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Feature Article


Book Review

For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered

by E. Mavis Hetherington & John Kelly

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia

For the past 30 years family scientists and practitioners have been able to rely on Professor Mavis Hetherington to provide new insights and analysis about the process of divorce and remarriage. For the first time her work is now available to the general public in a new book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (2002; New York: Norton & Co.). The central theme of this book is that there are no simple answers to the questions that have vexed families, scholars and politicians such as: What is the affect of divorce on children? Is it better to stay married rather than get divorced? Should we make rules that make it harder or easier to get divorced? Who should get custody? And how can we create a strong stepfamily?

The key difference between this book and most other advice books is that the recommendations are based on many years of research. It is also important to note that when Professor Hetherington is describing children and adults who have dealt with divorce she is comparing them with other families so that we can maintain perspective about the challenges and outcomes of all kinds of families. Despite the fact that Hetherington provides no simple answers, it does not mean that scientists have learned nothing during the past 30 years. Indeed, Professor Hetherington tells us much about divorce and remarriage that is important for us to hear. Based on a series of studies involving over 1400 families and 2500 children, Hetherington tackles the tough questions and provides some powerful insights into how we can deal with the complexity of family life in the 21st century. Hetherington concludes that adults who go through divorce fit into five groups. There is an important group of people whose lives are greatly improved. In her work she found that about 20 percent fell into this group. These are people who met the challenges that resulted from divorce and single parenthood and emerged stronger and more competent. Another 10 percent of the adults were competent loners, similar to the first group in that they had meaningful and fulfilling lives, but they had decided to live life without a partner and were more emotionally self-sustaining. The largest group of divorced people (40%) fit a category Hetherington labeled, "good enough." For this group divorce was a difficult moment, but their lives were neither substantially more positive or negative following divorce. These three groups account for 70% of the adults going through divorce. The remaining 30% all had various kinds of difficulties - those who quickly remarried but seemed to change little, those who sought freedom from all restrictions and those who seemed completely overwhelmed by the divorce and unable to find purpose and hope. In her portrait of divorce, Hetherington does not gloss over the difficulties or the ways in which lives can be utterly destroyed, but she also repeatedly illustrates the ways in which people re-built meaningful lives and the degree to which the outcomes of divorce were not determined by fate.

The outcomes for children are painted in an equally complex fashion. She states, "Divorce is usually brutally painful to a child." Then adds "But [divorce's] negative long-term effects have been exaggerated to the point where we now have created a self-fulfilling prophecy" (p. 7). Her findings indicate that about 25% of children of divorce have serious social, emotional or psychological problems compared to 10% of children living in her comparison two-parent families. But twenty years later she found that children from divorced and never divorced families were much more similar than different. An especially important fact to note is that there is a group of children emerging from divorced families who she describes as "uncommonly resilient, mature, responsible, and focused, these children of divorce blossomed…"

The book concludes with a series of important lessons for all of us about family life in our times: 

  1. there is great variability in how adults and children deal with family relationships and the consequences of divorce and remarriage, 
  2. despite more equal opportunity among men and women, they still express closeness and deal with conflict in very different ways, 
  3. people and relationships can change for better or worse, they are not fixed forever in time; 
  4. people actively shape their relationships and their life course; 
  5. many difficulties that are blamed on divorce are present in problematic two-parent families before the divorce; 
  6. how people handle divorce depends on factors that pose challenges and those that sustain them in difficult moments. Positive relationships with friends and family can help ease difficult family transitions; 
  7. there is at least some genetic component to personality characteristics such as impulsivity, antisocial behavior, and neuroticism that can be destructive to intimate relationships; 
  8. close, supportive relationships can buffer difficulties in life; 
  9. in general there is a tendency toward resiliency in people, that is, they strive to cope and adapt to life situations and most succeed.

Hetherington concludes her book with a reminder that 75-80% of the children and adults she studied do not show long-term serious problems. She states that by emphasizing the negative outcomes for people, we do a "disservice to the majority of those individuals who, often with heroic effort, are leading constructive lives." Anyone interested in the well-being of families, both their own and those around them, needs to read this book.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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