NEW YORK — Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist who touched off a national debate about the consequences of divorce by reporting that it hurt children more than previously thought, died Monday in Piedmont, Calif. She was 90.
The cause was an intestinal obstruction, said her husband, Robert Wallerstein, a former chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Francisco.
In 1971, Ms. Wallerstein began studying 131 children from 60 divorced families in Marin County, Calif. She followed them for 25 years, conducting intensive interviews every five years.
Not unexpectedly, many of the children were extremely distressed soon after the divorce. But she was surprised to find that the problems often lasted; 10 and 15 years later, half the children were still suffering and, she wrote, had become ‘‘worried, underachieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women.’’
They had a tougher time than most people in forming intimate relationships. Only about 40 percent eventually married, half the rate among the general population. Those who did marry were more likely to divorce than were people who had grown up in families that remained intact.
In 1976, Ms. Wallerstein told The New York Times, ‘‘I don’t want to say don’t divorce, but I think the children might even prefer having an unhappy family’’ to one riven by a split.
It was a message many people did not want to hear.
No-fault divorce laws had been passed in many states, and divorce rates were climbing. There was a widespread assumption that their children would get over it and that indeed it would be better for them if warring parents broke up rather than make the whole family live through years of fighting, abuse, silent hostility, or the countless other forms of misery that unhappy couples can generate.
Feminists accused her of trying to guilt-trip women into staying in destructive marriages. Some researchers questioned her methods, particularly the relatively small number of subjectsthe lack of a control group, and the use in her books of composite characters cobbled together from multiple research subjects.
Work by other researchers gradually began to support her findings, though some maintained that she had exaggerated the degree of harm from divorce.
Ms. Wallerstein softened her message a bit over the years, writing in 1989, ‘‘When people ask if they should stay married for the sake of the children, I have to say, ‘Of course not.’’’
Ms. Wallerstein’s work with children of divorce led her to publish 60 to 70 articles in psychology and law journals, and five popular books, including ‘‘The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce’’ (2000).