Third Thoughts on Divorce - Gallagher - 3/25/02
cmfce at smartmarriages.com
Wed Mar 27 18:29:38 EST 2002
subject: Third Thoughts on Divorce - Gallagher - 3/25/02
from: Smart Marriages
> The most poignant moment in the book is when Hetherington admits that "at
> the end of my study, a fair number of my adult children of divorce described
> themselves as permanently 'scarred.' But objective assessments of these
> 'victims' told a different story." What counts as damage has to be on Prof.
> Hetherington's checklist of dysfunctions defined by answers to
> multiple-choice questionnaires. The advantage, of course, is that these
> kinds of assessments are less likely to be influenced by the investigator's
> bias; but the equally obvious disadvantage is an enormous loss of
> sensitivity. When children of divorce try to tell Hetherington their own
> stories of more subtle, lingering emotional difficulties, she dismisses
> these as "self-fulfilling prophecy." If you have a job and a girlfriend, but
> you do not have your dad, does that count as damage? Not in Hetherington's
> book: You are functioning in the normal range, end of story.
> But the potential 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.
> For concerned parents contemplating divorce, the news that 20 years later
> one-fourth of kids are seriously dysfunctional surely cannot be treated as
> good news. In no other context would responsible parents say, "Gee, only a
> one out of four chance I will permanently damage my child? Go for it!"
Third Thoughts on Divorce
How good does it get?
By Maggie Gallagher, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American
Values, in New York.
March 25, 2002
For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, by E. Mavis Hetherington and
John Kelly (Norton, 307 pp., $26.95)
Mavis Hetherington is one of the nation's most respected research
psychologists. Her new book (with writer John Kelly) has been marketed as a
rebuttal to divorce critics, who she believes have overestimated the
negative effects of divorce and downplayed its benefits.
All the headlines have gone to Hetherington's bottom line: The majority of
children of divorce, she reassures worried parents, are functioning in the
normal range 20 years later: "Most were successfully going about the chief
tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate
relationships, building meaningful lives."
But E. Mavis Hetherington is too good a scholar to have 20 years of research
summed up in sound bites. This book is a report for lay readers on three
different and important long-running studies designed to assess the
effects of divorce. The studies ultimately involved 1,400 families; in other
words, when it comes to the case against the case against divorce, this is
as good as it gets.
How good is that?
Adults, first. Men and women divorced for different reasons, says
Hetherington. Women complained about lack of intimacy and affection; men
complained about lack of sex and overly critical wives. Infidelity, abuse,
and alcoholism were present, but in a minority of divorces.
Adults choose to divorce, then, not mostly to escape from violent hellholes,
but because they are lonely, bored, depressed, dissatisfied. How often does
divorce deliver on its seductive promise of a better life? Hetherington's
sample consists mostly of white, middle-class, and relatively well-educated
men and women. Yet even among this advantaged group, the answer is:
Hetherington judges that 20 years after a divorce, only about 20 percent of
divorced individuals (most of them women) were Enhancers, whose lives were
improved by the divorce. Another 10 percent became what Hetherington calls
Competent Loners whether divorce improved their lives is not clear. For
about 40 percent, divorce was a tumult that made no difference: "Different
partners, different marriages, but usually the same problems." The remaining
30 percent were in various stages of just plain miserable: Hetherington uses
words like "desperately unhappy," "empty, pointless," "clinically
depressed," "joyless," and "embittered" to describe how they felt about
Casual sex had a particularly negative effect on divorced women, notes
Hetherington. The seven suicides she observed were all women and all
triggered (she tells us) by casual sex. Men got bored with casual sex, too,
but it took them two years, on average. (The ennui of meaningless sex
eventually drove many a man to remarriage, but never to suicide.)
How good, then, is divorce for adults? Hetherington's work is peppered with
data that are far from reassuring. Sentences like this, for example:
"Behaviors like Peeping Tomism and harassing birds are worrisome, but they
are also fairly normal in the first year after a divorce, as are erratic
mood swings, vulnerability to psychological disorders and physical illness,
and doubts about the decision to leave." Those who have entered the wacky
world where Peeping Toms and bird assaults are fairly normal will no doubt
be relieved to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel; the rest of
us may be forgiven for thinking that jumping down that particular black hole
sounds even less fun than one imagined.
What about the divorced people who were better off in the long run what
made the difference for them? The answer, ironically, is marriage.
Hetherington found that "people in long-lasting, gratifying first and second
marriages were better off economically, and had the lowest rates of
depression, substance abuse, conduct disorders, health complaints, and
visits to the doctor" along with a more satisfying sex life.
Hetherington's study thus confirms the research of others on the critical
importance of a good-enough marriage to adult well-being. But something
about contemporary mores is seriously undermining the road to a good
marriage. Only one-third of the grown children Hetherington studied (from
intact and disrupted families) who were in the first seven years of marriage
were very happily married, compared to over half of their parents at that
stage; 38 percent reported facing a serious marital problem, compared to 20
percent of their parents at the same juncture. A good marriage is as
important as it ever was, but apparently younger Americans are finding it
harder and harder to achieve.
