Thursday, January 17, 2002
Divorce is Still Bad
In spite of the overwhelming evidence collected in recent years about the negative consequences of divorce and the positive benefits of marriage-for both adults and children-the issue has not yet been put to rest. The newest installment in the ongoing debate about the long-term effects of divorce is a soon-to-be-released book-length study by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (Norton, 2002). According to its publisher’s website, the book will “[debunk] popular wisdom on the devastating psychological and social effects of divorce” and “will replace the fiction with the facts derived from eminent psychologist Mavis Hetherington’s landmark study.” Of course, publishers are apt to make such claims, but even the primary author herself stops short of referring to all of the current “popular wisdom” about divorce as “fiction.” In fact, a closer look at the book’s own conclusions reveal that those who disagree with her have plenty of evidence for their very different conclusions.
Hetherington, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia and a highly respected researcher on the subject of children and families, says that much of the current research on divorce “has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes considerable positive effects.” She points out that 75 to 80 percent of children of divorce eventually “adapt and become reasonably well adjusted” and some 70 percent of parents lead lives that range from “good enough” to “enhanced” (life is better following divorce). She is quick to point out that she is by no means in favor of divorce. She has, in fact, been married for 46 years and is the mother of three grown sons, none of whom has been divorced. Nevertheless, she aims to alter the national debate by challenging the notion that divorce is inevitably harmful, especially to children.
It is certainly true that divorce does not necessarily condemn all of its children to a lifetime of severe emotional and psychological problems. Most children do indeed, “cope” with their parents’ divorce and go on to live reasonably happy lives. Nevertheless, divorce does put children at greater risk for such problems. Children of divorce are also more likely to have difficulty in school, to be sexually active earlier and to have a child out of wedlock. Dr. Hetherington’s own research reveals that, although only a minority (some 20 to 25 percent) of children of divorce have serious social, emotional or psychological problems, that is more than twice the rate among children from intact families (10 percent). Among children in stepfamilies, twice as many (20 percent) have trouble with depression or anti-social behavior as their peers from intact families. Furthermore, it would seem that parents who want the very best for their children would consider mere “coping” somewhat below that standard.
As Judith Wallerstein, another respected researcher on the effects of divorce and author of two significant books on the subject, points out in USA Today, Hetherington’s research reveals that a full 40 percent of divorced adults describe their lives as “good enough,” although they have the same problems they had before the divorce, only with different partners. “Having the same problems is not progress. That is not a finding to go dancing about,” Wallerstein cautions.
Perhaps more significant, children of divorce tend to have a more favorable view of divorce than their peers from intact families. Some 70 percent of children of divorce say that divorce is acceptable, even if children are present, compared to 40 percent of children from intact families. Therefore, children of divorce tend to perpetuate the cycle of divorce, a sad outcome in anyone’s estimation. Another finding from Hetherington’s research illustrates why this puts children of divorce at a disadvantage. Linda Waite, co-author with Maggie Gallagher of The Case for Marriage, points to the finding that the surest way for a child of divorce to avoid getting divorced himself is to marry someone from an intact family. “Then what she is really saying is that if you are a divorced person, nobody should marry your child,” says Waite.