When couples split, wounds may heal well

Family: Upbeat book renews debate over whether divorce truly hurts parents and children in the long run.

February 17, 2002|By Kathy Boccella | Kathy Boccella,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

One of the nation's leading family researchers has good news for parents racked by guilt over the breakup of their marriages:

Divorce doesn't necessarily leave long-lasting scars on them or their children, and can even enhance some people's lives.

"You haven't given your kid a terminal disease if you've divorced," says E. Mavis Hetherington, whose study of 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children over 30 years is the basis for her new book, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (W.W. Norton & Co., $26.95).

The relatively upbeat book barely landed in stores when the two sides in this hot-button debate started squabbling like contentious spouses.

The happily married 75-year-old Hetherington contends that the negative impacts of divorce have been overstated by proponents of the so-called marriage movement, and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

To marriage proponents, her mostly positive assessment is largely hearsay. They cite other studies that show divorce undermines American society and leaves children with long-lasting emotional and social problems.

"Very harmful," Elizabeth Marquardt, a spokeswoman for the pro-marriage Institute on American Values, said of Hetherington's research.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg, however, noted that "the vast majority of researchers" agree with Hetherington's findings.

Though the debate is polarizing, the two people leading it, rival septuagenarian researchers Hetherington and Judith Wallerstein, are surprisingly alike.

Each is a grandmother, a best-selling author, and a highly respected psychologist. Each has conducted long-term studies of divorced parents and their children - Hetherington from her East Coast post as professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia; Wallerstein, 3,000 miles away at her Center for the Family in Transition in California.

Neither has been divorced.

But that's where the similarities end.

The opposing views

According to Hetherington, 75 percent to 80 percent of children from divorced homes are "coping reasonably well and functioning in the normal range" and 70 percent of their parents are leading lives that are "good enough" or better than before.

Within two years of divorce, she writes, the vast majority of children "are beginning to function reasonably well again." Moreover, most young adults from divorced families were "ably going about the central tasks of young adulthood."

"I'm hoping this will take the tremendous guilt trip that the traditional family theorists have laid on divorced parents and their kids and say divorce doesn't have to be inevitably bad ... as long as you support the child, avoid conflict, are responsible and sensitive," Hetherington said.

That's vastly different from Wallerstein's findings, as chronicled in her 1999 book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study (Hyperion, $14.95 paperback).

"My research shows children of divorce have a very hard time growing up," Wallerstein said. They never recover from their parents' breakups, she contends, and have difficulty forming their own adult relationships.

In the past week or so, each woman has vehemently defended her life's work.

A mother of three and member of a "low-divorce family," Hetherington became interested in the topic because of her close relationship with her father. She wondered what happens when fathers are missing from the picture.

Early in her research, she was struck by the "tremendous diversity of outcomes of divorce," which led her to try to find out what contributes to a good divorce.

Her challenger thinks there is no such thing, especially when children are involved. "They feel very confused and very anxious and very worried at young adulthood because they're afraid they're going to fail like their mother failed," Wallerstein said.

Though some researchers fault Wallerstein's relatively small sample, 60 families, she said it enabled her to interview each of her subjects to find out their innermost feelings about their parents, stepfamilies, sex lives and themselves.

"Dr. Hetherington doesn't do this. She's had more of an academic perspective. She uses videos, questionnaires, diaries. The children weren't talked to," she said.

Just how damaging divorce can be depends on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full.

Hetherington says 20 percent to 25 percent of children of divorce have serious social, emotional or psychological problems, about twice as many as those from intact families.

"That's a twofold increase and can't be taken lightly," Hetherington said. "What clinicians such as Judy Wallerstein and the pro-marriage groups do is focus on the twofold increase rather than saying, `Hey, maybe the big news is that 75 to 80 percent seem to be resilient in the long run.' "

To which Wallerstein responds: "That's nothing to dance about.

"My work is supported by Census statistics that show many more children of divorce don't marry. They say if you don't marry, you don't divorce."

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