on the impact of divorce upon children.


Wallerstein was born on December 27th, 1921 as Judith Hannah Saretsky. When she was 8 years old her father died of cancer, much to her surprise and disbelief. Mr. Saretsky’s death was a shock to young Wallerstein’s system because the severity of his illness was hidden; as such, she responded by choosing not to believe her father died. This period in her life sparked Wallerstein’s fascination with the bonds of family, the roles of parents, and human relations as a whole.

Mrs. Saretsky moved the family to Tel Aviv after her husband’s death, where Wallerstein stayed until college. In 1943 Wallerstein graduated from Hunter College with a bachelor’s degree; in 1946 she earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University; Wallerstein also completed training at the Menninger Clinic under the Topeka Institute for Psychoanalysis; and 1978 she earned a doctorate in psychology from Lund University in Sweden. Among Wallenstein’s other accomplishments, she lectured at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare from 1966 to 1991.

Wallerstein married Robert Wallerstein in 1947 after they met while studying at the Menninger Clinic. The young couple moved their family of two daughters and a son from Kansas to Marin County in Northern California, where Wallerstein’s career and work became famous.

Psychology Legacy

In 1970, a local Marin County preschool asked for assistance from Wallerstein in dealing with their distressed and misbehaving pupils. The children were reported be aggressive, having trouble sleeping, and crying profusely. The noted common factor in all the affected children was divorce. Wallerstein attempted to find helpful material about affects of divorce on children only to find the material did not exist, as the notion was children naturally moved on from a familial split.

In 1971, Wallerstein began her famous 25 year study of 131 children of divorced parents. Every 5 years Wallerstein would hold in depth sessions lasting for hours with each subject. The initial findings were not alarming because it was expected that the children would be highly distressed and emotional soon after their parents’ divorce. However, by 10 and 15 years, Wallerstein noted about half of her subjects were not healing, as previously assumed. The trend in these affected subjects was “worried, under-achieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry young men and women,” of which only 40% ever married, and the majority of these marriages ended in filing for divorce. These characteristics were not unheard of in the 70’s and earlier, but divorce was never associated as a factor.

Godmother of the Backlash Against Divorce

The above title was Wallerstein’s unofficial title since an article in Time magazine dubbed her so. Wallerstein appeared in many magazines, on many talk shows, and in many journals and publications due to her controversial study. The study itself was not controversial, but her conclusion was: Divorce harms children’s outlook on inter- and intra-personal relationships, so parents should stay together for the children if possible. This struck a wildfire of controversy and debate for decades, and continues to be a point of argument in 2012.

Today, the study of divorce and the family is commonplace, but that is largely due to Ms. Wallerstein’s work and career. The news of her death may have gone unnoticed on our radar in June, but that doesn’t mean she has been forgotten. However, we have just begun to come to the meat of Wallerstein’s influential career. Follow our blog for “A Proper Goodbye to Judith Wallerstein, Part ll.”

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