The New Face of Divorce: A kindler, gentler approach (if possible)

Every other Friday evening, Sherrie*, a New York City mom, leaves work with a small suitcase. Inside are her clothes and toiletries for a weekend away. But her destination is not a country inn or a beach house, but rather the apartment in the city she used to share with her husband, Mike*, and their two children.

Sherrie and Mike made a decision when they divorced six months ago. After seeing children in numerous families shunted back and forth on weekends between mom’s place and dad’s place, they decided to be the ones who would experience the weekend upheaval. When they separated, they jointly bought a studio apartment nearby. Now, come Friday evening, Sherrie — or Mike, depending on the weekend rotation — moves back into the family apartment, freeing up the studio for the other parent. The kids stay put year-round.

When Ossining resident Robert* split from his wife, Melanie*, and moved into his own apartment last summer, Melanie was invited to his housewarming party. The two also still attend family birthday parties on both sides and participate in a regular potluck get-together with two other couples.

Angela and Chris*, who have a daughter, were divorced less than a year when Chris began dating Jackie*. A few months later, Chris and Jackie were married, and were expecting a child. Now, Angela can be seen at the same gatherings Chris and Jackie are attending; Angela will even take the new baby to give Jackie a break. “How could I not? The baby is my daughter’s half- brother,” Angela says.

When Billy Joel, 55, married his just-out-of-college third wife last month, first wife Christie Brinkley was in attendance, and daughter, Alexa, was a bridesmaid.

These situations are typical of a trend toward “a gentler divorce”, one where arrangements can truly be made “in the best interests of the children”. The latest research reveals that if parents are able to cooperate and not engage in battle through their children, many children turn out just fine.

“Divorce is much more common today and that can make it less traumatic for those going through it,” says Melanie. “You have examples of people who have friendly relationships with their ex-spouses and who are handling things gracefully. This gives you role models for how to do it yourself.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 147 million Americans are currently divorced or separated, with over half of all divorces affecting children. Statisticians estimate that approximately 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce, a rate that has barely budged over the past 25 years. But while the number of divorces has remained steady, the way families handle divorce, parenting and legal issues today has seen major positive changes.

“When we first told friends that we were separating,” shares Melanie, “most responded with cautionary tales and horror stories because they’d had bad experiences. But my husband and I did not hate each other and had not hurt each other, so we both made a commitment to go through the process of separating with as much kindness, consideration and generosity as we could. We knew that in the end, that would make it much easier on our kids.”

Parents working together Study after study has concluded that children are the parties most negatively affected by the parents’ decision to divorce. Everything from pregnancy to school dropout rates to drug use has been associated with the fallout of divorce, prompting both fear and motivation in parents today. To help remedy the potential psychological and emotional effects of divorce on kids, more divorced parents have remained parent partners even after their marital partnership is dissolved, consulting together concerning the needs of the children and their own needs as co-parents. Co-parenting, short for cooperative parenting, has become the catchphrase of the parenting movement over the past decade.

In her book, Parents Are Forever: A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming Successful Coparents after Divorce, author Shirley A. Thomas says: “There are many different reasons people leave one another… But all separating spouses strive for the same outcome. Men and women leave each other simply in the hopes of a better life.” Regardless of the reason for divorce, Thomas says, every aspect of family life changes, including the way a family handles parenting issues.

Working together to take care of the children can minimize the negative effects on a family. “My parents were committed to raising my brother and me with a joint custody agreement. They lived only a couple of miles apart so caretaking was very fluid,” explains Abigail Garner, whose parents divorced when she was 5. “My father had a key to my mother’s house and he was the one who checked in on us after school while my mother was still at work. I did not realize how fortunate I was in my family until I grew up and heard sad stories from peers who felt like they were expected to choose loyalties between their mom and dad.”

Though her daughter was only 3 years old when Brooklyn resident Jane Smith* and her husband decided to separate, their child’s well-being was the main consideration. “For our daughter’s sake, I didn’t want the divorce to be messy,” says Smith, who explains that she and her husband had to become legally separated for one year before she could file for divorce without suing. “I am a product of a divorced family and it was horrible. I know that feeling of being put in the middle and having parents bad-mouth the other parent. So I make a concerted effort to keep my daughter from going through that.”

