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Discovering Life Can (and Does) Go on After Divorce

Marriage breakups don't always spell disaster, a new book reveals.


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In the beginning, E. Mavis Hetherington was looking for as much pathology as the next person. It was the early 1970s, with the American family in free fall, and she fully expected that her just-launched study of the impact of divorce would find dysfunction and plenty of it: parents unable to cope, maladjusted children with long-term difficulties. By almost any measure, "we expected them to blow it."

Yet here's the surprising thing about her families, with all their couplings and uncouplings and even recouplings in the years that followed: The vast majority of parents rebounded from the pain and upheaval. Resiliency overshadowed pathology. By the time the children were young adults, considering marriage and families of their own, Hetherington discovered at least 75% coping fairly well--some very well--with life.

Divorce, it seems, is not predestined. Now Hetherington, 75, wants to get the word out. More than that, with the publication of "For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered" (Norton, $26.95), she wants to change the public debate about divorce. Her book offers reassurance to the millions of Americans who don't make it till death does part them. More than 40% of marriages end in divorce, down from the record highs of the '80s but hardly a statistic for celebration. The most divisive aspect has centered on the harm inflicted on children--irreparable damage, some researchers contend.

Hetherington, a University of Virginia professor emeritus, believes she offers "a more hopeful look, a more realistic look" at the consequences. She says the book, authored with New York writer John Kelly, is neither antimarriage (though angry e-mails already are accusing her of such) nor pro-divorce. Rather, it explains the challenges people face and the diverse choices they make. It doesn't ignore the downside. While most children adapt and adjust to their parents' split, she says, 20% to 25% are left deeply scarred.

"I harbor no doubts about the ability of divorce to devastate," she writes. "It can and does ruin lives.... But that said, I also think much current writing on divorce--both popular and academic--has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes considerable positive effects."

After three decades exploring the most important nexus of human relations, through the stability or dissolution of nearly 1,400 marriages, she wishes others weren't so skeptical. "Why are people so afraid to say that in the long run, people end up living reasonably constructive lives?"

Partly a how-to survival primer, partly a behavioral science treatise, "For Better or for Worse" provides a window on the ways humans react when their worlds implode.

Some families were followed for almost 30 years. That longevity, as well as the work's scope and methodology, makes Hetherington's research the most comprehensive ever on divorce. Her lab holds thousands of her subjects' interviews and questionnaires and tens of thousands of hours of videotape.

Not all the families were divorced when they signed up. Hetherington intentionally recruited a control group among the happily married. But control is a fleeting thing when love is concerned. Some of her married couples started to divorce, even as her divorced men and women started to remarry.

Relaxing in the converted schoolhouse outside Charlottesville where she lives with her husband, she laughs at the memory of her early frustrations: "When you study families over time, you're studying a moving target."

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University praises Hetherington's approach as groundbreaking: "Everybody should be in her debt. She almost originated the rigorous scientific study of the effect of divorce on children. "The debate has swung back and forth between people saying divorce is bad for most any kid, and people saying divorce is not a problem," Cherlin said. "Her message is that divorce raises the risk of undesirable things happening to your kids, but most kids are going to do OK."

The first year after a divorce is brutally painful for adults and children alike, Hetherington says. Doctor visits double for men and triple for women, although generally women cope better in the long run, and many make changes that ultimately enhance their lives.

The second year after a divorce usually brings improvement and adjustment, but parents should remain vigilant. Some will have their hands more full than others: Boys rebel more against mothers than against fathers. Girls experience greater stress during adolescence. Daughters in divorce or melded stepfamilies more frequently become sexually precocious.

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