Couples who divorce, so the stereotype goes, hardly speak to each other once they are legally untangled. Or, if they're parents and must talk about the children, their communication is punctuated by door slamming, snarling and telephone hang-ups.

It's time to correct this image, says Constance Ahrons, a Los Angeles social scientist. When she studied 98 pairs of divorced parents over a five-year period, she found half are on friendly enough terms to describe them as "perfect pals" or "cooperative colleagues."

"There are some people who divorce successfully," believes Ahrons, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. She chronicles her findings in Divorced Families (W.W. Norton), a book coauthored with Vancouver prof. Roy H. Rodgers.

Other experts in the field support Ahrons' findings. "I think a lot of people get divorced and don't hate each other," says Dr. Edward W. Beal, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School.

"Right now, there's a lot of societal pressure to get along with your ex," adds Richard H. Mikesell, a Washington psychologist who often counsels divorcing families. "It's in vogue."

"I think most people can learn to have a better divorce," contends Ahrons, who also is associate director of the USC marriage and family therapy program.

During her study, Ahrons interviewed the participants three times: shortly after their 1979 divorce and again three years and five years post-divorce. Fifty-four families had a maternal custody arrangement; 28 had a joint custody arrangement and 16 had either a paternal custody arrangement or an arrangement in which some children lived with the father and some with the mother.

Ex-spouses were interviewed separately, by different interviewers, to reduce the chance of bias. But Ahrons acknowledges the study, begun while she was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, still has built-in biases because participants all are residents of Dane County, Wis., and most are middle-class whites.

Even so, she considers her research an important first step and thinks her findings are of interest to mental health professionals and divorcing parents alike.

While she found about 50 percent of the parents fell into the categories of "perfect pals" or "cooperative colleagues," she also found that the other half were "angry associates" or "fiery foes."

(For ex-spouses wondering how to classify themselves, Ahrons suggests they decide how they would participate in the college graduation of their child. "Perfect pals" would plan the event together, eat together and maybe even buy a gift together. "Cooperative colleagues" would probably watch the ceremony together, but wouldn't spend as much time together as "perfect pals." "Angry associates" would probably sit apart from each other at the ceremony and visit with their offspring independently; "fiery foes" would not interact at the ceremony, and one ex-spouse even might not be invited.)

Ahrons' breakdown of post-divorce relationship styles probably reflects the population as a whole, says Irene Vogel, a Washington and Bethesda clinical psychologist specializing in interpersonal relationship therapy. She has observed the same relationship styles in her clients as Ahrons has, but she points out that they are not always clear-cut. "The alliances are fragile and not static," says Vogel.

Ahrons found the same during her five-year study. "Some 'perfect pals' became 'angry associates,' " says Ahrons, who has experienced divorce herself. Why? "Some 'perfect pals' had fantasies of reconciliation," she believes, and became angry when their fantasies didn't come true.

"Some 'perfect pals' became 'cooperative colleagues' if they remarried," she continues.

"All of the 'perfect pals' were joint custody parents and if they stayed 'perfect pals' at five years, they had not remarried." Ahrons isn't sure exactly why, but ventures an opinion: "They have very much put their kids at the center of their lives {and may not be looking for new mates}."

Some 'fiery foes' became 'cooperative colleagues' over time, perhaps as their anger over the divorce diminished. "Some people get less angry with time," Ahrons finds. "Others don't. They became what some people call hostility junkies."

The way an ex-spouse behaves and relates after a divorce depends a great deal on what is going on in his or her own life at the time, Ahrons found. An ex-spouse may start out quite angry, she notes. "{But} maybe at three years post-divorce he's in love {with a new partner} and his anger {at his ex-spouse} is not the same."

If a divorced person remarries, the new partner can help fuel the anger toward the former spouse or can douse it, says Ahrons.

It's unrealistic to expect ex-spouses not to have anger, especially in the beginning stages of divorce, Ahrons emphasizes. But eventually, she believes, divorced parents should "learn different ways to cope" and to "compartmentalize" their anger, not letting it affect child-rearing decisions.

Which post-divorce relationship style is best? While some divorced parents might assume they should strive to be "perfect pals," Ahrons disagrees. Based on her study, she now believes that the "cooperative colleagues" relationship is ideal.

" 'Perfect pals' are a very small group," she notes, adding that the relationship style is unrealistic for most ex-spouses. Only 12 percent of the study participants were categorized this way at one year post-divorce, and fewer fit the description over time, she says.

Based on the study and clinical observations, Ahrons says she can sometimes predict how parents will relate after a divorce. Those who deal with misunderstandings in other relationships by severing the friendships, for example, are likely to become "fiery foes" if they divorce, she believes.

If it's a one-sided divorce, or if the divorce decision is hasty, ex-partners are more apt to become either "fiery foes" or "angry associates," she says.

More divorced parents might learn to become "cooperative colleagues," Ahrons suggests, if divorce is viewed by mental health professionals and others as a process, not simply a crisis.

Some of her colleagues agree and already do so in their clinical practices. "It certainly is a crisis," says Beal, but "dealing with divorce on only a crisis model is shortsighted."

"In essence, a divorce is the death of a relationship," says Vogel. Most, but not all, divorcing spouses experience grief, anger, disbelief and denial, Vogel says. Sometimes, there is bargaining. ("I will change if only you will do this or that ... ") Acceptance often is the final stage, says Vogel, but "people can get stuck at any of these stages." By treating divorce as a process, mental health professionals might better help divorcing spouses through these phases, say Vogel, Ahrons and others.

Beal also sees divorce as the extreme in a coping continuum that touches all families. "Emotional cutoffs (such as arguments) play some part in the regulation of anxiety in every family," Beal believes. With divorce, of course, the cutoff is extreme -- and usually permanent.

Adjusting to that cutoff takes time, experts say. "The problem with most people who get divorced is, they see it as one way to handle the problem and think the problem is over," Beal finds.

To ease the process of divorce for everyone involved, Ahrons suggests such measures as including a grandparent or other significant persons in therapy.

That sort of approach is becoming more common, according to psychologist Mikesell, who sees "a movement to family therapy" during divorce, in which all family members participate individually in counseling sessions.

It's not enough to think about divorce differently, Ahrons says. We also must learn to talk about it differently. The language of divorce needs an overhaul, she says. Instead of describing a divorced family as "broken," she much prefers "binuclear," a term she says she coined about six years ago to describe divorced, two-household families. The term binuclear "says nothing about quality, but about structure," she says.

The term "stepparents" doesn't win praise from Ahrons either. "I prefer remarriage family." In lieu of "stepmother," a child might substitute "my other mother," Ahrons says. Or, older kids could say, "This is my dad's wife."

"Our language is lacking in this area because we haven't really accepted {the idea} that divorce is a normal transition for many American and European families," Ahrons says.

"We have to accept divorce as part of society," Beal says, "but I don't think people get married expecting to get divorced. I don't think we should promote it {divorce}."

Ahrons agrees and emphasizes that she is not promoting divorce. "What I'm trying to do is reduce the stress that divorced families are experiencing."

Kathleen Doheny is a California writer.