“Divorce needs to be redefined as a family transition rather than a family tragedy. This healthy alternative is possible if both the mother and father act like grown-ups and make their children the first priority,” says Garner, whose parents split after her father came out as gay. While researching her book, Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell it Like It Is, Garner found that divorce was often a relief for children who no longer had to uphold the image of being a happy family. “It allows both parents to be open about who they are and as a result, the parents are more emotionally accessible to their kids. This flies in the face of the general public that thinks divorce is a tragedy under any circumstances,” says Garner.

Society provides resources, acceptance Society, however, seems to be less judgmental and more accommodating when it comes to divorce than in years past. No longer is divorce the “hush-hush” topic that it was decades ago. Kids talk openly about it on the playground, neighborhoods are full of single parents and blended families, and television programming for kids often includes characters from non-traditional families. The general openness and dialogue on the subject is therapeutic to families.

“It is so different from what I experienced,” says Jane Smith, whose parents divorced 25 years ago. “There are definitely more support groups and more books available.” Smith adds that her daughter is looking forward to joining Banana Splits, a school-based peer support program for kids of divorced families. “It is important for her to know that she is not alone and that other kids are going through this.”

Type the word “divorce” into a search engine at and you’ll get over 60,000 matches in books alone. Hundreds of self-help publications, guidebooks and articles have been written on the subject. At hospitals, community centers and schools, support groups have formed to provide help for single, separated and divorced parents and families. Access to support, information and advice may not make splitting up a family less painful, but can soften the blow and provide stability during uncertain times.

Technology advances communication Technology has made a major impact on the way families are managing themselves during and after a divorce.

Online resources for emotional support and legal advice are abundant and easy to access 24 hours a day. Websites like Kids Turn ( offers support, art and games especially for kids from divorced families. Parents, too, can find a plethora of advice, can chat with other divorced parents, and can exchange ideas and resources through websites like (

Meeting legal requirements has also been simplified through online technology. Some parenting classes mandated by the courts for visitation purposes are now available online at websites like Positive Parenting through Divorce ( Online services, like (, allow you to complete your divorce documents at home, print them out on your home printer, and potentially save on legal costs.

The Internet has made it easier to manage family schedules, handle custody issues and arrange child payments through web-based services., an online membership-based service, assists divorced couples with managing parental responsibilities, custody schedules, payment of child support and communication. “Divorced families face unique parenting situations and legal responsibilities,” says Maria Isbell, who along with husband David Carolan founded

With five children between them, they were inspired by their own harried experience to create a safe place where divorced families could communicate. “For many, divorce means poor communication and hostility,” says Isbell. “It can be frustrating to keep track of everything. That’s why we designed a service to help parents communicate in a neutral, organized manner and work together to put the focus back on their kids.”

Swapping kids between two households and managing the schedules of two parents is one thing, but often it gets even more complicated than that. U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that one out of every three Americans is a stepparent or stepchild living in a blended family. “When we first were married three-and-a-half years ago, we had one child who lived with us full-time, one who was with us every other week, two that we saw first, third and fifth weekends and alternate holidays, and one in college,” explains Isbell. “One parent could get upset about something going on and cause havoc in not only their household, but our household, my ex-spouse’s household, several grandparents’… it’s a domino effect.” The KidsnCommon software can be set up so that all households involved can work together.

Virtual visitation is a technological change that is affecting divorced families on another level. In cases where the custodial parent wants to move out of regular visitation range of the other parent, some judges have permitted an online “virtual visit” as a substitute for visitation. While this may allow families some flexibility in emergency situations, there is controversy over whether this may be detrimental to the parent/child relationship.

“As a dad, I want to be highly involved with my kids’ lives, and even more so now that I see them less and they are getting older,” says Carolan, who feels that virtual visitation should not be seen as a substitute for face-to-face communication, and worries about the impact these judgments may have on relations between parent and child.