That's the upshot of Hetherington's study insofar as it concerns adults. But
what about the kids? Should parents contemplating divorce relax?
On this issue, the results reported in For Better or for Worse are
consistent with a large and growing social-science literature: Even among
advantaged, middle-class white children, divorce doubles the risk that 20
years later the grown children will experience serious social, emotional,
and/or psychological dysfunction. "Twenty-five percent of youths from
divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did
have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems." Money didn't
matter: Even when family incomes were similar, children from disrupted homes
had more long-term dysfunction.
Three-quarters of children of divorce do function normally; does that mean
the glass is only one-quarter empty? It is important to recognize the
limitations inherent in the definition of damage Hetherington uses. Many
children who are functioning in the normal range psychologically may be
suffering in other ways. A child who does not go to a good college because
her parents divorced is functioning in the normal range, for example. The 35
percent of girls in remarried homes who started menstruating before age 12
(compared to 18 percent of girls from intact homes) are certainly
functioning normally. The increased risk of premature sex, sexually
transmitted diseases, and teen pregnancy in children of divorce is mentioned
by Hetherington, but only in passing.
Children of divorce in this study also had roughly double the divorce rate
of children from low-conflict intact families, and a higher divorce risk
even than children raised in unhappy marriages. Why? A lower commitment to
marital permanence and fewer relationship skills, says Hetherington. Seventy
percent of children of divorce who married had relatively permissive views
of divorce, compared to 40 percent of spouses from intact families. Their
best chance of marital success was to marry a child from an intact family.
One of the most consistent effects of divorce, even in white middle-class
kids, was estrangement from the father. Very few of the highly educated and
successful divorced men figured out how to be effective fathers outside of
marriage. Twenty years later, about two-thirds of boys and three-quarters of
girls had poor relationships with their fathers compared to 30 percent of
children from intact marriages.
The most poignant moment in the book is when Hetherington admits that "at
the end of my study, a fair number of my adult children of divorce described
themselves as permanently 'scarred.' But objective assessments of these
'victims' told a different story." What counts as damage has to be on Prof.
Hetherington's checklist of dysfunctions defined by answers to
multiple-choice questionnaires. The advantage, of course, is that these
kinds of assessments are less likely to be influenced by the investigator's
bias; but the equally obvious disadvantage is an enormous loss of
sensitivity. When children of divorce try to tell Hetherington their own
stories of more subtle, lingering emotional difficulties, she dismisses
these as "self-fulfilling prophecy." If you have a job and a girlfriend, but
you do not have your dad, does that count as damage? Not in Hetherington's
book: You are functioning in the normal range, end of story.
Why would a top scholar such as Hetherington, whose own work recapitulates
and confirms a growing consensus on the potential long-term negative effects
of divorce, choose to minimize these effects in presenting her research to
the public? Partly it is because she has a genuine admiration and respect
for the personal growth divorce sometimes prompts, especially in women:
Divorce winners do exist, most of them women who rise to meet and beat the
considerable challenges divorce poses for mothers. Partly it is because
Hetherington has defined down the damage caused by divorce, so that it
includes only those consequences that can be categorized as social-science
Certainly children of divorce need to know they are not damaged goods; human
beings can rise above their circumstances. And certainly men and women who
are already divorced need good advice on how to minimize the damage and
maximize their opportunities. But the potential 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.
For concerned parents contemplating divorce, the news that 20 years later
one-fourth of kids are seriously dysfunctional surely cannot be treated as
good news. In no other context would responsible parents say, "Gee, only a
one out of four chance I will permanently damage my child? Go for it!"
But by framing the data in these terms, Hetherington raises an even deeper
question: How much pain are parents entitled to inflict on their children,
simply because their children may rise above it and avoid long-term
psychological dysfunction? Like scholar Judith Wallerstein before her,
Hetherington finds that even when divorce does not result in long-term
damage, it is "usually brutally painful . . . To the boys and girls in my
research divorce seemed cataclysmic and inexplicable. How could a child feel
safe in a world where adults had suddenly become untrustworthy?"
One of Hetherington's success stories is a woman named Bethany. As an adult,
she is doing extremely well, thanks to her mother's heroic parenting. I
certainly do not blame her mother for choosing divorce her husband's
repeated infidelities were one proximate cause. And yet this is what divorce
meant for Bethany: "The previously placid Bethany also would fly into rages,
hitting and biting her mother, whom she blamed for the separation. In her
distress, she began to wet the bed again, had night terrors, and would wake
crying or crawl into bed with [her mother] three or four times a night.
Bethany later said, 'I had to keep checking to see if Mom was there. If Dad
could leave, why couldn't she?'"
The larger questions raised by these emotional realities of divorce are not,
ultimately, scholarly ones. How and when can it be right for mothers and
fathers to cause brutal pain to their children? If the human spirit is
indeed resilient, can't enterprising adults perhaps find some other path to
personal growth? How much are our ideas about the relative harmlessness of
divorce undermining our ability to build the lasting love we crave?
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