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The ‘good’ divorce

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | March 19, 2012

The title of this post is misleading: Divorce is difficult and painful for everyone involved, especially kids. I’ve never known anyone to have a “good” divorce, in that way you have a good meal or good sex — even when divorce was the right thing to do for everyone, including the kids.

Divorce is horrible. It is the hardest, most painful thing I’ve ever done. And I had a “good” divorce.

Still, divorce is often better for kids than a deeply flawed marriage, and some divorces are better than others. Divorce can be done well, in a mature way that puts the kids’ needs first. There is a lot of research examining what makes divorce more beneficial — or at least less damaging — for kids.

Here is the main take-away from all that research: Divorce is not permission to hate.

When there are kids involved, you don’t get to throw in the towel and walk away from your ex. You don’t get to stop trying to make the relationship work. Divorce is only a way to change a relationship. You go from married and living together to co-parenting as divorced people living in separate households.

(Also, and I know this is obvious, but: Hate is not a happiness habit. It will not make your life better or happier to indulge a hatred toward someone, no matter how evil they seem to you. It will not make your kids resilient in the face of your divorce. Your hatred will hurt them, and yourself.)

In a “good” divorce, both parents work together to solve this problem that they have—that they can’t get along, they can’t live together anymore, or whatever. When parents establish a functional working relationship that puts their kids front and center, kids tend to have fewer problems.

My former husband and I took this very literally during our mediation. We sat side-by-side and looked at all of our paperwork together; I always imagined that we were explaining to the kids what we were doing, presenting it as a united front. Together, we were solving a problem. Together, we were trying to work out the best future for our children.

Which isn’t to say that it was easy. We were constantly set up as adversaries competing for limited resources, especially when looking at court paperwork that said CARTER v. MCLANAHAN* across the top of it. But we knew from all the research that discord and conflict are the most damaging things for kids.

Sociologist Paul Amato has studied this for decades. He writes that “the great majority of studies find that co-operation and low conflict between parents predicts positive divorce adjustment” in children.

My ex and I took this to heart: We knew that we needed to be on the same team and keep conflict low.

This took a huge amount of forgiveness. We had to forgive each other for all the things we’d done to damage the marriage. And, especially, we had to forgive ourselves for not being able to make it work.

It also took a good deal of acceptance. In order to justify getting divorced, I found myself keeping a running list of all the things that were wrong with my husband and our marriage. Constantly ruminating on his flaws and our broken marriage made it hard for me to feel anything other than pissed off at him, and deeply distraught about the situation.

But when I accepted the situation as though it was more of a natural disaster than something I could stop from happening—because at that point, I couldn’t stop it from happening—I could stop ruminating and feeling awful long enough to get through the day. This acceptance went something like this in my head: I am what I am, and right now I am getting divorced. The best I can do right now is to be present in this situation, and deal with it as it comes.

The research points to a handful of other things that make divorce less damaging for kids.

– Consistent contact with both parents is important, unless you just can’t keep conflict low. Sadly, the benefits of having a relationship with both parents doesn’t always outweigh the disadvantages of having parents who hate each other.

– Money matters: Many problems kids have after divorce, particularly academic ones, stem from economic hardship. Single parents are less likely to be able to pay for music lessons, high quality childcare, tutors, a safe neighborhood with good schools—you name it.

– “Good” divorces minimize the number of major transitions that kids need to make, because transitions usually bring stress. Generally speaking, the fewer household moves, the better. Remarriage can solve some problems, like those associated with economic strain, but it can bring more stressful transitions. It helps to be mindful of these stressors, and to look for ways to minimize their effects.

– Finally, when parents take care of themselves during a divorce, kids do better. “Stress impairs the quality of a parent’s childrearing skills,” Amato writes. For that reason, the “well-being of children is positively associated with the post-divorce psychological adjustment of the custodial parent.” In other words, how well you are doing tends to predict how well your children are doing.

So lean on your friends. Get therapy, or get a massage. Get enough sleep and exercise. Much of this blog is about how and why our happiness as parents matters, and that is certainly the case here, too.

In the end, I find that again and again it all comes back to conflict: If we can’t keep conflict low in a marriage, often the best thing for the kids is to end the marriage. In so doing, we may very well create more conflict. But when we take the long view and the high road, the best thing for the kids—and our own happiness—is to end the war with peace, compassion, and forgiveness.

*Not his real name.
Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (tag line: Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents).

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Comments to “The ‘good’ divorce

  1. Articles/posts like this are important for divorce attorneys to read. Sometimes, I wish I could print out these articles to share with my clients. Other times, or most times, I realize it is equally — or even more important — for me, as the divorce lawyer, to remember these things.

    Sometimes attorneys will automate the divorce process, but it is important to remember that these “cases” are our clients’ lives; and by remembering the personalized nature of the divorce process, we can be more sympathetic to our clients, and their specific needs. I often try to encompass these positions myself through my website.

  2. According to me, when it comes to divorce, actually I don’t agree on that. But when both parties are not happy anymore and they don’t love each other, then divorce is the only answer. But when kids are involved, you have to think twice before doing anything.

  3. I think forgiveness is such a strong word. For me, personally, it’s hard for me to forgive and forget.

    When it comes to divorce, actually I don’t agree on that. But when both parties are not happy anymore and they don’t love each other, then divorce is the only answer. But when kids are involved you have to think twice before doing anything. I have friends who are separated/divorced that are now friends or should i say best of friends because of their kids.

  4. This is a very thoughtful post. Excellent. Unfortunately for me, divorce was high conflict. I think the thing is, divorce is ever changing just like any relationship. So one month it might be low conflict while 6 months later it becomes high conflict. I guess seeing divorce as a state of ‘being’ rather than a ‘thing’ can make a difference in managing it, including the conflict.

  5. How can a person really forgive? If the other person was unfaithful, took the house, deny me food and shelter after my car accident that was not even my fault, and told me he needed someone in perfect sport shape so that his friends will keep on respecting him, and took his lover on a trip with my insurance money. After I had even our lost our child.

  6. I filed for divorce two years ago after 34 years of marriage. My children are now 23 and 29. My children were extremely upset. My ex and I remained cordial (though our fundamental differences remain). I am now on good terms with her and both our children. I talk with them freely, and see them whenever they are available to meet. My 29 year old daughter is doing well. My son however is withdrawn and isolated since he graduated from college. I am worried about him. I soon hope to buy a new home with room for him to come and live with me. I hope that will help.

  7. Thank you for this. This is what I have been trying to explain to to everyone from my Mother who said “Change the locks” to my friends who kept asking “why does she stay at your house 2 days a week when she comes into town to visits the kids? She should get a motel or something”. This is the best thing for the kids. My 8 yr old son likes to have his Mom put him to bed, even if it is only 2 nights a week. We have a guest room. It works. Why make it all about “revenge” when we can all just get along.

    • To Mike B. I’m impressed! Good for you for being so open and valuing your ex as the mother of your children!

  8. In my view, being able to forgive and get on the same side is part of staying married. If people were able to “work through their divorce together together”, they should rather work through their marriage together…just my view…

    Good points on steps to protect the kids though. Thanks

    • You’re conflating two things that are not the same. A post-divorce relationship is not the same as a marriage, and it eliminates many of the factors that would have led to the divorce in the first place. For example any sexual compatibility issues should not be an issue post-divorce (one would hope). For most people, it’s easier to be “friends” or acquaintances or co-parents than spouses, and forgiveness is easier with time and distance than with constant contact and pain. That’s not to say that spouses should give up at the first sign of trouble, but that’s beside my point.

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