For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered

For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered

by E. Mavis Hetherington Ph.D., John Kelly


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For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered by E. Mavis Hetherington Ph.D., John Kelly

"A reader-friendly guide to how people can build success out of the stress and adversity of divorce."—Michael Rutter, Institute of Psychiatry, London
Mavis Hetherington, "without doubt the world's preeminent researcher on the family processes that surround divorce,...has distilled the wisdom growing out of her many studies of the short-term and long-term impact of divorce on family members" (Eleanor Maccoby, Stanford University). Offering "a welcome corrective to misleading and simplistic accounts," Hetherington "not only provides scientifically sound and wonderfully sensible guidance but dispels the myth that divorce is always negative" (Ross D. Parke, University of California, Riverside). This "widely-heralded study" (Time) is a "reader-friendly guide to how people can build success out of the stress and adversity of divorce" (Michael Rutter, Institute of Psychiatry, London), presenting a more nuanced picture of marital breakup—not as a momentary event but as a life process. Hetherington identifies the kinds of marriages that predispose a couple to divorce or not and also pinpoints "windows of change" that allow some to fashion the challenges of divorce into an opportunity for themselves and for their children. "Gold standard [research] aimed at clearing up confusion among moms and dads worried about divorce."—USA Today "Sure to become a classic in the field!"—Constance R. Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce "Without doubt the world's preeminent researcher on the family processes that surround divorce."—Eleanor Maccoby, Stanford University "A welcome corrective to misleading and simplistic accounts...dispels the myth that divorce is always negative."—Ross D. Parke, University of California, Riverside

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393324136
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 02/28/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 724,539
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

E. Mavis Hetherington is professor emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville.

John Kelly is a writer in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A New Story About Divorce

* * *

Neighbors, friends, even some of the women in Liddy Pennybaker's book group knew about James's infidelities, so when word spread that Liddy had asked for a divorce, everyone thought they knew why.

    James frequently went to social events alone, and just as frequently left with an attractive female on his arm. But to Liddy, James's affairs were more in the nature of a last straw than anything else. By the time receipts from out-of-town hotels began appearing in the Pennybakers' American Express bills, Liddy was already halfway out of the marriage. She resented James not spending more time with the children. She had grown tired of his scowls when she ate anything with more than a hundred calories in it. She was sick of his aloofness and condescension when she had friends from her church group to the house. She hated James's social climbing and phony laugh when he was around powerful people.

    In truth, Liddy felt almost grateful for the affairs—not that she liked being hurt and humiliated, but the affairs finally focused her, forced her to face a truth she had been resisting for two years. The marriage was over!

    Before, when Liddy thought about divorce, she thought about it the way a child thinks about being a grown-up—as a kind of fantasy game. Liddy would spend hours trying on new lives, imagining what it would be like to have a career or to be married to someone else. But whenever she sat down and actually analyzedthe costs of divorce, the price always seemed too high.

    The thought of telling the children was especially frightening. And leaving would mean ignoring, trashing everything she, the minister's daughter, had been brought up to believe. Oddly enough, the marriage itself also made Liddy hesitate. It still had its good moments and so did James, despite all his lies and deceptions. Walking out on her marriage would make Liddy feel as if she were tearing down a home she had built with her own hands, a home a part of her still loved and felt safe in. Besides, what would she be walking out to? She hadn't worked since her marriage and she didn't have a degree. She had dropped out of college to marry James.

The ambivalence, the weighing of hopes against fears, of past happiness against current dissatisfactions that Liddy Pennybaker wrestled with in deciding to divorce occurs in most marital breakups.

    Every divorce is a unique tragedy because every divorce brings an end to a unique civilization—one built on thousands of shared experiences, memories, hopes, and dreams. That wonderful Two-for-the-Road summer in Europe, the first day in the new house, the heart-stopping trip to the emergency room—only the people who shared those moments know what it means to lose them forever. So divorce takes a uniquely personal toll on the divorced. But the experience of divorce also has many commonalities. The end of a marriage always, or almost always, produces heartache, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and of course many anxious questions.

