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Book Forum: Psychological and Physical Trauma   |    
For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:601-a-602. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.3.601-a
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Bethesda, Md.

By E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2002, 307 pp., $26.95.

Professor Hetherington has studied divorce for more than 30 years. She has evaluated more than 1,400 families and claims her research is "the most comprehensive study of divorce ever conducted." For Better or For Worse summarizes her work.

The most well-known long-term studies of divorce have been written by her and by Judith Wallerstein, but, on the basis of their writings, one might think that these contemporaries are unknown to each other. Hetherington never mentions Wallerstein in this book. This, despite the overlap of some of their findings and despite Hetherington’s joining issues about which they disagree. (Wallerstein barely mentions Hetherington in her latest book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce[1].)

Hetherington agrees with the first half of Wallerstein’s main thesis in The Unexpected Legacy, namely, that divorce is a continuous process, beginning long before the separation and having consequences many years after. But she disagrees with the second half: that disordered development of a child must follow. Hetherington believes that "the vast majority [of children of divorce] are adjusting reasonably well six years after divorce" (p. 159).

Hetherington’s original research is more rigorous than most divorce studies. She evaluated a large number of families for a long time, and she set up nondivorced comparison subjects. But the book does not present the factual details or discuss the methodology at length. The reader learns mostly about the outcomes and the authors’ reaction to them. She and her coauthor, writer John Kelly, present a narrative and even give advice. At this, Hetherington is much less successful than Wallerstein, whose work is a naturalistic, psychodynamically oriented study, and who regularly offers trenchant psychological insights about divorce.

For those psychiatrists clinically involved in custody and divorce, the book provides useful information. The authors suggest, for example, that despite the suffering of divorcees in the first year, most are doing relatively well by the sixth year. Another example is that despite the problems of stepchildren, second marriages with stepfamilies are actually happier in the earlier years of marriage than couples in long-established first marriages—although this does not appear to last. There are some interesting anecdotes too, like the story of the recently divorced man who was so captivated by the shapely woman walking ahead of him that he began following her—only to discover that she was his ex-wife, now 40 lb lighter.

The problem with the book is that Hetherington has tried to serve two masters—to summarize her important research over the years and provide a popular guide for traversing divorce’s various stages. She has not laid out her previous work in the careful detail it deserves. Many parts beg for more description, which is missing not only from the text but also from the references, for the reader who wants more. By failing to elaborate the bases of her opinions, she does not promote a dialogue between author and reader.

As for the practical guide that Hetherington and Kelly try to set up, the results are so processed for popular consumption that the reader is often left with platitudes: "Take one day at a time," "Nurture the marital relationship," or, worse, "Competent loners have everything they need to make their life a happy and fulfilling one."

To her credit, Hetherington eschews easy answers to issues of divorce. She notes the difficulty in distinguishing what the specific effect divorce has had on the parents and children. She recognizes that biological and predivorce issues may be crucial in the outcome, and that the problems of adults and children from divorced families may not be much different from those of intact families.

The book introduces the general public to Hetherington’s major accomplishments, but the mental health professional will have to read her individual publications to grapple with the substance of her work.

Wallerstein JS, Lewis JM, Blakeslee S: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. New York, Hyperion, 2000


Wallerstein JS, Lewis JM, Blakeslee S: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. New York, Hyperion, 2000

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