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The myth of the ‘good divorce’

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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”

These were the words reportedly said by A-list couple Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin prior to their decision to separate or, in their own words, “consciously uncouple and coparent”.

I imagine that this kind of mutually cooperative arrangement is what the family law organisation Resolution has in mind for their “Good Divorce Week”.

Their code of practice, the vast majority of which is plain common sense, quite rightly talks about putting the “best interests of any children first”.

A ‘good divorce’ – an idea that has been kicking around for the last twenty years or more – means one where the parents can work out a plan to manage the parenting of their children and behave properly in front of them. If the parents can get along fine and cooperate together as coparents, this should mitigate most or all of the well-known negative effects of divorce on their children. Everything will work out fine.

Who could disagree?

The only problem with this idea is that it’s 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 at the end of 2011 by top sociologist Paul Amato and colleagues – one of whom, Spencer James, has since done several reports with me at Marriage Foundation.

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.

Hollywood rockstar A-list couples may not have too many problems in that area. But the rest of us will. Half of all lone parents live on benefits in the lowest income group.

In any case, 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. A low conflict relationship that ends in divorce makes no sense to a child. They don’t see it coming. It comes out of the blue.

The cooperative coparenting of a ‘good divorce’ simply reinforces this confusion. If the parents can get on so well now, thinks the child, why on earth are they divorcing?

The consequence is that they may take on into adulthood the belief either that relationships are inherently unstable and can go pop for no reason or that they contributed in some way to the break-up. Either belief can sabotage their own future prospect of a happy stable marriage.

It may be nicer for lawyers and parents to sort things out amicably in order to present a soothing and civilised image. Cooperative coparenting may even be helpful to the parents. But it’s what the divorce means to a child that really matters.

A more recent 2014 study of 270 couples by Jonathon Beckmeyer of Indian University and colleagues found that cooperative parents rated their children’s behaviour and social skills no better than uncooperative parents rated theirs, despite the higher expectations.

So don’t assume for one second that what seems good for the parents means putting the “best interests of the children first”.

Children are quite likely to see things very differently. If family lawyers can make this point clear, then that’s all for the good. But there’s no such thing as a ‘good divorce’.