A brighter view of divorce
By Karen S. Peterson
|Sam Ward USA Today|
One of the most comprehensive studies of divorce to date, the research will bring balm to the souls of parents who have chosen to end their marriages. It probably also will incense those who see divorce as undermining American society.
After studying almost 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children some of them for three decades trailblazing researcher E. Mavis Hetherington finds that about 75 percent to 80 percent of children from divorced homes are "coping reasonably well and functioning in the normal range." Eventually, they are able to adapt to their new lives.
About 70 percent of their parents are leading lives that range from "good enough" the divorce was "like a speed bump in the road" to "enhanced," living lives better than those they had before the divorce.
About 70 percent of kids in stepfamilies are "pretty happy," she says. And 40 percent of couples in stepfamilies were able to build "stable, reasonably satisfying marriages."
Critics will cite a laundry list of studies with contrary findings, including the work of Judith Wallerstein. She is the high-profile, controversial researcher whose dire 1989 findings that children basically never get over divorce caught the public's attention and helped spark a national debate.
Hetherington is publishing her relatively positive findings in "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered" (Norton, $26.95), being released tomorrow. Her co-author is journalist John Kelly. The summation of her life's work is long awaited by polarized academics and aimed at clearing up confusion among moms and dads worried about divorce.
Much of the writings about divorce, both popular and academic, "has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes considerable positive effects," Hetherington writes.
Ending a marriage, she says, "is an experience that for most people is challenging and painful. But it is also a window of opportunity to build a new and better life."
Hetherington, whose research methods are regarded by her peers as the gold standard, is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. She writes:
- Most children, within two years after their parents' divorce, "are beginning to function reasonably well again."
- Most young adults from divorced families were "behaving the way young adults were supposed to behave, choosing careers, developing permanent relationships, ably going about the central tasks of young adulthood."
- For every young adult from a divorced family that is having social, emotional or psychological problems, four others are functioning well. Most divorced women "manage to provide the support, sensitivity and engagement their children need for normal development." Single moms "deserve a prize" for their efforts, she says. "Many of them are real heroes."
- Women tend to come out of divorce better than men, despite the financial dilemmas many experience. "A subset of our women and girls turned out to be more competent, able people than if they had stayed in unhappy family situations."
Newest study timely
Hetherington's new book comes at a pivotal time. The divorce rate actually has dropped slightly in the 1990s, from a high of more than 50 percent of new marriages ending in divorce to about 43 percent. But to most people, the numbers still are unacceptably high.
Hetherington's findings contradict those of several renowned experts who say the children are at risk for a variety of difficulties, including dropping out of school, emotional problems, substance abuse, having babies out of wedlock and having their own marriages end in divorce.
In the past decade, researchers highlighting such results have dominated the public deliberations, leading some state legislatures to debate changes in divorce laws.
Hetherington now steps in, saying she hopes to alter the national dialogue. The country has been so caught up in believing that the long-term effects of divorce are inevitably harmful that it is almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, Hetherington says. "I think it is really important to emphasize that most do cope and go on to have a reasonably happy or sometimes very happy life," she says.
She adds a caveat: To ensure an emotionally healthy youngster, "there must be a competent, caring parent," she says.
The 75-year-old developmental psychologist invented many of the in-depth tools now commonly used to measure well-being in families, producing a nuanced look at what happens in divorce. And she has a control group of intact families for much of her work, so she can make comparisons with the normal troubles non-divorced families encounter.
That control group, the size of her sample, the length of time she has gathered data and the thoroughness of her work awe her peers. "She is the leading social scientist who studies the effects of divorce on children," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "She was the first serious researcher to do excellent, rigorous studies of children and families. Everyone has read her work and learned from it."
Family historian Stephanie Coontz, co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, says Hetherington is "the perfectly balanced scholar. She is absolutely respected among her peers. Her advice is as good as you are going to get."
Critics ready to fire back
Few criticize Hetherington outright. But even as many tip their hats to her, the disapproving already are lining up.
David Blankenhorn, one skeptic, is the author of "Fatherless America" and a leader of the growing "marriage movement," which seeks to reduce the number of marriages that end in divorce.
Hetherington's book will stoke "a sort of backlash," Blankenhorn says. He takes issue with those like Hetherington who believe, he says, that "we shouldn't worry so much" or that "the kids will be fine."
Wallerstein, a rival doyenne of family research, is ready to do battle with Hetherington. In 1989, Wallerstein's "Second Chances" became a surprise best seller. While some academics faulted the small size of her sample (about 60 families), some of her research methods and her sweeping generalizations, the public noticed her results. Parents worried about what the children of divorce said, that while splitting up might be seen as a second chance for happiness by adults, it is not for kids.
Wallerstein found that children of divorce lack role models for healthy marriages, have a longer adolescence as they help heal wounded parents, have less of a chance at college, greater substance-abuse problems, less competence in social relationships and difficulty bonding in stepfamilies.
Wallerstein's follow-up in 2000, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study," continued her troubling findings. A parental split is not something that children get over, she emphasizes, and the consequences follow them throughout their adult lives.
Wallerstein sees statistics in Hetherington's book as representing a glass half empty, not half full. Hetherington, for example, found that 40 percent of adults who divorce are living "good enough" lives and have the same problems they had before their divorces though they are now with different partners.
Hetherington, who has written or edited 15 books, collected a dozen distinguished science awards, lectured and taught classes, says her primary goal is to alter the national debate. She does not believe that divorce is all right. "I am saying it is painful," she says.
But it is also true, she says, that the disastrous results of splitting up have been exaggerated for both children and parents. A lot of people believe that "if you have gone through a divorce, you are inflicting a terminal disease on your children," she says.
She would like to make one thing perfectly clear. "The last thing I want to do is sound like I am recommending divorce. I am not pro-divorce. I think people should work harder on their marriages and be better prepared when they go in, and more willing to weather out the rough spots and support each other."
- Despite the overall optimistic conclusions in "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," researcher and author E. Mavis Hetherington found that not everything turns out rosy in the aftermath of divorce:
- 70 percent of young people from divorced families see divorce as an acceptable solution, even if children are present. Marriage is forever "if things work out." Only 40 percent from intact families have that view.
- Fewer than 20 percent of young-adult stepchildren feel close to their stepmoms. The divorce rate in remarriages is greater than those in first marriages, frequently because the stepmother is unpopular: She is often caught in the middle, expected to be the nurturer of sometimes difficult and suspicious children.
- Men and boys adjust emotionally less well after a divorce in the family than women and girls. Divorced men do poorly alone and remarry quickly, while boys become challenges to the single moms they tend to live with, often losing touch with dads.