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After Divorce: Cooperating Instead of Clashing

By Neal ThompsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1997



BOSTON

When Beverly Burns and Steve Lindstrom divorced 15 years ago, the Phoenix couple's counselor suggested equal, shared custody of their two daughters, Cindy and Stephanie.

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Ms. Burns fumed at first. She was adamantly against it. She wanted the girls to herself.

Now, she and Mr. Lindstrom live in the same neighborhood. They get together regularly to draw up monthly schedules. They even sing karaoke at annual Thanksgiving dinners together, where Steve and his wife (from whom he recently divorced), Burns's boyfriend of eight years, and all the in-laws converge.

"It gets kind of crazy but it works out OK," Burns says.

More important, Burns is seeing the proof of the experiment as her kids become adults.

"People laugh at us and call us the divorce poster family. But they've turned out just fine," she said.

"Part of your kids' feeling good about themselves is wrapped up in feeling good about their parents. I see too many [divorced] people who, 10 years later, are still stuck. They're still mad, walking around with that hot ball of hate inside. And the kids are still caught in the middle."

Today, marriage counselors and family and divorce experts - and even some family courts - are touting the benefits of such an arrangement. At a time when half the country's marriages eventually end in divorce, some of those experts say it's important for couples to learn how to divorce with grace, and in a manner that does little damage to the children.

What co-parenting means

While there's no set formula, most co-parenting arrangements share common threads: equal time with the kids, equal partnership in decisionmaking, and equitable financial contributions. Co-parenting is also characterized by avoiding marital discord (at least in front of the kids). It is a joint-custody arrangement taken to its most mature level.

Constance Ahrons, a sociologist at the University of Southern California and author of "The Good Divorce," prefers the less emotional term "civilized divorce," or the more technical "limited partnership."

Either way, the key to an amicable divorce is effective communication, Ms. Ahrons says. Not frequent communication, necessarily - and even e-mail is fine, but an acceptance that interaction is inevitable.

"Now people are becoming more aware that they're parents for life," she says.

They're also realizing that when they split, they are divorced for life and destined to bump into one another at graduations, weddings, and even at the birth of their grandchildren.

"It doesn't end," Ahrons says. "There are all sorts of things that bring divorced people back together again, so it behooves us to learn how to do it well."

And if divorce is not done well, a recent study found, the children can suffer profoundly.

In June, psychologist Judith Wallerstein released the findings of a 25-year study of the impacts of divorce on 26 children whose parents split when they were between the ages of 2 and 6. Ms. Wallerstein found that those children - who are now between the ages of 27 and 32 - had less education and lower economic status than their parents, were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and less likely to marry.

Other experts have criticized that study for being too narrow. But even if there were scientific shortcomings, the study does hammer home the point: A bad divorce does not bode well for children.

And it bolsters the case for mitigating the potentially harmful effects of a bad divorce, which become more likely as the number of broken marriages soars.