CRYSTAL LAKE, ILL. -- When Cathy Hicks was drifting toward her third divorce last year, she kept telling herself it would be best for the kids.
"I've always thought that if parents can't bring a child up in a happy home, everyone is better off if there's a divorce," said Hicks, 40, who has a 19-year-old daughter by her first husband and 12-year-old son by her second.
Until recently, she wouldn't have gotten much argument from psychologists, sociologists, marriage counselors, family scholars. The United States always has been the most divorce-prone society in the world, and as rates started to soar in the mid-1960s, a good deal of elite opinion focused more on the expansion in freedom for adults than on the possible harm to children of broken marriages.
"I think we were all real naive for a while in thinking that divorce did not have a serious impact on kids," said Anna Beth Benningfield, president-elect of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), which has been debating whether counselors should bring a more anti-divorce bias to therapy. "But I'd say the bloom is off the rose."
The second look has been triggered by new studies that show that the harmful effects of divorce on children are longer-lasting than once had been thought. Children of divorce perform less well in school, have more behavioral and psychological problems and a greater tendency (once they become adults) to divorce than children raised by both biological parents.
To be sure, domestic violence and other problems of high-conflict marriages are damaging to children, and even experts intent on saving marriages acknowledge that divorce is sometimes the best alternative. "We want to be careful not to say that every child who has been through a divorce will be scarred for life . . . or that every child raised in a traditional two-parent family will turn out fine," said Nicholas Zill, executive director of Child Trends Inc., a Washington-based firm that does research on children's issues.
"But if you looked at the kind of long-term risk factors that divorce creates for kids and translated them to, say, heart disease, people would be startled," he said.
"For years experts said, 'Once the initial trauma wears off, kids make adjustments.' Well, so do people in prisons and mental institutions," said John Guidubaldi, a psychology professor at Kent State University and past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "The pertinent question is: Are those adjustments healthy? The weight of the evidence has become overwhelming on the side that they aren't."
Guidubaldi argues that laws and mores have gone too far in sanctioning no-fault, no-guilt divorce. "People simply aren't putting enough effort into saving their marriages," he said. "I think the old argument of staying together for the sake of the kids is still the best argument."
Such views are still controversial. But in the past few years, a rally-'round-marriage movement has begun to stir among psychologists who worry about the impact of divorce on children, legal scholars who argue that a children-first policy should be written into divorce law, and marriage counselors who have come to believe that divorce is a cure worse than the disease.
One sign of the times was the the title of the keynote address at the annual meeeting of the 17,000 member AAMFT last fall: "Divorce-Buster."
"I'm passionate about saving marriages," said Michele Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., family therapist who delivered the address. Her modus operandi, she explained, is to "concentrate on what works in a couple's marriage rather than on what doesn't."
When Cathy and Jerry Hicks came in to see her last fall, Weiner-Davis instructed them to draw up a list of the things they did together that made them happiest, then rearrange their daily routines so they did those things as often as possible. She told them to negotiate a specific number of hours each weekend that Jerry would do housework, which had been a source of friction.
And she suggested that if Cathy felt she needed to ask questions about past conflicts that had led to her to brink of divorce, such conversations should have a strict half-hour time limit.
"A lot of her homework exercises seemed sort of silly, but it turned out to be exactly what we needed," said Jerry, an executive with a telecommunications company. "I feel more committed to our marriage than I ever have," said Cathy.
Not all cases have such happy endings; nor is there any guarantee that there aren't rough patches ahead for the Hicks. But Weiner-Davis is convinced that counselors can -- and should -- make a difference in keeping marriages together.
This is causing conflict within the therapeutic community. Classical clinical training teaches counselors to be bias-free; to help clients do whatever seems most appropriate given their particular circumstances. "The trouble with therapists trying to impose their values on clients is that it's the clients who have to live with the consequences," noted Benningfield, the AAMFT president-elect.
"Divorce has become a scapegoat, the easy sacrificial institution on which to lay blame for many of society's problems," said Constance Ahrons, a California therapist who spoke at the AAMFT conference in response to Weiner-Davis. She said that divorce is "often a pathway to a happier life."
Weiner-Davis counters that there is no such thing as value-free counseling. "We declare our biases by the questions we choose to ask," she said. "For a therapist to be neutral when someone is about to jump off a building -- that's not neutrality," added Frank Pittman, a therapist from Atlanta and another staunch marriage-saver. "I have always felt that people who are in crisis make bad decisions. It is foolhardy to expect otherwise. It's our job to give them a reality check."
These "reality checks" may already be rippling through the culture. After doubling from 1965 to 1980, divorce rates have plateaued at a level about 10 percent below their peak of a decade ago. Some analysts attribute the decline to the fear of AIDS; others to the aging of much of the Baby-Boom generation out of their twenties -- the high-risk divorce years.
But some speculate that the research on the long-term consequences of divorce has led to social learning. "I've had family therapists all over the country tell me they have couples coming in for counseling with my book tucked under their arm and a look of concern on their faces," said Judith S. Wallerstein, whose best-selling 1989 book, "Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce," popularized the alarmist view of the impact of divorce on children.
Among other findings, the study by Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee of 60 middle-class divorced families in Marin County, Calif., showed that while boys are apt to experience the greatest trauma at the time of divorce and suffer most from the father-absence that typically follows divorce, girls are more prone to a "sleeper effect" that makes it difficult for them to establish stable male-female relationships once they become adults.
An ongoing decade-long study by Guidubaldi of 699 families in 38 states has shown that children of divorce are more likely than children in traditional intact families to engage in drug abuse, violent behavior, suicide and out-of-wedlock child bearing. A study by Zill for the National Institute of Mental Health showed that, once they become adolescents, children who were under age 7 when their parents were divorced were three times more likely to be receiving psychological counseling and five times more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school than children of intact families.
Critics of these studies note that when one compares children of divorce to children of conflict-ridden families, the results are murkier. Zill counters that only about 15 percent of marriages involve violence or high levels of conflict, but roughly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. "There is no question that persistent conflict in marriage is bad for children, but a lot of divorces don't fall in that category," he said.
Marriage counselors aren't the only professionals who are reappraising divorce. Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has proposed an overhaul of divorce laws to assure that, in the 60 percent of all divorces involving minor children, "a judge's main task would be to piece together, from property and income and in-kind personal care, the best possible package to meet the needs of children and their physical custodian."
No state has language like that in its divorce code. Studies show that following a divorce, children and their custodial parent -- typically their mother -- see their standard of living drop sharply, while non-custodial parents see theirs rise.
Others have called for a cooling-off period to be built into divorce proceedings when children are involved, and -- in the most draconian proposal of the burgeoning divorce-buster movement -- historian and author Christopher Lasch has called for a constitutional amendment that would forbid parents with minor children from divorcing.
Will the new activism on the anti-divorce front change people's behavior?
"I may be wildly and foolishly optimistic," said Zill, "but as more information gets out that we have yet to find a good substitute for the traditional two-parent family, I think a change is bound to occur."
"Divorce is here to stay," countered Ahrons, a marriage counselor who looks askance at the divorce-buster movement. "We ought to help people learn how to manage it, which is not an easy thing."