    What happens to me and my children now? What should I expect, fear, hope for? What kinds of challenges and pitfalls do I face? And how do I go about building a better life?

    Like other books on divorce, For Better or For Worse offers answers to these questions. But the answers you will find here are different. For Better or For Worse has a new story to tell about divorce, and it is an important story because it is based on the most comprehensive examination of divorce ever conducted: an in-depth examination of nearly 1,400 families and over 2,500 children, many followed for more than three decades. When I finished my research, the adults I had met as young men and women were now in middle age and most had been remarried for a decade or more, and the children I had met as preschoolers were now teachers, accountants, computer scientists, and engineers; many were married; a few had already gone through a divorce of their own.

    The unparalleled scope of my research has produced new and surprising findings about divorce and its immediate aftermath, findings that will make us better able to anticipate the consequences of marital failure for ourselves, our children, and for future partners and marriages.

    Among the most important findings to emerge are:

    —How divorce changes people's behavior, feelings, friendships, health, and, in the case of adults, their work and sex lives

    —Why even people who are eager to leave a marriage often question the decision later

    —Why the end of the first year is usually the most painful point in the entire postdivorce period

    —Why casual postdivorce sex is more emotionally risky for women than men

    —Why divorce heightens vulnerability to psychological problems and physical illness

    —Why preadolescent girls usually adjust more easily to divorce than boys

    —Why men and women rarely marry the person they leave a marriage for

    —Why a familial history of divorce is a greater divorce risk to a woman than a man.

    For Better or For Worse also has a second, even more important story to tell. This one is about a new kind of experience created by divorce. Traditionally, marital failure has been viewed as a single event, one that produces temporarily intense but limited effects. People suffer, they heal, and then go on with their lives. What happens to them later, as single parents, in a new romantic relationship, or in a second marriage, is dependent on the conditions they encounter later. Or so the traditional view holds.

    But as I followed my families over the years and, in many cases, over the decades, I found this view to be insufficient. Marital failure cannot be understood as a single event; it is part of a series of interconnected transitions on a pathway of life experiences that lead to and issue from divorce. The quality of life in a first marriage influences adults' and children's responses to divorce and experiences in a single-parent family, and these in turn cast a shadow across new romantic relationships, a second marriage, and life in a stepfamily.

    Sometimes I saw happy second marriages heal painful, divorce-induced emotional scars. But reactions work the other way around as well. Unhappy second marriages and unhappy stepfamilies can reopen old divorce wounds, and a legacy of fear and mistrust from a first marriage can erode happiness in a remarriage.

    As I studied nearly fourteen hundred families across time, I realized that the divorce revolution begun in the 1960s had created entirely new patterns of intimate relations, with less stability and fewer certainties but more options. People were not just marrying and staying with the same partner, the traditional pattern for married life. Half of this new generation were divorcing, and they were taking diverse pathways from marital breakup. Some were opting to cohabit or remain single or to have multiple romantic partners. Others were forming relationships with partners of the same sex. Others again were remarrying, often several times.

    On one level, For Better or For Worse is a portrait of the new ways Americans have learned to live and love and parent in a divorce-prone society. On another level, the book serves as a primer on what might be called the postnuclear family experience. For Better or For Worse explains the options that have become available to the newly divorced over the past few decades. Based on the experiences of my study families, it explains which options are most likely to lead to postmarital success or failure, and why.

    At the center of the primer is a new and, I think, more balanced view of divorce and its consequences. After forty years of research, I harbor no doubts about the ability of divorce to devastate. It can and does ruin lives. I've seen it happen more times than I like to think about. But that said, I also think much current writing on divorce—both popular and academic—has exaggerated its negative effects and ignored its sometimes considerable positive effects. Divorce has undoubtedly rescued many adults and children from the horror of domestic abuse, but it is not just a preventative measure. I have seen divorce provide many women and girls, in particular, with a remarkable opportunity for life-transforming personal growth, as we shall see later.

    The reason our current view of marital failure is so unremittingly negative is that it is based on studies that have only examined people for a year or two after their divorce, and a year or two is not enough time to distinguish between short- and long-term effects. Additionally, many divorce studies do not employ a comparison group of married couples, and thus are unable to distinguish between problems common to all families and problems unique to divorced families.

    Once you remove these distortions by doing what I did, examining men, women, and children for over twenty years and including a comparison group of non-divorced married couples, many of our current beliefs about marital failure turn out to be myths. Six examples of the most common myths follow.

Myth One:
Divorce Only Has Two Outcomes: Win or Lose

    Divorce is too complex a process to produce just winners and losers. People adjust in many different ways, and these patterns of adjusting change over time. The most common include:

Enhanced. Two decades after divorce, the 20 percent of individuals who were classified as Enhanced came closest to looking like traditional postdivorce winners. Successful at work, Enhancers also succeeded socially, as parents, and often in new marriages, though in one key aspect the group did depart from the conventional picture of postdivorce winners. The Enhanced flourished because of the things that had happened to them during and after divorce, not despite them. Competencies that would have remained latent if they had stayed in a marriage were fostered by the urgent need to overcome the challenges of divorce and single parenthood.

Competent Loners. Men and women who do not remarry are often considered divorce losers. But the 10 percent of men and women in my research who were classified as Competent Loners looked a lot like Enhancers; the only major difference was that they were more emotionally self-sustaining. A Competent Loner did not need—or, in many cases, want—a partner; he or she was fully capable of building a meaningful and happy life without a marriage or a longtime companion.

Good Enough. For the people in this category, divorce was like a speed bump in the road. It caused a lot of tumult while the person was going over it, but failed to leave a lasting impression—either positive or negative. Two decades later, Good Enoughs (who represented 40 percent of my study sample and were my largest postdivorce group) had different partners and different marriages, but usually the same problems.

Seekers. Seekers were distinguished by a desire to remarry quickly. Alone, the average Seeker, who was usually a man, felt rootless and insecure. He needed a spouse and a marriage to give his life structure, meaning, and a secure base. Unmarried Seekers often became desperately unhappy and clinically depressed; they also had more drinking problems than other divorced adults.

Libertines. The polar opposites of Seekers, Libertines wanted freedom, not a new set of restrictions. They came out of marriage, as one member of the group said, "ready to live life in the fast lane." Plunging necklines, trendy clothing, tight-fitting jeans, and sports cars were the symbols of their intention. Libertines had the highest rates of casual sex and singles bar patronage in the study.

However, by the end of the first year after divorce many Libertines felt that their life was empty, pointless, a dead end, and they began to seek more stable, committed relationships. As one Libertine said, "After awhile even a sexual smorgasbord gets to be a bit of a bore."

The Defeated. The men and women in this group succumbed to depression, to substance abuse, to a sense of purposelessness. Some of the people in this category lost everything—jobs, homes, second spouses, children, self-esteem; others managed to rebuild a halfway functional new life, but it was joyless. The Defeated often remained embittered over the life they had lost.

Myth Two:
Children Always Lose Out After a Divorce

    This is another article of faith in popular wisdom and it contains an undeniable truth. In the short run, divorce usually is brutally painful to a child. But its negative long-term effects have been exaggerated to the point where we now have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of my study, a fair number of my adult children of divorce described themselves as permanently "scarred." But objective assessments of these "victims" told a different story. Twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems. But most of the young men and women from my divorced families looked a lot like their contemporaries from non-divorced homes. Although they looked back on their parents' breakup as a painful experience, most were successfully going about the chief tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives for themselves.

    Most unexpectedly—since it has seldom been reported before—a minority of my young adults emerged from divorce and postnuclear family life enhanced. Uncommonly resilient, mature, responsible, and focused, these children of divorce blossomed, not despite the things that had happened to them during divorce and after, but, like Enhanced adults, because of them.

Myth Three:
The Pathways Following Divorce Are Fixed and Unchanging

    The effects of divorce are not irrevocable; they do not lock a person into a particular pattern of adjustment. A negative experience at one major transition point, such as divorce, can be offset by a positive experience at another point, transforming a Defeated individual into a Good Enough or a Good Enough individual into Enhanced. But the opposite can happen, too. A person can go from Good Enough to Defeated.

    Also, the direction of change is never predetermined. After a divorce, to a great extent individuals influence their own destiny. As we shall see later, a single mother's decision to go back to school to upgrade her work skills, or a divorced man's hurried remarriage, or an adolescent's decision to terminate a pregnancy can close or open the gates to a new life path.

Myth Four:
Men Are the Big Winners in Divorce

    In the tabloid press, men always seem to be leaving their wives for younger, slimmer, and prettier women, so-called trophy wives. But in real life, it is usually the women who do the leaving. Indeed, men-as-divorce-winners may be the biggest myth about divorce. In my research, two out of every three marriages ended because the wife walked out.

    Furthermore, women did better emotionally after divorce than men did. They were less likely to mope and feel sorry for themselves and also less likely to continue to pine for a former spouse. Women were better at building a new social network of friends and at finding ways to assuage their pain. And while the economic disparity between men and women following divorce continues to be great, with the woman's economic resources declining by about 30 percent and the man's by 10 percent, this difference is beginning to close, thanks to better education of women and stricter enforcement of child support laws. Still, many women, even middle-class women, fall into poverty after divorce.

Myth Five:
The Absence of a Father—and Consequent Poverty—Are the Two Greatest Postdivorce Risks to Children

    Fathers do contribute vitally to the financial, social, and emotional well-being of a child. But the contribution is not made through a man's sheer physical presence. A child does not automatically become psychologically well adjusted or a competent student just because he or she lives with Dad. Qualities like stability and competency in children have to be nurtured carefully and patiently by active, engaged fathering.

    In fact, we found that if a man was psychologically absent before the divorce and a custodial mother is reasonably well adjusted and parents competently following divorce, single-family life often has little enduring negative developmental impact on a child, particularly if that child is a girl. An involved, supportive, firm custodial mother often is able to counter adverse effects of both the lack of a father and poverty.

Myth Six:
Death and Divorce Produce Similar Outcomes

    Both death of a father and divorce are associated with the lack of a father in the household, yet children from widowed families show fewer problems than those in divorced, mother-headed families. Why? The conflict associated with the end of a marriage is one reason. Another are the experiences and attitudes of divorced mothers. Widows get more support from families, friends, and in-laws; to some extent there is a "well, you brought it on yourself" attitude to the divorced. Widows also communicate idealized images of their dead husband to their children, whereas divorced women are likely to put down and belittle their ex-spouses, much to the confusion and pain of their children.

    However, the death of a marriage, like the death of a loved one, often does produce a mourninglike sadness and grieving. But unlike death, divorce does not provide a sense of closure, of a chapter ending. The unresolved issues of divorce can retain their emotional sting because their source comes by every Saturday morning to pick up the children. Moreover, divorce breeds complicating factors of continued conflict and guilt. Questions like "Was I too selfish?" "Did I try hard enough?" "Could I have done more?" can grate like sandpaper on a guilty conscience.

Although our work uncovered many myths about divorce, on one critical point my research does confirm, resoundingly, the conventional wisdom about divorce:

    The end of a marriage is usually brutally painful.

    In their worst nightmares, few if any of the middle-class women in my study imagined that they would ever find themselves in a welfare office filling out application forms, or moving back in with a parent; but after divorce a surprisingly large number had to do one or both. Similarly, I don't think that many of the divorced men in my studies ever imagined sitting up night after night watching reruns of Star Trek and M*A*S*H to avoid an empty bed in a half-furnished apartment. And I know none of them ever thought that talking to their children would become almost as difficult as talking to a stranger.

    To the boys and girls in my research, divorce seemed cataclysmic and inexplicable. How could a child feel safe in a world where adults had suddenly become untrustworthy? Marital failure was so outside a child's normal range of experience that the only way many youngsters could make sense of it was to blame themselves. Small wonder, then, that one four-year-old confided to me: "My daddy left my mommy and me because he doesn't like me anymore."

From the Pain of Divorce to the Satisfaction of
the Postnuclear Family

One of our newly divorced men, a geography professor, started worrying about his sanity when he began looking up at birds in the branches of the trees and shouting, "Get off that branch, you God-damned bird!" However, once the confusion of divorce had passed, the man realized that his bizarre behavior had a purpose. "Somehow it gave me something to vent my anger on," he said to me one day. "It gave me a sense of power when everything was so out of control."

    Another, a very buttoned-down young banker, was appalled when he found himself crouched behind a boxwood in his old front yard, peering through a window, watching his former wife and a strange man making love on the living-room floor. "I don't know what's happening to me," he told me later. "I've never done anything like that before. I've never even thought of doing anything like that before."

    It was easy to understand their concern. Behaviors like Peeping Tomism and harassing birds are worrisome, but they are also fairly normal in the first year after a divorce, as are erratic mood swings, vulnerability to psychological disorders and physical illness, and doubts about the decision to leave.

    But very few of the millions of men and women who get divorced each year anticipate these reactions or know that they are usually temporary and self-correcting. The newly divorced also tend to be blind to the long shadow that the past casts over their new lives. Although For Better or For Worse is not a self-help book in the conventional sense of the word, it does explain what to expect and when to expect it. It describes what happens to men, women, and children at one and two years after divorce and at five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years.

    To guide you through the challenges and options confronted in postdivorce life, I will describe some of the pathways taken by families I studied over the years. Through their experience, you will be introduced to strategies that can ease adjustment to a marital breakup and produce success in a new single family or a second marriage. I think you will be surprised at how commonsensical some of the strategies are and how novel others are. For example:

    —Selecting the right kind of school can measurably increase a child's chances of successfully navigating life after divorce.

    —Parental monitoring and supervision are particularly critical with adolescents because children from divorced and remarried families are more vulnerable to peer influence.

    —Timing is often key to succeeding in a second marriage. Remarriages that occur prior to a child's adolescence succeed more often than those that occur when a youngster is in his or her early teens.

    —Marrying a person from an intact family significantly reduces the higher risk of marital instability carried by adult children of divorce.


Excerpted from For Better or For Worse by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly. Copyright © 2002 by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1A New Story About Divorce1
Part 1The Experience of Divorce: Children and Adults in the First Six Years
2The His and Her Marriage; the His and Her Divorce19
3Leaving and Letting Go: Changes and New Chances in the First Two Years After Divorce43
4The Balance of Happiness: Why People Succeed or Fail After Divorce67
5Six Ways to Leave a Marriage: The Pathways Men and Women Take Out of Divorce94
6Incompetent Bullies and Undisciplined Disciplinarians: Children and Parents in the First Two Years After Divorce110
7What Helps and What Hurts: Children's Adjustment Six Years After Divorce124
Part 2Remarriage and Stepfamily Life: Adults and Children at Eleven Years After Divorce
8Repartnering: High Hopes and Crossed Fingers163
9Building a Stepfamily181
10Welcome to Peer World: Why Teens from Divorced and Remarried Families Leave Home Earlier and Get into Trouble More Often203
Part 3In the Home Stretch: Adults and Children Twenty Years Later
11Mostly Happy: Children of Divorce as Young Adults227
12Win, Lose, and Draw: Adults Twenty Years Later254
13Lessons Learned in Forty-five Years of Studying Families275
AppendixThe Three Studies281
Selected References289

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For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I chose this book as someone considering divorce and read it cover to cover. I found myself intrigued by the study itself and the data over the many years of the study. I would recommend this book to any one who is considering a seperation or divorce.