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Cautious optimism on the divorce front

By Christina McCarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2002



A journey of 30 years and nearly 4,000 people is bound to bring surprises - especially when it involves 2,500 children, and most of them are dealing with divorce. But the terrain astonished even the woman who was probing marital fault lines of how divorce affects families - not just in the tumult of early separation, but over the years that follow.

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Now a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, E. Mavis Hetherington has just unveiled her magnum opus: a 307-page book on the legacy of divorce, offering fresh hope for "fragmented" families and a change of pace from the doomsday predictions of recent studies. (See story below for the reaction of family experts to her conclusions.)

"For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered" (W.W. Norton, $26.95), co-written with journalist John Kelly, documents a study that followed 1,400 white, middle-class families through intense at-home observation, soaked up in three-day spurts at regular intervals, and later when parents or children married, gave birth, or cohabited for more than six months.

The recurrent theme in Dr. Hetherington's substantial collection of data is resilience - her finding that 75 to 80 percent of children from divorced homes eventually adjust well to their changed lives. Some mothers and daughters even demonstrate exceptional competence - not despite divorce, Hetherington insists in an interview, but because of it: Twenty percent of divorced women were "enhanced," forced by the challenge of sudden separation to "discover competencies they didn't know they had."

Hetherington doesn't advocate divorce as a panacea, but she brings a note of cautious optimism to a life course often considered the first perilous misstep on a slippery slope.

For women, in particular, she says, troubled marriages can be suffocating. "Gradations in the marriage ... meant a lot more" to women, she says. "For men, it's being married - or not married - that's important." Post divorce, men found that new partners were integral to happiness, while women were more likely to be content on their own.

Hetherington describes the two years after divorce as "a window of change" - one which women are more likely to seize, forced by personal impetus or financial need to find new jobs, new friends, new lives.

Men, in contrast, "change temporarily, but if you look at men six years down the line, you find they tend to go into marriages that are not better and not much worse than their first marriages, and they haven't had dramatic personal changes like you see in women," she says.

Though men are likely to "hit the ground running" after divorce, with social and romantic zeal, women tend to cope better over the long haul - in part, she says, because their post-divorce focus on children, co-workers, and friends leaves less time for emotional isolation and self-destruction, while providing a source of self-esteem.

Hetherington doesn't dismiss the trauma and tumult of divorce. She began the study after observing that children of divorce are more likely to have problems than are children of widows and widowers - so it's not simply parental absence that complicates their lives.

A chunk of the book examines remarriage, puzzling out the dynamics of blended families - and those that refuse to blend. "Like machines," she writes, stepfamilies "are subject to the complexity principle: the more working parts, the greater the risk of a breakdown."

In response to warnings of a snowball effect of rising divorce rates and casual attitudes toward marriage among children of divorce, Hetherington shakes her head. By the end of her study, there was just a 10 percent difference in marital failure rates between children of divorced and "intact" families. Good-marriage models among friends or relatives lessened the gap. And, most important, those who chose supportive mates from stable, nondivorced families brought their divorce rates back to par with nuclear-family peers, she found.

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