Irish Times

January 19, 2002

Staying together for the sake of the kids

By Breda O'Brien
Irish Times

I wonder. Take one statistic from the book. Twenty-five per cent of children from divorced families have serious social, emotional or psychological problems; 10 per cent from intact families do. It is reassuring to think that 75 per cent of the children of divorce, according to this new research, escape such serious consequences.

However, if this were the first major research to be published on the outcome of divorce for children, would the headlines be so positive, or would they read: "Children of divorce far more likely to be at risk of long-term unhappiness"? Since the 1990s, research on the effects of divorce on children has been dominated by Judith Wallerstein who, like Hetherington, has decades of research behind her. Wallerstein tracked the children of divorce for 25 years, and her conclusions make for grim reading.

She dismisses what she terms two faulty beliefs. The first is that if parents are happier, the children will be, too. Not so, she says. "Indeed, many adults who are trapped in very unhappy marriages would be surprised to learn that their children are relatively content." The second faulty belief is that divorce is a temporary crisis which exerts its most harmful effects on parents and children at the time of divorce.

Wallerstein discovered, to her own astonishment, that divorce was having negative repercussions 25 years afterwards. She says that children identify with the relationship between their father and mother and carry this template into adulthood.

"Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships entirely." They have a longer adolescence and often end up reversing the parent-child role and minding their parents. They have greater substance-abuse problems and often difficulty adjusting to or bonding with stepfamilies.

Wallerstein never claimed that the outcomes for children were universally negative, and she has continually reiterated that she sees divorce as a necessity in certain circumstances. Still, she and other researchers who said the needs of children and adults did not converge when it came to divorce, had a major influence. Several states built in incentives for couples to take pre-marriage courses. One introduced the option of covenant marriage, which meant couples agreed to make getting out of their marriage much more difficult than normal.

It is in this context that Hetherington's book is being hailed with relief. If almost three-quarters of adult children are not seriously damaged, that is surely good news. Yet when Hetherington's research is looked at more closely, all is not rosy.

Even the same report on her work which declared this book was balm for the soul also lists many negative findings. For example, 70 per cent of young people from divorced families see divorce as an acceptable solution, even if children are present. Marriage for them is forever only "if things work out".

In contrast, only 40 per cent of children from intact families see divorce as an acceptable option. A positive outcome in marriage is much less likely for the child of divorce. Hetherington believes that for a child of divorce, the best chance of a happy marriage is to marry a child of an intact family.

Step-families have many problems. Fewer than 20 per cent of young adult stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers. The divorce rate in remarriages is greater than those in first marriages, frequently because the stepmother is unpopular. She is often caught in the middle, expected to nurture sometimes difficult and suspicious children.

Men and boys adjust emotionally less well after a divorce in the family than women and girls. Divorced men do poorly alone and remarry quickly. Boys are often very difficult for their lone-parent mothers to handle, especially if they cannot continue a relationship with their fathers.

Those who are against any tightening up of divorce laws are pointing triumphantly to Hetherington's huge sample, involving 1,400 families of divorce. They contrast this with Wallerstein's 60. However, in her last work, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Wallerstein explains: "Through the 1980s and 1990s the staff and I have done pioneering research on issues such as joint custody, high-conflict families, overnight visiting for infants, and court-ordered visiting."

Although divorce rates have dropped from 50 per cent to 43 per cent in the US, their figures remain catastrophically high in comparison to Ireland. Whether you accept Wallerstein's mostly grim findings which have some bright spots, or Hetherington's more cheerful findings which contain some dire results, neither book provides much comfort for people who would like to play down the negative effects of divorce on children. Indeed, Wallerstein claims that when it comes to the comments of the children, their work is so similar that Hetherington could have been quoting from Wallerstein's work.

Maybe we should listen to Hetherington. Although she says that divorce is often essential and sometimes liberating, she also says: "The last thing I want to do is sound like I am recommending divorce. I am not pro-divorce. I think people should work harder on their marriages and be better prepared when they go in and more willing to weather out the rough spots and support each other."

For those that do, there is good news. Linda Waite, author of The Case for Marriage, analysed the US National Survey of Families and Households in the late 1980s. She showed that 86 per cent of unhappily married people who stick it out find that five years later their marriages are happier.

Those who were most unhappy showed the most dramatic turnaround. Which may go to show that that much derided concept, staying together for the sake of the kids, may not be such a bad idea after all.

© The Irish Times

© 2001