Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

BOOKMARKS; Divorce Court: Weighing the Latest Evidence

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

BOOKMARKS; Divorce Court: Weighing the Latest Evidence

Article excerpt

For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered

By E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly

W. W. Norton. 307 pp. ISBN 0-393-04862-4

Even before its release in late January, Mavis Hetherington's new book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (coauthored with writer John Kelly), stirred up controversy. The Washington Post 's review claimed "D-I-V-O-R-C-E Gets Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T" while USA Today called the book "balm to the souls of parents who have chosen to end their marriages." Conser­vative columnist Maggie Gallagher had another view. She wrote, "The potential grave 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."

How did 75-year-old Hetherington, a University of Virginia Professor Emeritus of Psychology, find herself the focus of such controversy? As one of the nation's preeminent scholars on divorce and its impact on children and adults, she has spent much of her career--more than 30 years--following nearly 1,400 families and some 2,500 children from the point of divorce on. Interviewing and assessing both adults and children at regular intervals, she wanted to find out what the long-term effects of divorce were. In For Better or For Worse , she gives us her accumulated wisdom on the subject. "I harbor no doubts about the ability of divorce to devastate," she writes. "I've seen it happen more times than I like to think about. But that said, I also think that much current writing on divorce--both popular and academic--has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes con­siderable positive effects."

The last sentence almost makes us gasp. Re­searcher Judith Wallerstein the other big name in the longitudinal study of the effects of divorce on children--has gone a long way toward convincing us that divorce leaves all children at risk for a variety of problems, and seriously crippled in their ability to develop healthy marriages of their own. Divorce may be a necessary evil--a refuge from abuse, infidelity or severe emotional isolation for adults--but it comes at the expense of children. Then there are the moral arguments. Religious and political conservatives argue that we have to make divorces harder to get, make people try harder even in difficult marriages, if we want to preserve the moral foundation of our society. Not only is divorce unhealthy, they claim, it's just plain bad. How can Hetherington claim otherwise?

Those who seek evidence for an either/or appraisal of divorce will be disappointed in For Better or For Worse. There are too many paths through divorce, according to Hetherington, and too wide a range of outcomes, to see it as monolithically good or bad. Adults and children alike face grave risks when a couple divorces, to be sure. Hetherington found that 20 percent of youths living in divorced or remarried families were troubled, compared to 10 percent living in intact families. Thirty-six-percent of the kids Hetherington studied had already divorced by the time her study ended, compared to 18 percent of young people in their age group from intact families. And a significant number of adults--especially men--never seemed to recover from their divorce, becoming part of a group Hetherington characterizes as the Defeated--isolated, unhappy, hopeless about their future.

But, Hetherington claims, a heightened risk of future problems isn't the whole story. …

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