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Mavis Hetherington

E. Mavis Hetherington

Hetherington's groundbreaking work shows how families cope with divorce

By Ida Lee Wootten

The psychology department's national prominence can be traced, in large measure, to E. Mavis Hetherington's love of rhododendrons. While living in Wisconsin with her husband John, Hetherington told him that she wanted their next faculty jobs to be "a rhododendron move," to a climate mild enough to grow one of the avid gardener's favorites.

"I don't think it's any accident that developmental psychologists are often interested in gardening. The two things are very similar. You plant a seed. You nurture it, and you watch it grow and develop into a mature plant. Itıs like studying a child."

E. Mavis Hetherington
James J. Page Professor Emeritus of Psychology


After making their "rhododendron move" to Charlottesville so that he could become a professor in U.Va.'s Law School in 1970, she joined the University's psychology department. While a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Mavis Hetherington had become well-known for her pioneering studies on gender and single-parent households. Her interests in family and child research helped spur the U.Va. department's growth and stature in clinical, community and developmental psychology. Especially while chair from 1980 to 1984, Hetherington pushed department faculty to publish and secure grants for research.

When Hetherington retired as the James M. Page Professor of Psychology last year after 29 years at U.Va., the department, although relatively small with only 36 faculty, was listed number 16 in the "U.S. News and World Report" ranking, with developmental psychology ranked fourth and clinical psychology ranked 12th.

To recognize Hetherington's legacy, the psychology department and the Center for Children, Families and the Law are sponsoring a conference honoring her on March 27. (See box below.) Her colleagues, friends and former students from across the United States will attend the event in Alumni Hall. The department is also establishing the E. Mavis Hetherington Graduate Fellowship to support students studying family issues.

"Mavis set in motion a rise in quality of the psychology department that began the moment she walked into Gilmer Hall," said Richard McCarty, a U.Va. psychology professor and former chair, currently on leave while serving as the Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association. "She served as a magnet to attract other distinguished developmental psychologists over the years, and the entire department was pulled up by its boot straps in an attempt to equal the eminence of the developmental psychology area she built."

Living through divorce

Top findings of E. Mavis Hetherington's longitudinal studies tracking a total of 1,400 families include:

Seventy-five percent of children do well after living through divorce.

About 25 percent of children experience major problems or emotional difficulties. This compares to 10 percent of children in non-divorced families who experience major behavioral or academic problems. Those experiencing difficulties often exhibit anti-social behavior, trouble in school and problems in social relationships.

Even though they often face economic hardship, many women are enhanced after divorce. They develop competencies they probably would not have if they had stayed in conflictual, unhappy marriages. Two years after divorce, women are less depressed than those who remain in conflictual, unhappy marriages. Some women look like "super women" -- they achieve success at work while being good mothers and active in church, philanthropic and community activities.

Men, on the other hand, are usually not enhanced by living alone after divorce. Men do better in terms of economic, social and psychological well-being in a marriage, even in an unhappy marriage, than when they are single.


"This, to some extent, explains the rapid and high rate of remarriage in men," Hetherington said.

Boys are rarely enhanced by divorce. However, some girls, like their mothers, become exceptionally confident and competent after divorce.

Fathers are more likely to maintain contact with their sons than their daughters after divorce.

Women, by more than a two-to-one ratio compared to men, initiate divorce. About one quarter of men report that they were surprised when their wives wanted a divorce; they were not aware that their marriage was in serious trouble.

When a divorced mother fights with her son, her negative mood lasts far longer than when she fights with a daughter. Mothers find raising a son alone more stressful than raising a daughter alone.

When women have casual sex after divorce, depression and declines in self-esteem often occur. One-night stands sometimes trigger suicide attempts in divorced women.

In contrast, men immediately after divorce enjoy the ³sexual smorgasbord" arrangement. However, by about a year after divorce, men get tired of casual relationships and want a more committed, intimate relationship.

Through four longitudinal studies, Hetherington followed more than 1,400 families. The longest was a 20-year Virginia study of divorce that began in 1972. It involved 450 families in which children were followed from when they were four, the age at which their parents divorced, until they were 24. In all the studies, researchers made comparisons among non-divorced, divorced and step families. What distinguished the studies is that researchers did not just complete interviews or subject participants to tests. Instead, they went into people's homes to videotape their everyday experiences. Participants also recorded their moods and activities every half-hour in diaries.

From such detailed observations, Hetherington wrote more than 200 papers and authored or edited 13 books shedding light on relationships with spouses, non-custodial parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers and peers. (See "Living through divorce.")

The biggest surprise of Hetherington's research, in her opinion, is that most children, instead of being damaged by divorce, eventually are able to cope with their new situations. About 75 percent of children in divorced homes do well. "That's not to underplay that most children are distressed when their parents go through a divorce. Even at age 24, the grown-up children of divorce still describe divorce as the most traumatic experience of their lives. But they aren't permanently damaged; they are resilient."

"Mavis has been the preeminent psychologist working on family interactions," said Eleanor Maccoby, a Stanford University psychology professor who will speak at the conference. "She has provided the data and the details on how children change over the years. She's had the courage to take on the whole family and compare all the relationships within the family. In the old days, we thought of parenting as a top-down phenomenon. Mavis's work has made us aware that interactions between parents and children represent a two-way street."

