D-I-V-O-R-C-E Gets Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T -1/22/02
cmfce at smartmarriages.com
Tue Jan 22 14:33:34 EST 2002
subject: D-I-V-O-R-C-E Gets Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T -1/22/02
from: Smart Marriages
D-I-V-O-R-C-E Gets Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Psychologist Finds Families Rebound
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2002; Page C01
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- In the beginning, E. Mavis Hetherington was looking for
as much pathology as the next person.
It was the early 1970s, with the American family in free fall, and she fully
expected that her just-launched study of the impact of divorce would find
home-front dysfunction and
plenty of it: parents who were unable to cope, maladjusted children with
long-term difficulties. By almost any measure -- emotional, social or
academic -- "we expected them to
Yet the surprising thing about her families, with all their couplings and
uncouplings and even recouplings during the years that followed: The vast
majority of parents rebounded
from the pain and upheaval. Resiliency overshadowed pathology. And by the
time the children were young adults, working and considering marriage and
families of their own,
Hetherington discovered at least 75 percent coping fairly well -- some very
well -- with life.
Divorce, it seems, is not predestiny.
Now at the close of her pioneering career, Hetherington, 75, wants to get
the word out. More than that, with the publication of "For Better or for
Worse: Divorce Reconsidered,"
the University of Virginia professor emeritus wants to change the public
debate about divorce.
Her book offers reassurance to the millions of Americans who don't make it
till death does part them. More than 40 percent of marriages end in divorce,
down from the record
highs of the 1980s but hardly a statistic for celebration. The most divisive
aspect of the debate has long centered on the harm inflicted on children --
irreparable damage, some
Hetherington believes she offers "a more hopeful look, a more realistic
look" at the consequences of marital breakup. She says the book, authored
with New York writer John
Kelly, is not anti-marriage (though angry e-mails already are accusing her
of such). Nor is it pro-divorce. Rather, this summation of a life's work
explains the challenges people
face and the diverse choices they make. It does not ignore the downside.
While most children adapt and adjust to their parents' split, she says, 20
percent to 25 percent are left
"I harbor no doubts about the ability of divorce to devastate," she writes.
"It can and does ruin lives. . . . But that said, I also think much current
writing on divorce -- both popular
and academic -- has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its
sometimes considerable positive effects."
After three decades exploring the most important nexus of human relations --
through the stability or dissolution of nearly 1,400 marriages -- she wishes
that others would not be
so skeptical. "Why are people so afraid to say that in the long run, people
end up living reasonably constructive lives?"
Partly a how-to survival primer, partly a behavioral science treatise, "For
Better or for Worse" provides a window on the ways human beings react when
their worlds suddenly
implode. Some of the families within its pages were followed for almost 30
years. That longevity, as well as the scope and methodology of the work,
research the most comprehensive ever done on divorce. Her lab at the
University of Virginia holds thousands of her subjects' interviews and
questionnaires and tens of
thousands of hours of videotape that glimpsed them at the dinner table,
during heated discussions, chilling at home, worrying about the future.
Not all the families were divorced when they signed up. Quite intentionally,
Hetherington recruited a control group among the happily married. But
control is a fleeting thing
where love is concerned. How was she to know? Some of her married couples
started to divorce, even as her divorced men and women started to remarry.
Relaxing in the sitting room of the century-old converted schoolhouse
outside Charlottesville where she and her husband, John, live -- with a
stunning view of the Blue Ridge --
she laughs at the memory of her early frustrations. "When you study families
over time, you're studying a moving target."
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University praises
Hetherington's approach as groundbreaking: "Everybody should be in her debt.
She almost originated the
rigorous scientific study of the effect of divorce on children."
Her latest pronouncements will reverberate, he is sure. "The debate has
swung back and forth between people saying divorce is bad for most any kid,
and people saying
divorce is not a problem. . . . Her message is that divorce raises the risk
of undesirable things happening to your kids, but most kids are going to do
The first year after a divorce is brutally painful for adults and children
alike, she says. Doctor visits triple for women and double for men, although
generally women cope better in
the long run, and many make changes that ultimately enhance their lives.
