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Commentary

There's Divorce, and Then There's Divorce

March 21, 2001|ROSALIND CHAIT BARNETT and CARYL RIVERS | Rosalind Chait Barnett, a senior scientist at Harvard and Brandeis, and Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, are authors of the forthcoming "Men and Women Are from Earth."

The anti-divorce movement is gathering steam. So-called "covenant marriages," in which couples entering marriage agree to make the possibility of divorce more difficult, are now legal in Louisiana and Arkansas, with 17 other state legislatures considering similar laws.

The Colorado Legislature is debating a measure that would require a year of counseling for state residents before they can get divorced, an idea that is vehemently opposed by groups that deal with domestic violence.

The rationale for these changes is most often that divorce harms children, so must be avoided at all cost. A new and very pessimistic bestseller on divorce may encourage such policies. Yet the best available research does not demonstrate that keeping troubled couples together is in the interest of their children.

Psychologist Judith Wallerstein, with Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, argues in "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" that even 10 or 15 years after their parents' divorce, many young men and women still underachieve and can't handle relationships. But the sample that Wallerstein has been following for years is small (131 children in California's Marin County) and biased. The families selected were in divorce counseling, making them atypical of the population at large.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 26, 2001 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Op Ed Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Divorce measure--A March 21 commentary should have read that the Colorado Legislature considered--but is not currently debating--a measure that would have required a year of counseling for state residents before they could get divorced.

In other research, most scholars part company with Wallerstein. In a major review in 1998 of the whole body of research on divorce, psychologist Mavis Hetherington at the University of Virginia concluded that most children are able to cope with their parents' divorce and are not permanently damaged. The University of Pennsylvania's Frank Furstenberg, another leading researcher, calls Wallerstein's results highly exaggerated. He says that research shows that most children of divorce aren't distinguishable from the children of happily married couples.

The fact is, you can't make a categorical statement about divorce either way. Its effects are neither always trivial nor always devastating.

One 12-year study by Penn State sociologist Paul Amato found that the impact of divorce on the adult children's emotional health and intimate relationships depended not on divorce per se but rather on the level of parental conflict. The adult children with the most problems were those whose parents reported high marital conflict or those who had little conflict but divorced abruptly. It's critical to note that problems for children were worse in high-conflict situations when their parents did not divorce than when they did.

In a much better designed study than Wallerstein's, University of Michigan psychologist Abigail Stewart looked at 160 families chosen from divorce case dockets, an arguably unbiased sample. She found that the end of a bad marriage proved healthy for the parents involved, and often also healthy for the children. Levels of tensions often decreased, disorganization lessened, and kids learned to cope with difficulties. Some children formed strong, independent relationships with a parent that were no longer overshadowed by fighting or tension.

Kids could even deal with parental conflict, as long as the parents were able to resist making the kids "choose sides." This divided loyalty was a major predictor of problems ahead for kids.

Research also tells us that you can't jump to the conclusion that children of divorce will themselves be more vulnerable to divorce. A recent major study of 10,000 subjects by Dr. Nicholas Wolfinger of the University of Utah shows little difference in the divorce rate between those whose parents divorced and those whose parents stayed married.

Some argue that state programs designed to keep people from divorcing too quickly might discourage partners in very bad marriages from ending them as they should and might even keep women in marriages where there is abuse. And research tells us that the children of high-conflict marriages probably will fare poorly.

Certainly, few would object to programs that make funds for counseling available to couples who want it. But aggressive government programs aimed at keeping marriages together that would be better off ending could prove worse than divorce for the children we are trying to protect.

What's the true picture? Divorce is complicated. Some divorces are terrible for everybody and others are liberating. How they affect children depends on many issues--whether there is continuing high conflict, whether the custodial parent has enough resources, whether the family has to move, etc. It won't help to hit parents over the head with guilt, and it won't help to rush into making unwise laws that only make things worse.

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