Such work has brought considerable recognition, from both professional and lay audiences. Hetherington served as editor of the highly respected Child Development journal and was president of numerous professional organizations. She has been recognized with distinguished scientist awards from nine national associations, including the American Psychological Society. She has been featured on National Public Radio and numerous network and cable television shows and quoted in hundreds of articles. Hetherington's excellence in teaching was recognized in 1987 when she became the first woman to receive the University's highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award.

If you ask the sprightly redhead what has given her the most satisfaction in her career, Hetherington's eyes twinkle and she answers emphatically, "Working with graduate students and undergraduates on research. It's wonderful to see bright young people become scientists or clinicians as their interest in the family and excitement about family dynamics grows.

"I don't think it's any accident that developmental psychologists are often interested in gardening," Hetherington reflects with a grin. "The two things are very similar. You plant a seed. You nurture it, and you watch it grow and develop into a mature plant. It's like studying a child."

Because of her flair for speaking, Hetherington made about 40 professional presentations annually -- always without notes. In over 30 years of teaching, she never used notes in her courses. Instead, perhaps relying on her early training as an actress in repertoire theatre, Hetherington enthralled students by engaging them in dialogue -- even in her large "Introduction to Psychology" and child development courses that had 350 students. "One reason I don't use notes is I think it's very important to have eye contact. People in my audiences and classes say they feel as if I'm talking directly to them. I want it to feel like a personal conversation," said the diminutive professor, who stands barely five feet tall.

While an undergrad at Wisconsin, Thomas Oltmanns was so fascinated by Hetherington's lectures that he decided to become a psychologist. Now a psychology professor at U.Va., he remembers clearly his impressions of her -- as she taught in Wisconsin and when he met her for the first time at U.Va. "The 'Introduction to Psychology' class was very large -- easily 500 students. Each day at the beginning of class, Mavis would stride down the center aisle and climb the stairs to the stage where she lectured. Her presence commanded everyone's attention, from the moment she entered at the back of the room. In 1986 when I was offered a position in U.Va.'s psychology department, I saw a woman with brilliant, lively eyes who said to me, 'Welcome to the department. I'm Mavis Hetherington.' My first instinct was, ŒNo, you're not!' With her towering intellectual strength, I had thought she must be six feet tall."

"Mavis Hetherington is the scientist-teacher model," said Robert Emery, a U.Va. psychology professor and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law, who is one of the principal organizers of the conference.

Now 73, Hetherington continues working with graduate students as they analyze and write about new findings from the longitudinal studies. She continues to share those findings by accepting speaking engagements and is writing a new book, which describes different styles of coping with divorce and remarriage and the resiliency of children following their parents' marital transitions. Tentatively called Intimate Pathways After Divorce, it is intended for a lay audience and addresses the diverse paths people take through life. On March 27 conference organizers will recognize with gratitude the path that brought Hetherington and her love for rhododendrons to U.Va.

Psychology conference to honor Mavis Hetherington

To acknowledge E. Mavis Hetherington's groundbreaking work on divorce and remarriage and to recognize her legacy in developmental psychology, U.Va.ıs psychology department and the Center for Children, Families and the Law will hold a symposium in her honor on March 27. The event, which will bring together Hetheringtonıs colleagues, friends and former students from across the nation, will be held from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Alumni Hall.

An all-star cast of family psychologists will deliver talks reflecting how the seeds planted by Hetherington's pioneering work have blossomed into new areas of study. Each speaker will also offer personal observations about Hetherington.

³Mavis Hetherington has been a prominent leader in the department, the University and developmental psychology," said Robert E. Emery, psychology professor and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law. "The symposium is a tribute to her professional stature, charismatic personal presence and gifted speaking abilities."

March 27 Alumni Hall

9 a.m. Gerald Patterson, founder of the Oregon Social Learning Center "When It Works, It's Time to Fix It" Patterson is well-known for his studies on how coercive family processes contribute to child behavior problems. The Oregon Social Learning Center is a non-profit, independent research site dedicated to finding ways to help children and parents cope with everyday problems.

10:45 a.m. Eleanor E. Maccoby, professor of developmental psychology, Stanford University "Perspectives on Gender Development" Maccoby is well-known for her work on parent-child interactions, gender differences in development, and family structures.

1 p.m. Ross D. Parke, Presidential Chair and director of the Center for Family Studies, University of Waterloo ³Ahead of the Curve: the Social Development of E. Mavis Hetherington² Parkeıs work focuses on the development of social behavior in young children.

2:45 p.m. Philip Cowan, director of the Institute of Human Development, University of California-Berkeley Carolyn Pape Cowan, adjunct professor in psychology at UC-Berkeley "The Role of Parents' Marriage in Their Childrenıs Adaptation: Implications for Intervention" The Cowans are involved in two longitudinal studies of the family. One is studying partners who become parents for the first time, tracking the families from late pregnancy until the children complete the first year of elementary school. The second study is following 100 families from their first childıs pre-kindergarten year through the end of first grade.

4:15 p.m. John M. Gottman, psychology professor, University of Washington "Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce" Gottman, who specializes in childrenıs emotional development, children's friendships and family interaction, will discuss the results from his 14-year longitudinal study that is providing clues about when couples choose to end the marriage. He will also describe his theory explaining early and later divorcing.

Although the symposium is open to the public, those interested in attending should reserve a space by contacting deKoven Fernandez, administrator director of U.Va.'s Center for Children, Families and the Law, at 924-4029 or


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