Just Whom Is This Divorce 'Good' For?

By Elizabeth Marquardt
Sunday, November 6, 2005

It happens to about 1 million American children every year. Their parents sit them down and deliver the news that they're divorcing. But not to worry, they say, they're parting amicably and assuming joint custody. The scene might go something like this:

"We're splitting up the week, alternating days," announces the dad.

"How are you splitting up seven days?" demands the son, reeling and confused.

"I've got Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, and every other Thursday," says Dad reassuringly. "That was your father's idea," notes Mom proudly.

"Well," the son asks anxiously, "what about the cat?" A pause. "We didn't discuss the cat," says Mom with some consternation.

This scene, as it happens, is from a new movie, "The Squid and the Whale" -- 36-year-old director Noah Baumbach's wry take on his own parents' divorce when he was a teen. But for those of us in the first generation to grow up in an era of widespread divorce, it perfectly captures the emotional havoc wrought on children when their parents convince themselves that if they can work out the details of divorce -- who goes where on what days -- without rancor, they can reduce the pain for the children and pursue their own happiness without a lot of guilt.

Before the divorce rate began its inexorable rise in the late 1960s, the common wisdom had been that, where children are concerned, divorce itself is a problem. But as it became widespread -- peaking at almost one in two first marriages in the mid-1980s -- popular thinking morphed into a new, adult-friendly idea: It's not the act of divorcing that's the problem, but simply the way that parents handle it. Experts began to assure parents that if only they conducted a "good" divorce -- if they both stayed involved with their children and minimized conflict -- the kids would be fine.

It was a soothing tonic, and it was swallowed eagerly by many angst-ridden parents. But it was also, it turns out, a myth. No matter how happy a face we put on it, the children of divorce are now saying, we've been kidding ourselves. An amicable divorce is better than a bitter one, but there is no such thing as a "good" divorce.

That's a tough sell, I know. Today, praises of the good divorce abound. Countless newspaper articles, television reports and books quote therapists and academics arguing on its behalf. A holiday article last year in Newsweek, titled "Happy Divorce," featured divorced families who put their conflicts aside to spend Christmas together. Researchers, it said, "have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself."

Many parents have bought it. In 2002, The Washington Post Magazine featured a cover story about Eli and Debbie, a handsome, smiling, divorced couple with three preteen daughters. Although their marriage was, according to Debbie, "all in all, an incredibly functional" one, they divorced when she became troubled by their "lack of connection." Three years later, Eli continues to come to Debbie's house every morning to get the girls ready for school and reassure them "that even though Mommy and Daddy aren't married, we're still your parents, we're still there for you, and we still love you." He and Debbie are confident that their "good" divorce will keep their daughters from suffering unnecessarily.

But they're most likely wrong.

Many people incorrectly assume that most marriages end only when parents are at each other's throats. But the reasons can often be far less urgent, like boredom or the midlife blahs. Research shows that two-thirds of divorces now end low-conflict marriages, where there is no abuse, violence or serious fighting. After those marriages end, the children suddenly struggle with a range of symptoms -- anxiety, depression, problems in school -- that they did not previously have. The waxing and waning cycles of adult unhappiness that characterize many marriages are often not all that obvious to children. For the children of low-conflict marriages, divorce is a massive blow that comes out of nowhere.

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