The Good Divorce?

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It’s always been interesting to me to notice how counseling issues (themes) seem to come in waves. For example, the last few weeks have brought the often concurrent issues of relationship betrayal and dissolution to the fore. These are issues, unfortunately, never far from the sound-proofing of a therapist’s office. That said, I’ve been reminded what a helpful resource The Good Divorce (1994) by Constance Ahrons, PhD has been. Dr. Ahrons is professor emerita in the department of sociology at the University of Southern California, and called upon frequently as an expert by members of the media.

Dr. Ahrons quickly qualifies the rather oxymoronic title in the Introduction of her book:

“Is divorce good? The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Divorce is what it is: a fact of our society….Its purpose is to act as a safety valve for bad marriages. In fact, most people say that this function is the only thing that is good about divorce. For most, it is better to go through that temporary, excruciating pain than to continue to live with the permanent, excruciating pain of a bad marriage.

But if divorce isn’t good, is there such a thing as a good divorce? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Not only do such divorces exist, but about half of divorced couples today actually manage to end up with one. In these good divorces, couples part without destroying the lives of those they love. Their children continue to have two parents. The divorced parents continue to have good relationships with their children. The families of these good divorces continue to be just that – families.”

These assertions are based on Ahrons’ groundbreaking research—The Binuclear Family Study—in which she and her associates over the course of six years studied the relationship between ex-spouses three times: one, three, and five years after divorce. Ahrons coined the concept “binuclear family” to mean “any family that spans two households. Nuclear families have one nucleus, one shared household; binuclear families split into two nuclei, two households, each headed by one parent. The family continues to be a unit even though it shifts from a nuclear structure to a binuclear one.”

Five types of divorced couples were identified in the study, ranging from caring and supportive friends (one extreme) to hostile and bitter foes (the other extreme). The five types are as follows:

1. Perfect Pals – a small, but significant group in the study who remained very good friends after the divorce.

2. Cooperative Colleagues – About one-third of the total sample consisted of ex-spouses who handled their post-divorce fall out in productive ways; being able to separate their parental responsibilities from their spousal discontents.

At this point in the study, relationships between ex-spouses head south. Groups three and four divided almost equally; a distinction being “not so much the amount of their anger, but rather how they expressed it.”

3. Angry Associates – whose anger regarding marital differences infused all family relationships. These couples expressed anger at each other every time they communicated (which was only to make plans for their children), which would metastasize into related and nonrelated issues.

4. Fiery Foes – “the real prototypical examples of bad divorces.” Ahrons writes: “Fiery Foes were unable to remember the good times in their marriage. They clung to the wrongs done to each other, and even exaggerated these wrongs for effect or in order to keep building their case. Like couples in a conflict-habituated marriage, the Fiery Foes were still very much attached to each other, although they were quick to deny it. They simply could not let go.” (I’ll have more to say about this negative attachment shortly). Needless to say, fiery foes are the couples who make headlines.

5. Dissolved Duos – Although not present in Ahrons’ study, these ex-spouses completely discontinue contact with each other, where one parent disappears from the children’s lives. Although rare (even the worst parent usually maintains some contact), I hear stories of such duos all too often in therapy.

Chapter 3 discusses each of the five typologies more in depth. I especially recommend the reading of chapter four—“The Emotional Process of Divorce; Letting Go While Holding On”— which begins to discuss Ahrons’ five “transitions of divorce”: the decision, the announcement, the separation, the formal divorce, and the aftermath.

The negative attachment that often continues to plague ex-spouses and their future relationships is both diagnostically and prescriptively obvious in therapy. I observe this phenomenon a lot in working with couples. Ahrons writes:

“Why are the typologies important? Because the style of interaction and communication a couple develops postdivorce affects all their future intimate relationships. Interestingly, not only does the type of postdivorce relationship a couple develops affect the entire functioning of their family, but it also carries over into their remarriages. One of the most significant findings was that amicable exspouses, when they found new partners, were happier in their remarriages than were hostile or unfriendly exspouses.”

Sobering words. But, there’s more. In a section called “Acrimony Takes Its Toll”, Ahrons continues:

“There is no way to talk about divorce without talking about anger. It’s a universal reaction and it’s inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you should feel free to express your anger without restraint. Anger takes a terrible toll….When we focus on our rage, we stifle our ability to get on with life. In the Binuclear Family Study it was clear that those who stayed angry—Angry Associates and Fiery Foes—stayed mired in the past instead of moving on to the present….In a real sense, they were actually more attached to their exspouses than were Cooperative Colleagues….Continued, unrelenting hostility and anger are a clear indication that the losses that are an inevitable part of any divorce haven’t been mourned. Rage wards off not only the fears of facing sadness but ultimately the sadness itself. What almost always lies beneath rage is grief. If the loss of one’s dreams was allowed to surface, was felt and accepted, the rage would dissipate and life would go on. For many people, maintaining the continuing anger acts as a defensive shield.”

In a later section of the book called “After the Anger May Come Depression”, Ahrons concludes: “(T)wo of the most common reactions to being left (are anger and depression. However) where anger is mobilizing, depression is paralyzing. Anger often masks depression, and when the angry feelings abate, the depression emerges.”

It’s no wonder many ex-spouses prefer mad to sad. “Mad” feels better. But, it comes at a price.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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