The second year after a divorce usually starts to bring improvement and
adjustment, but parents should remain vigilant. Some will have their hands
more full than others: Young
boys rebel more against mothers than against fathers. Girls experience
greater stress during adolescence. Daughtersin divorce or melded
stepfamilies more frequently become
Not until the sixth year after a divorce are most family members emotionally
and mentally back on their feet, according to Hetherington. Twenty years
later, she lists caveats and
silver linings: A significant number of grown children consider divorce an
acceptable solution to an unhappy marriage, nearly twice as many as in
intact families. And the
percentage of adult children of divorce with serious psychological problems
remains double that of intact families.
"That is significant risk, but it still means 75 to 80 percent are doing all
right or very well," she stresses.
For California psychologist Judith Wallerstein, the cloud has no lining. Her
bleak readings of divorce's aftershocks continually hit the bestseller
lists, and she takes issue with
The offspring of broken marriages whom she studied were left anxious and
pessimistic, especially crippled when it came to love. "They say, 'It's
better not to feel, I learned that a
long time ago.' "
Perhaps the two approaches should be examined side by side, suggests David
Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University
and author of "Life
"One can go either way in the analysis of this data, and that's one thing
that Hetherington's book points out," he says. "If you're a child of
divorce, you certainly don't need to be
told your life is a mess and there's nothing you can do about it."
As she embarks on a 10-day cross-country book tour -- she'll be appearing
tonight at Politics & Prose in Washington -- Hetherington already is drawing
Detractors call her a marriage basher.
"It's people like you," a recent e-mail vented, "who are eroding the sacred
institution of marriage."
The criticism alternately pains and amuses her. The red-haired grandmother
of three sons hardly looks incendiary. She has been married 46 years to the
same man, a retired
University of Virginia law professor. Neither her parents nor her children
divorced. Her experience in this matter is strictly professional.
And this Berkeley-educated psychologist holds strong views about marriage.
She thinks that husbands and wives bail out of troubled relationships far
too quickly, that a family
with two supportive parents is by far the best way to raise children. But
take one away and disaster need not strike: A caring and competent custodial
parent, she declares, is the
"most potent protection" a child of divorce can have.
Hetherington officially retired three years ago. The emeritus title relieved
the 80-hour weeks she'd maintained at the university since her sons were
little. She continues to write
scholarly articles, rising at 4 a.m. to begin work in her upstairs study --
in longhand, on yellow legal pads, without a computer in sight. She still
lectures internationally, too, and on
a recent trip did another round of research follow-up interviews with two
families now living in London.
It's nearly time to wrap up that work, she says. Not that there aren't more
nuances to plumb with the children she has tracked into adulthood. But the
clock's conspiring against
her. "These damn young people delay marriage," Hetherington points out.
>From the perspective of the past 30 years, she knows that recasting the way
America thinks about divorce won't be easy or politically popular. The
pendulum swung far right
during the '90s, with lawmakers debating, and sometimes passing, measures to
encourage couples to stay married and to prevent them from divorcing too
quickly. "It's very hard
to legislate family relations," Hetherington says, as dubious now as then.
"If we could legislate family relations, we wouldn't have people getting
married with these unrealistic
expectations about marriage."
Far better to understand the dynamics that sustain and threaten families.
Far better, she writes, to accept that "divorce is a reasonable solution to
an unhappy, acrimonious,
destructive marital relationship." Instead of a narrow focus on the hazards,
why not acknowledge that it can be an opportunity to build a better life?
"It isn't a matter of whether the glass is half empty or half full. In the
long run," she concludes, "the glass is three-quarters full of reasonably
happy and competent adults and
children, who have been resilient in coping with the challenges of divorce."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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