A call for more help on preventing breakups

Call it the Great Divorce Debate, focusing on this long-simmering question: Does divorce have lasting bad effects on children?

It should come as no surprise that new findings by E. Mavis Hetherington - which put a decidedly more positive spin on divorce than have earlier studies - are causing something of a stir. After all, her declaration that "the vast majority of people in our studies were coping reasonably well, both children and parents" would seem to defy the conventional wisdom.

She acknowledges that not all the news is good. Twenty-five percent of children in divorced families exhibit emotional, social, or psychological problems. That compares with 10 percent of children in intact families.

She concedes, too, that the first year after a divorce is "rough." Moreover, it can take as many as six years for everyone in the family to make the necessary adjustments.

But debate about her work, which was three decades in the making, is sparking comparisons with far more pessimistic findings - notably, those of Judith Wallerstein, a California psychologist who also has spent years studying the effects of divorce. Mrs. Wallerstein, for her part, maintains that children from divorced families have a hard time establishing healthy adult relationships.

Frank Pittman, a family therapist in Atlanta, sides with that view.

"I see all these children of divorce who are trying to make their own marriages work, when they never saw their parents' marriage work," he says. "So they keep their bags packed. They keep avoiding conflict, or looking for the betrayal. They don't trust that the relationship will work. As a result, their own marriages fail."

The divorce rate for children of divorce, he notes, is several times higher than it is for those who grow up in intact families.

Calling divorce a "high-risk situation," Hetherington emphasizes that she is not "pro-divorce." She warns that the breakup of a family should not be undertaken lightly. But she considers it a "reasonable solution" when a marital relationship is unhappy, acrimonious, or destructive.

Lori Gordon, founder of the PAIRS Foundation, which teaches relationship skills, agrees. A marriage in which the parents have recurring, open conflict in front of the children can have the same impact as a bad divorce, she says. "The worst thing is to stay in a miserable relationship where the tension is obvious, and where children walk on eggshells and then act out their feelings," says Mrs. Gordon.

The mother of four grown children, Gordon was divorced after 17 years of marriage. She is happily remarried. Divorce, she insists, can have positive effects on children. Explaining that her former husband took little interest in their children, she says, "Because my children did not have the father they wanted, [now that they are grown] they are intensely involved with their children. They are wonderful parents."

The father factor

Yet the absence of fathers remains one of the most devastating consequences of divorce. Even among educated, professional men, Hetherington observes, few know how to be a good noncustodial father. As a result, two years after a divorce, only one-quarter of fathers in her study saw their children once a week or more. After six years, one-quarter of children saw their fathers once a year or less. Only 30 percent maintained a good relationship with their fathers.

"There's a lot of reason to believe that it's the loss of the father that's the crucial element in how divorce produces so much disability," Mr. Pittman says.

Still, Hetherington sees signs of change among men. More noncustodial fathers divorcing today are staying in contact with their children. They have had more hands-on experience in childrearing and are reluctant to give that up when the marriage ends.

For some family experts, the debate about the effects of divorce is a welcome springboard for discussions about how to strengthen marriage and prevent divorce.

Michelle Weiner Davis, a marriage therapist in Woodstock, Ill., brings personal and professional experience to the subject. Her parents divorced when she was 17. One of the "most devastating" events of her life, the divorce, which she believes was preventable, still evokes "a great sadness."

"I'm utterly convinced that my own parents' marriage, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, don't have to go that route, don't have to test children's resilience in that way," she says.

The elusive ounce of prevention

For Ms. Weiner Davis, the overriding question should be: "How many of the divorces that occur ... are truly preventable? Not preventable in terms of people staying together for the sake of their kids and being miserable the rest of their lives, but preventable in terms of helping them rediscover what they love about each other, and make their lives together good again."

Pittman, too, challenges what he calls the "strange belief that the next marriage will be the good one that will make you happy, so that you never have to learn how to make yourself happy."

Couples, he adds, "have to learn to argue constructively, to disagree, and to hear the truth compassionately. They have to create an atmosphere in which they can be honest."

Changing the discussion about divorce is also a priority for Diane Sollee of Smart Marriages, a coalition for marriage and family education in Washington. "How can we be spending energy ... talking about the degrees to which divorce is bad for children?" she says. "We should be spending time making marriage work."

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