A new "divorce debate" is suddenly raging in both academic and popular cultures: How does it affect kids? In one corner is pioneering sociologist Judith Wallerstein, author of several books on marriage and divorce, including her most recent, in 2000, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study."
In the other corner is E. Mavis Hetherington, respected scholar and psychology professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, and co-author with John Kelly of the just-released, "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered."
As Time magazine put it, this is a "battle of superstars." Hetherington, who examined data from thousands of children following their parents' divorce (though she did not interview them), told Time that while she's never seen a "victimless divorce' — where the mother, father or child didn't suffer extreme distress when the family broke up ... 75 percent to 80 percent do recover."
Wallerstein, who has intimately followed a group of more than 100 children of divorce for over 25 years, interviewing them for thousands of hours, argues that the most devastating effects of divorce on children don't occur at the time of the breakup, as bad as that almost always is for them, but in adulthood.
In fact, it's Wallerstein who is credited with turning around much of the 1970s "kids will bounce back" thinking about divorce. Now Hetherington seems to be going back around that circle.
So, who is right?
Well, this debate isn't really about the findings that divorce devastates kids, supported by an overwhelming array of academic research, but about the interpretation of those studies, explains marriage researcher Maggie Gallagher, co-author with Linda Waite of "The Case for Marriage."
Gallagher notes that even Hetherington admits that children of divorce are likely to have serious, even devastating pathologies in adulthood, including, for instance, a total inability to form lasting relationships themselves, at two and one-half times the rate of kids from intact families.
Hetherington, it seems, just looks at those results differently, suggesting that since most of the children of divorce don't end up with crippling pathologies as adults — since they operate somewhere in the "normal range" — it's not such a destructive end. But as Gallagher points out, Hetherington's "normal range" can still look awfully ugly in comparison to kids from intact families.
But even if Hetherington is right that, yes, kids suffer tremendously after their parents' divorce, but usually, as she claims, after two or more years make it into that nebulous "normal range," does that make the level of pain inflicted on them by their parents OK?
Color me old-fashioned, but I just don't get up every morning wondering how I can avoid
totally devastating my children's lives that day. I, like all normal parents, think instead "how can I give my kids the best?"
This is typically the missing piece in any divorce debate, including this one. Often those who take a more permissive view of divorce want to force us to see the breakup of a marriage as a choice between only two things — staying in a bad marriage for the sake of the kids, or divorcing. But as welfare and family analyst Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation points out, "there's not a marriage seminar in the country which touts as its slogan 'we can help you stay together in a bad marriage."' The goal is always to turn a bad marriage into a good one — and it turns out that's a surprisingly realistic alternative.
As Gallagher notes, people talk of a "bad marriage" as if it's a static thing. But most marriages are dynamic, and they go through stages. A lousy marriage today can be a good one a few years later. Gallagher and Waite report in "The Case for Marriage" on an analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households, which shows an astonishing "86 percent of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier." Most report they've become very happy, with "the very worst marriages show(ing) the most dramatic turnarounds" and usually without therapy or other intervention.
It may not be possible to make every marriage a happy one, or to always avoid divorce, and anyway some spouses have no choice when their mates leave them. But it's time to change the "divorce debates." Because surely with a little more encouragement from our culture, many of the same parents who would literally run in front of a speeding car to push their child out of harm's way might consider working harder at creating a good marriage to do the same.
Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com.