Open Book

Divorce Court

Weighing the latest evidence

Eric McCollum
Divorce Court

This article first appeared in the March/April 2002 issue.

For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered
By E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly
W. W. Norton. 307 pp. ISBN 0-393-04862-4

Even before its release in late January, Mavis Hetherington’s new book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (coauthored with writer John Kelly), stirred up controversy. The Washington Post‘s review claimed “D-I-V-O-R-C-E Gets Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T” while USA Today called the book “balm to the souls of parents who have chosen to end their marriages.” Conser­vative columnist Maggie Gallagher had another view. She wrote, “The potential grave danger stemming from Hetherington’s well-meaning message of encouragement is what it may convey to parents: Go ahead and divorce, your kids will do fine.”

How did 75-year-old Hetherington, a University of Virginia Professor Emeritus of Psychology, find herself the focus of such controversy? As one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on divorce and its impact on children and adults, she has spent much of her career–more than 30 years–following nearly 1,400 families and some 2,500 children from the point of divorce on. Interviewing and assessing both adults and children at regular intervals, she wanted to find out what the long-term effects of divorce were. In For Better or For Worse, she gives us her accumulated wisdom on the subject. “I harbor no doubts about the ability of divorce to devastate,” she writes. “I’ve seen it happen more times than I like to think about. But that said, I also think that much current writing on divorce–both popular and academic–has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes con­siderable positive effects.”

The last sentence almost makes us gasp. Re­searcher Judith Wallerstein the other big name in the longitudinal study of the effects of divorce on children–has gone a long way toward convincing us that divorce leaves all children at risk for a variety of problems, and seriously crippled in their ability to develop healthy marriages of their own. Divorce may be a necessary evil–a refuge from abuse, infidelity or severe emotional isolation for adults–but it comes at the expense of children. Then there are the moral arguments. Religious and political conservatives argue that we have to make divorces harder to get, make people try harder even in difficult marriages, if we want to preserve the moral foundation of our society. Not only is divorce unhealthy, they claim, it’s just plain bad. How can Hetherington claim otherwise?

Those who seek evidence for an either/or appraisal of divorce will be disappointed in For Better or For Worse. There are too many paths through divorce, according to Hetherington, and too wide a range of outcomes, to see it as monolithically good or bad. Adults and children alike face grave risks when a couple divorces, to be sure. Hetherington found that 20 percent of youths living in divorced or remarried families were troubled, compared to 10 percent living in intact families. Thirty-six-percent of the kids Hetherington studied had already divorced by the time her study ended, compared to 18 percent of young people in their age group from intact families. And a significant number of adults–especially men–never seemed to recover from their divorce, becoming part of a group Hetherington characterizes as the Defeated–isolated, unhappy, hopeless about their future.

But, Hetherington claims, a heightened risk of future problems isn’t the whole story. Some adults and children–especially women and girls–do better after a divorce. They take the break-up as an opportunity to grow and become competent in ways they would not have attempted had the marriage endured. Hetherington’s book is rich with stories of the families she has studied, and Mary McKay’s tale is one of them. Left with only modest means after her divorce, Mary was faced with having to support herself and her children. Taking friends’ comments on her skill at giving dinner parties as a start, she began a catering business. Six years later, not only was she successful financially, she had grown from a shy, self-effacing woman to a self-assured and confident one.

What about the children? Does Hetherington share Wallerstein’s grim view? Not exactly. Of course, their parents’ divorce is shattering. But while many of the children she studied described themselves as “scarred” by divorce, Hetherington found that 80 percent of them eventually adjusted to the divorce and became reasonably well-adjusted young adults–starting careers, entering into relationships and building lives for themselves. They didn’t appear that different from their peers who grew up in intact families. That is the advantage of a longitudinal view. If we only look, snapshot-style, at the 8-year-old whose world seemed to end when her parents divorced, we miss the fact that she will become a competent and well-adjusted 24-year-old, beginning to raise children of her own.

How then do we account for the increased likelihood of problems for children of divorce– a finding common to both Wallerstein’s and Hetherington’s work? Is divorce the sole culprit?

Interestingly, Hetherington found that many children’s emotional and behavioral problems, although blamed on divorce were present long before the divorce itself occurred. Unhappy families breed both divorce and problems, it seems. While the added stresses of a family break-up may exacerbate them, we must be careful before we conclude that divorce causes all the ills we see in its wake.

For Better or For Worse is a compelling and important book, written by a consummate researcher and scholar, that sounds a much-needed call for thoughtfulness and reason in our national ­concern over divorce. In doing so, it counters the shriller voices that would have us believe that tougher divorce laws and stronger moral character can end divorce and put society back on the right path. The fact is that people will continue to divorce. Some will do well as a result of ending a marriage, many will manage to adjust and get on with life and others will founder. As therapists, we need the work of scholars like Hetherington to remind us that the end of a marriage doesn’t automatically result in disaster, and to map the routes that individuals take to a successful future. Knowing those routes can help us steer our clients and their children toward them. While shrill voices may grab the headlines, Mavis Hetherington’s gives us the perspective we really need.

 

Eric McCollum, Ph.D., is an associate professor and clinical director at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s MFT training program in Falls Church, Virginia. Address: FCD Department, Northern Virginia Center, 7054 Haycock Road, Falls Church, VA 22043. E-mails to the author may be sent to E.Mccollum@vt.edu. Letters to the Editor about this department may be sent to Letters@psychnetworker.org.