As the country's divorce rate soared in the 1970s, social scientists began trying to understand the long-term effects on parents and children. Now, a new book about one of the most comprehensive studies indicates that the majority of people do just fine--and a significant number even thrive. That conclusion is sure to add fuel to the already fiery debate over how to strengthen marriage, and could undermine legislative efforts in several states to make divorce more difficult.
Researcher E. Mavis Hetherington, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, followed nearly 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children--some for close to three decades. In "For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," Hetherington and her coauthor, journalist John Kelly, detail the impact of divorce on the life span of each family member. Outcomes, Hetherington says, depend on many factors: the reasons for the divorce, parenting skills, the level of support both adults and children receive from family and friends, and individuals' willingness to change and grow in the face of new challenges. "After forty years of research," Hetherington writes, "I have no doubts about the ability of divorce to devastate. It can and does ruin lives." But, she adds, "I also think much current writing about divorce--both popular and academic--has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes considerable positive effects." She says that divorce has not only rescued families from domestic abuse but has also provided women and girls in particular "with a remarkable opportunity for life-transforming personal growth."
Hetherington's main rival in the divorce-book genre is California researcher Judith Wallerstein, whose best-selling studies of children and divorce have highlighted her disturbing findings about the difficulties these children have in establishing healthy adult relationships. Hetherington agrees that children in single-parent families and stepfamilies are indeed more likely to have social, emotional and psychological problems, but she says that more than 75 percent of the youngsters in her study ultimately did as well as children from intact families. "Although they looked back on their parents' breakup as a painful experience," Hetherington writes, "most were successfully going about the chief tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives for themselves."
Their parents have equal reason for optimism, according to Hetherington's study. The first two years are the most difficult for ex-spouses, she says, with the first anniversary often the low point. That's when the initial euphoria gives way to anxiety about the future. But from then on, Hetherington says, about 70 percent of adults fall into categories that range from what she labels as "enhanced" (more successful professionally and personally) to "good enough." Hetherington calls parents, especially single mothers, the "unsung heroes" of her study. "Most of our divorced women," she writes, "managed to provide the support, sensitivity, and engagement their children needed for normal development." That should be encouraging news for all those mothers out there still struggling on their own.For Better or For WorseE. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly