Reassuring Voice

updated 03/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

With her new book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, E. Mavis Hetherington delivers surprisingly upbeat findings on the 43 percent of American couples who falter and part. After studying 1,400 families and 2,500 children for 30 years, Hetherington, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Virginia, discovered that about 70 percent of divorced couples wind up happier in the end. More significant, 75 to 80 percent of their kids not only survive the breakup—they thrive. "I don't want to belittle the suffering," says Hetherington, 75. "But you don't have a terminal disease if your parents divorce."

Hetherington hopes her book alters the public dialogue on divorce. It has certainly raised the decibel level. Up until now the reigning view has been that of Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist whose 2000 bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study, reported that children of divorce never fully recover from the trauma. She argues that Hetherington downplays its lasting impact. "Our findings are not that different," says Wallerstein. "[Hetherington] just puts a cheerful interpretation on hers." Hetherington's supporters counter that Wallerstein's study, based on just 93 children in California, is too narrow to be reliable.

Divorce hasn't touched Hetherington personally: Married to retired University of Virginia law professor John, 73, for 46 years, she has three sons—two happily wedded, one single—and three grandchildren. At her Charlottesville, Va., home, a 100-year-old former school-house, Hetherington talked with PEOPLE contributor Aimee Agresti.

Isn't divorce emotionally shattering for children?

Initially, yes. But when the marriage had a lot of screaming and shouting, I've had many kids tell me, "I used to pray that my parents would break up." One said to me, "When Mom told me that we were going to leave Dad, I had to turn my face away because I didn't want her to see I was glad."

Still, most kids are upset when their parents break up. They're angry, worried—"If one parent can leave, why can't both?"—noncompliant and clingy. They want to be around you all the time, but they're mad at you too.

Yet I was amazed at how many children eventually bounce back. Within two years, 70 percent of girls and about 60 percent of boys are beginning to function reasonably well.

What about the 25 percent who you found have lifelong problems?

Although it's true that kids of divorce are more than twice as likely to be troubled while growing up, keep in mind that 10 percent of children from intact families also have difficulties with depression or antisocial behavior. So for every young adult from a divorced family who is having problems, three others are functioning well. It's important to focus on the resiliency of kids—the majority of whom go on to have a happy life.

What separates those who do well from the others?

A competent and caring parent who focuses on the child's needs instead of his or her own—and that's hard to do when going through a breakup. The most important thing in a child's life during and after a divorce is a supportive, nurturing, responsive but firm adult. We didn't see one well-adjusted kid who did not have this. Love is not enough. A structured environment gives an anxious child a sense of predictability and security.

What mistakes do parents make?

They load their emotional baggage on their kids. It's important to explain what's going on, but some parents tell their child too much—about being lonely and frightened, about dates they're going on. Instead of the parent offering emotional solace to the child, the child is expected to provide it for the adult.

Why is that damaging?

It's a horrible burden. Kids can't do it, so they feel they've failed their parent. That guilt and resentment makes girls depressed and boys angry and irresponsible.

Any other parental no-nos?

There's a subset of women we call narcissistic/ self-fulfilling. They don't pay attention to their kids. They focus on building a career or finding a new mate. They become obsessed with the new relationship. If, as is usually the case, the mother is the primary caretaker, these kids grow up to be the most poorly adjusted.

What role do fathers play?

Some spend more time with their kids after a divorce than before. And even noncustodial fathers can play a crucial role in their kids' lives—especially with boys. Those with responsive fathers show less antisocial behavior and do better academically.

How about stepparents?

These relationships are typically less close than those with biological parents. It's important to establish a warm relationship with the child before you impose any discipline. Don't push too fast or expect instant love.

Are divorced kids more likely to be divorced adults?

For most, the rate is the same as for those from intact homes—25 percent. But for the minority who didn't adjust well to their parents' divorce, it's 58 percent.

Is there anything a divorced parent can do to improve those odds?

You may resent your ex-spouse, but don't put him or her down all the time or fight in front of the kids. Set an example they can follow in the future.

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