Here's an old bit from a stand-up comic's act: "Some say the glass is half empty. Some say it is half full. I say it's twice as big as it needs to be."
This is a story of glasses, not nearly empty, not quite full. Except that the glasses are the children of divorce--a million new ones each year in the U.S.--and what's being measured is their misery. For decades, since a pioneering study by Judith S. Wallerstein in 1971, sociologists and family-health specialists have posited that the wrenching act of divorce and its aftermath leave scars that can linger--in the afflicted children, throughout adolescence and into adulthood. This theory, buttressed by Wallerstein's 2000 best seller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, helped explain so many ills--depression, juvenile delinquency, poor grades--even as it justified a flourishing victim-and-caregiver industry.
Now a widely heralded study, published this week, indicates that the glass isn't quite full but isn't cracked either. In For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (W.W. Norton; 320 pages; $26.95), E. Mavis Hetherington, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, and her co-author John Kelly declare that 75% to 80% of children of divorce are functioning well, with little long-term damage. The claims are sure to stir debate over the delicate, brutal decision to end a marriage. They have already riled other family researchers.
Among the findings of the study, which tracked nearly 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children, some for three decades:
--Within two years of their parents' divorce, the vast majority of children "are beginning to function reasonably well again."
--Some women and girls "turned out to be more competent, able people than if they had stayed in unhappy family situations."
--70% of divorced parents are living happier lives than they did before divorce.
"My book tries to give a more optimistic look than people like Judith Wallerstein have done," Hetherington says. "A lot of the current work makes it sound as if you've given your kids a terminal disease when they go through a divorce. I am not pro-divorce. I think people should work harder on their marriages: support each other and weather the rough spots. And divorce is a painful experience. I've never seen a victimless divorce--where the mother, father or child didn't suffer extreme distress when the family broke up. But 75% to 80% do recover."
Hetherington found that 25% of children from divorced families have serious social, emotional or psychological problems, as opposed to 10% of kids from intact families. That's 2 1/2 times the risk--on its face, a stat worth worrying over. Hetherington acknowledges the gap between kids in nuclear and postnuclear families: "You can say, 'Wow, that's twice as big,' as some clinicians like Wallerstein do. But what it also means is that 75% of kids are functioning within the normal range. People don't focus on the resiliency of children."