After Divorce: Cooperating Instead of Clashing

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Experts say half of today's children will see their parents split. Even the courts seem to recognize the need for techniques such as co-parenting. States such as Utah, Connecticut, and Virginia require parents to attend divorce education classes or seminars before they can legally split.

Focus on the children

Peggy O'Keefe, a seventh-grade teacher in Olympia, Wash., wasn't required to share custody of her son, Aaron, when she and her husband, Ron Barker, divorced 17 years ago. But shared custody seemed like the best thing for Aaron. "Neither one of us wanted to be anything less than a full parent," Ms. O'Keefe says.

So the couple tried to "soften some of the edges," keep their arguments to themselves, and focus on a shared-custody, co-parenting arrangement that provided Aaron two separate but loving households.

"That's not to say it's been without drama," O'Keefe says. "But I think the reason it really worked for us was because Aaron was the priority."

That's not to say co-parenting is a stencil that will work for all divorced couples.

Donna Weigers DePasquale, Northport, N.Y., had idealistic notions of shared parenting, and in a 1995 letter to The New York Times described how she and her husband bought homes five minutes apart to help their son, Trevor, spend plenty of time with the two halves of his family.

But a lot can change in two years.

Ms. DePasquale has remarried and had a second child. DePasquale now feels Trevor needs more structure and considers her home, her husband, and Trevor's little stepbrother his "real" family.

"We've become more of a traditional divorced couple. We really tried to keep it up, but things change," DePasquale said. "I really believed what I wrote at the time, but I'm not sure its sustainable."

Don't expect too much

Those who are co-parenting their children should not be too idealistic, warns Stephanie Coontz, professor of family history at Evergreen College in Washington State and author of the recent book "The Way We Really Are: Coming to terms with America's Changing Families."

"Co-parenting works best when you don't expect too much of it. This is not your best friend, this is a business partner," Ms. Coontz says.

Of course, it can certainly work if the couple is civil and friendly. "But it works just fine if they just aim to be good parents and don't become too enmeshed with each other."

It wasn't until she started college two years ago that Cindy Lindstrom realized just how different her life had been. For her, co-parenting meant essentially living out of a suitcase, schlepping it between mom's house and dad's. At first, she and her sister spent two days with mom, two with dad. Later, it was a week here, a week there. But it was always a 50-50 split. And that was just fine with Ms. Lindstrom.

"It just seemed natural to me. I've always had two houses," says Lindstrom, who worked as a lifeguard on Cape Cod for the summer before starting her junior year at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va.

The way she remembers it, her parents cooperated instead of clashed, unlike many of her friends' divorced parents. Lindstrom says she wouldn't want to raise her kids the same way. But it was as good as a divorce could get: She didn't lose either parent, nor did she suffer through a contentious marriage.

"It wasn't always easy," she says. "But I think my parents tried to keep their issues to themselves and focused on my sister and me."

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