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The Good Divorce

The Good Divorce

By SUSAN GREGORY THOMAS Published: October 28, 2011 The New York Times

I NEVER wanted to get divorced. My parents’ split had been like an antipersonnel bomb, ripping everyone to pieces. So for 16 years, I stayed married.

But the relationship curdled over time, and, ultimately, it rotted into nothing. The contrast of these two endings always reminds me of that pithy old Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice,” in which passion leads to detonation and dispassion to gelidity. In both cases, it’s over and terrible.

Frankly, hearing the word-sandwich of “good” and “divorce” — which I do with some frequency — makes me queasy. Bluntly, there is precious little upside to divorce. It is a horror, its effects on everyone are real and enduring, and in a parenting culture that sees skinned knees as spiritual gifts, it can seem as if we’re giving our children the big door prize of relentless psycho-economic distress. It is hard to feel as if one is a good, divorced parent. But one can try.

Weirdly, and mercifully, ending our marriage was not utterly devastating. My former husband and I were, and are, never going to have one of those California divorces, where the exes all sit around the Hockney-style pool drinking Chablis. Not our style. But we have concentrated not on our rancor but on our children. Like most divorced people our age we know.

“It could be that, because this group is marrying later in life, if at all — and mostly staying together — if they do get divorced, they do it very differently,” said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business who tracks marriage and divorce trends.

“Differently” may not sound like a radical move, but in the annals of American divorce, it actually is. First of all, “this group” (by and large, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980) according to Dr. Stevenson’s research and census data, does a full recon to avoid divorce in advance, to the extent that nearly 60 percent of us now live with their future spouses before marrying. Almost 80 percent of us over all have made it a decade into marriage, a good indicator of marital longevity.

So it makes sense that if we do divorce, we do our due diligence there, too. Consider that just 30 years ago, only three states upheld joint custody; today, all do. Also consider that divorce mediation and collaborative divorce are on the rise, a result of parents’ wanting to spare children the horrors of the Kramer v. Kramer bloodbaths of their own childhoods. Survey the increasing legions of exes who continue to share homes, holidays, vacations to preserve a sense of family for the children.

Part of doing my due diligence includes keeping an eye on the newswire. I always read every study I can find on the impact of divorce in children, and they are all deeply upsetting. On a hopeful note, however, many conclude that if the parents maintain open, friendly relations, children do — in time — develop in as well-adjusted a way as anyone. Which gives me some feeling of faith, even as I am terrified that it is not true.

Then I read a report that squashed all that: Children of divorce score worse in math and social skills, and suffer from lower self-esteem than those from non-divorce households, period. Published in the June issue of American Sociological Review, the author, Hyun Sik Kim — a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — formulated this devastating conclusion: “After the divorce, students return to the same growth rate as their counterparts … But they remain behind their peers from intact families.”

It got worse. Mr. Kim attributed the setbacks to factors like fighting and potentially depressed parents, dividing time between parents, and financial hardship.

The blood dropped from my brain straight into my heart: My kids endured all those risk factors. There was no question that I became depressed and freaked out; the recessed and post-divorce money situation was rough. My girls’ father and I have joint custody, so they spend a week with him and a week with me; in other words, they shift households regularly. Again: all the risk factors.  As if on cue, our older child had had a very difficult third-grade year, two years ago, in which she was at the vortex of a mean-girl tornado. She’d always had an entrenched sense of justice, but when she perceived that a classmate had deeply violated her code, the propulsion of her hate-mongering was breathtaking. Her father and I were dumbfounded: “Heathers” — really?

Then, our younger one had reading and math problems. We couldn’t understand: She was so bright, so eager to learn, had such an allusive imagination. What was the problem?

We talked about it — again, a small but radical move. Indeed, our divorce, while heartbreaking, in many ways strengthened our core friendship. My parents’ fiery demise, like many of their peers,’ had meant that not only had they not talked about the problems my brother and I were having, but they “talked” only through their lawyers and eviscerated each other’s character in front of us.

I wonder sometimes: Do those marriages that suffered from a lack of heat while intact generally produce better divorced parents? “I think those of us who don’t feel any sense of jealousy or having been spurned have an easier time talking with each other about our children,” said a Brooklyn author and divorcing mother who asked that her name not be used. “We can rewrite the ‘divorce’ script.”

I tend to agree. It had unquestionably contributed to the ruin of our marriage that my former husband and I had been friends rather than devoted spouses, but in this case, there but for the grace of God went we. It was a no-brainer for my children’s dad and me to double up on strengthening the only risk factor that our children had not had to suffer: bickering, blaming ex-spouses.

We then hunkered down, talked candidly daily, and shared observations about each child’s behavior and what we could do in our respective households to maintain a unified system. We met with the school psychologist to puzzle through the subtext of the queen-bee situation; we got extra help in reading and math for our younger child.

To our older daughter, we asked her to consider the possibility that she was angry and confused about all the really hard changes in her life, and that she might well be scapegoating her classmate as a way of channeling those powerful feelings. To our younger one, we practiced reading at the same time everyday, at Mom’s and at Dad’s.

Gradually, the difficulties lifted. Our older daughter ultimately came around; without prompting, she apologized to her target in a thoughtful, responsible way, and was forgiven. We haven’t seen any repeat since.

Our younger child’s reading has blossomed; she even writes her own books now. Math is still hard. But we’re working on it. The teachers’ conferences and report cards have brought tears to our eyes: Everyone is working so hard.

My former husband and I were not good spouses. But we admire and trust each other. We do not do anything perfectly. We are stressed, we struggle financially, we’re not great at masking our feelings on certain days. We know there are more problems ahead, a lifetime of them. We do not bicker; we talk about the kids every day. We don’t know what else to do. We love these children. Like every other parent we know.

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