‘Conscious uncoupling’ won’t give you a ‘good divorce’

It all sounds rather sweet and innocent, doesn’t it?

“We love each other very much … we are and always will be a family … in many ways we are closer than we have ever been … we are parents first and foremost”

So it’s a bit of a shock to discover that this happy scene precedes the sad announcement that Gwyneth and Chris will separate or, in their own words, “consciously uncouple and co-parent”.

Now I have no idea what goes on in their lives and am not about to speculate about their marriage or what went wrong. It’s none of my business.

However what is my business is the illusion that they or anyone else can somehow paper over the family disaster that is divorce.

Their flowery announcement suggests that what matters now is that they continue to be loving and supportive parents. If the parents can get along and cooperate together as coparents, then things will work out fine. The kids needn’t be embroiled in the sadness of a marriage ended but can continue to be brought up by both parents in a caring nurturing family.

This is the ‘good divorce’, an idea that has been kicking around for the last twenty years or more.

The only problem with this widely held belief is that it’s just not supported by the evidence.

The Stanford Divorce Study in the late 1990s first illustrated how parents and children can have very different perspectives. Parental conflict had a knock-on effect on teenage well-being, according to teenage reports. But not according to parent reports.

The whole myth of the “good divorce” was finally shattered by top sociologist Paul Amato and colleagues at the end of 2011.

In a study involving just under 1,000 children and their parents, all of whom had been through divorce, Amato found that ‘cooperative coparenting’ benefited teenagers in two main ways: better behaviour at home and better relationships with the fathers.

However across ten other measures where the ‘good divorce’ should have worked its magic (as teenagers: self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance use, liking school or school grades – and later on as young adults: early sex, early cohabiting, number of sexual partners, substance abuse, closeness to mother) teenagers and young adults fared no better or worse than those brought up by just one parent.

It’s easy to understand how parents see better behaviour at home and a good relationship with dad and think all is well. That’s the parent perspective.

But what parents don’t see is how well their children feel about themselves and the world, and then how likely it is that they might engage in risky behaviour, with consequences for their future as an adult.

For most of us, the biggest consequence of divorce – and remember that half of all family breakdown now involves unmarried parents – will be lack of resources. Lone parents, however brilliantly they coparent, have only one pair of hands. That means less time and less money which, not surprisingly, can then influence parenting style.

I don’t suppose Gwyneth and Chris will have too many problems in that area.

But divorce is so much more than money and parenting. Divorce means loss, stress, change. Divorce is also viewed through the lens of what went before. It’s not the ‘high conflict’ divorce that damages children but the low conflict ones. They don’t see it coming.

It’s what the divorce means to a child that really matters.

There is no ‘good divorce’. And no amount of flowery language and cooperative coparenting will alter that.

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5 thoughts on “‘Conscious uncoupling’ won’t give you a ‘good divorce’

  1. Pingback: Big weddings make happy couples! |

  2. Pingback: Should you stay together for your children’s health? |

  3. Your suggest the issue has been ‘put to bed’ by one study involving 1000 children in one culture. That reveals your ideology driven – not research driven – agenda. You fail to focus on the unstable foundation of contemporary marriage – romance – a relatively recent development. Divorce is the changing romantic relationship – and a parenting relationship that is subordinate to it. That appears to be what you advocate. Perhaps a more helpful approach would focus on the parenting relationship and wellbeing of the children, rather than the ‘romance’ of the parents. Isn’t it the ‘change’ that children respond to? Is it really whether Mommy and Daddy are sleeping together – or whether they continue the cooperation the children are accustomed to around their needs?

  4. Hello Michael. Well that’s a first! I have been accused of many things. But being ‘ideologically driven’ because I cite an academically robust study by a widely-respected sociologist in a top peer-reviewed journal is not one of them. In case it helps on your latter point, other studies demonstrate how the parent-parent relationship might spill over into the parent-child relationship, but not vice versa. For example, Cowan and Cowan have showed how relationship interventions around the time of childbirth have an effect on both the parent-parent relationship and the parent-child relationship. In contrast, parenting courses, free from any particular attempt to improve the parent-parent relationship, generally only affect the parent-child relationship. As another example, also by Paul Amato, father involvement is significantly lower among separated unmarried fathers compared to divorced fathers – even controlling for all the normal background factors and also whether the fathers payed child support. This shows how the parent-parent relationship can have a knock-on effect on the parent-child relationship even after the parents have split up. Returning to the subject of this article, it shouldn’t be too big a stretch of the imagination to acknowledge that children might see the separation of their parents differently, which is precisely what the Stanford Divorce Study finds. With kind regards

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