Raising Happiness

In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents

The “Good” Divorce

Divorce damages 20% of kids and here is how to help them.

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.)

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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.

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Christine Carter draws on psychology, sociology, and neuroscience to help families, schools, and communities produce happy children.

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