Divorce: for better or for worse?

Posted: Jan 15, 2002 12:00 AM
Mavis Hetherington is one of the nation's most respected psychologists in the field of divorce. So when Mavis Hetherington publishes a new book-length report on largely white, middle-class families who divorce, it is front-page news.

The news, according to USA Today, is "balm to the souls of parents who have chosen to end their marriages": 20 years later, about three-quarters of children of divorce are "functioning in the normal range," establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives.

How should we think about divorce? That depends in part on who is doing the thinking. For children of divorce, who did not, after all, choose their parents' marital status, concentrating on the good news is appropriate. I have one fatherless son. I would certainly hate to imagine he thought of himself as permanently damaged goods.

But 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.

In actual fact, the news from this study is not new, despite the marketing spin. The results are consistent with a large and growing social science literature: Even among advantaged, middle-class white children, divorce doubles the risk that (ITAL) 20 years later (UNITAL) adult children would experience serious social, emotional and/or psychological dysfunction.

But long-term dysfunction is not the only risk of divorce. Hetherington herself, while accentuating the positive, is too good a scholar to ignore the emotional realities: Divorce 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?"

Bethany is one of Hetherington's success stories. 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 the 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 Liddy 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?'"

Very few of these highly educated and successful 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.

Children of divorce had double the divorce rate of children from low-conflict, intact families, thanks in part to a lower commitment to marital permanence and fewer relationship skills. Their best chance of marital success was to marry a child from an intact family.

In exchange for these grave risks, only 20 percent of adults had their lives enhanced by divorce -- another 10 percent reverted to being what Hetherington calls Competent Loners. What made people better off in the long-run? Good relationships with children, but especially a good-enough marriage. Like others, Hetherington found: "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.

Yet something about contemporary mores is seriously undermining the road to a good marriage. Only one-third of the children Hetherington studied who were in the first seven years of marriage were very happily married, compared to more than half of their parents at that stage; 38 percent report facing a serious marital problem, compared to 20 percent of their parents at the same marital stage.

How much pain are we parents entitled to inflict on our children merely because the human spirit is resilient and can overcome much? How much are our ideas about the harmlessness of divorce undermining our ability to build lasting love?

On questions like these, Hetherington's new research provides no easy new answers.