Breaking up ...Without breaking kids' hearts

If you must get a divorce, you might as well make it a good one. That's the message from Robert E. Emery, whose new book, The Truth About Children and Divorce, is getting national attention.

Divorce books crowd bookstore shelves. What makes this one worthy of mention on NBC's Today Show website?

"I'm not just somebody who holes up in the ivory tower," says Emery, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at UVA, who also has a private divorce mediation practice.

Furthermore, he's been divorced himself. In his book, he often cites his daughter Maggie, 22, a recent UVA graduate, as an example of a child who went through divorce and came out okay.

"I can look back and pinpoint times where they could have done things better," says Maggie Emery of her parents, "but I never doubted that both of them loved me. Some of my friends whose parents divorced didn't have that."

More than 40 percent of American marriages end in divorce, says Bob Emery, but not all divorces are created equal. His book describes three styles: cooperative, distant, and angry.

Emery can generalize thanks to research projects he has conducted with Charlottesville's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. He joined the UVA faculty in 1981 and two years later began an experiment to assess the value of mediation over litigation.

"Nobody in Charlottesville had heard about divorce mediation then," says Emery. With the cooperation of Judge Ralph Zehler, Emery tossed a coin each time a divorce case appeared on the docket. Heads, the case went through litigation; tails, mediation. "I followed those families over the course of 12 years," he says. "What my research has shown is that five hours of mediation can make a huge different in parent-child relationships, especially father-child relationships."

Charlottesville resident Charlotte Barber, divorced now eight years, recalls that she and her husband met regularly with Emery during the most intense three months of their divorce. "I was hoping to settle out of court," she says, "but that didn't happen. It was horrible. But it did diffuse some of the anger, and I think I scrutinized myself more." As to Emery's assertion that mediation can help kids, Barber agrees. "It was kind of a taboo subject, divorce," she says, and mediation opened up lines of communication, especially between her three sons and their father.

In this, as in hundreds of other heated divorces, Robert Emery has placed himself in the line of fire, right between angry husbands and wives as they duke it out. Why does he do it? He offers an altruistic answer. "I get in the middle of a very uncomfortable situation in hopes of getting the children out."

Robert E. Emery