Dads make a difference Since the 1960s, fathers spend almost twice as much time daily with their children. Part of this increase is directly related to the numbers of women working outside the home, causing many men to step up in areas of childcare. Because of this shift in responsibilities, many fathers not only are more prepared to share parenting duties after a divorce than they were a decade ago, they feel even more strongly about getting equal time.

“Dads are much more involved,” says Bill Kirchoff of Long Island, president of Big Apple Dads, a support resource for divorced dads he founded in 1994. “We started out with four of us sitting around looking at each other, and we have since serviced close to 5,000 dads.”

While Kirchoff sees dads working to be more involved in the lives of their children, he explains that fathers are at a disadvantage in several areas, one being custody. “There’s a double standard. It’s assumed that a mother can care for a child, but a man has to prove it. In New York, if you have a child under the age of three, a lot of men are required to go to a parenting class before they can have the child overnight,” says Kirchoff, who adds that the mother is almost always awarded custody.

Divorced fathers often face the same obstacles that divorced mothers face, but don’t receive the support and services available to mothers. Child support is often the father’s responsibility, even if the father has full custody. “Equity is not there for fathers. Mothers are not always required to pay child support to fathers — even if the father has custody of the children,” says Kirchoff, who explains that child support is often based on earning potential, not always actual earnings, which puts fathers in precarious situations financially.

Dad activist groups have pulled some attention-grabbing superhero stunts recently, drawing attention to the cause of fathers’ rights. However, the legal system has been slow to move on behalf of dads. “Change for men’s groups has been very slow,” says Kirchoff, adding that finding literal “man power” to lobby for political change is a challenge. “Men don’t take off work to go see senators. They may send them a letter or call them, but they don’t seem to have the time to show up in their offices.”

“Fatherhood groups are getting more organized,” says Carolan, who believes that the fathers’ rights movement will eventually make a difference. “The courts haven’t been very sympathetic, but it is starting to turn around in their favor.”

Collaboration eases the legal process There is some good news on the legal front. A new movement called “collaborative divorce” is becoming increasing more popular among families who want to minimize the strain of divorce proceedings on the family. Collaborative divorce is a private system for decision-making where a couple — and attorneys for both parties — commits to finding a private agreement between them that is in the best interests of the family. Though both parties have access to legal counsel throughout the process, there are generally no court appearances. All participants agree to exchange complete information regarding financial details, and professionals make use of outside experts like financial advisers, psychologists and child specialists, to advise the family when obstacles arise.

This collaborative effort benefits families on many levels. Not only does it cost less and take less time, collaborative divorce can eliminate the stress, fear and anxiety that court appearances often produce, allowing families to focus on the settlement instead of the court date. This method also allows parties to have more control in working out the details of an agreement, instead of leaving the judgment in the hands of the court.

“This is a very positive thing,” says Carolan, adding that this new movement recognizes the negative impact on children when parents are fighting each other during the negotiation process. “If you have to get divorced, it is so important for both parents to be able to sit down and determine together how they are going to be the best parents they can be for their children.”

For cooperative couples, using mediation, a process in which they work with a trained mediator to draw up terms of the separation, is also becoming more common. Compared to litigation, mediation is less costly, non-combative, and a more pro-family way to determine all aspects of the separation: custody, visitation, real estate, finances, child support, insurance, etc. The mediation agreement is then sent to a lawyer who draws up the legal separation agreement. At this point, husbands and wives are counseled to have their own lawyers review the legal separation before they sign it.

Melanie and Robert knew that they were satisfied with the agreement they had worked out and decided not to seek individual legal counsel, however. “We knew that hiring lawyers, even at this point, would make us feel more antagonistic towards each other and we decided that preserving the good feeling we had was more important in the long run than a few dollars here and there.”

"Regardless of the feelings the parents have for each other, kids need both parents," says Opal Palmer Adisa, a divorced mother of three. She advises parents to find a method that works for them. "Co-parenting doesn't mean that challenges don't come up," she notes, but adds that ultimately, "the parents' willingness is what makes it work."

Catherine Held, who has been divorced four years, notes that the co-parenting arrangement she and her ex-husband have "lets the kids know we're involved and committed."

"We work in somewhat of a businesslike manner," she explains. The couple meets regularly to go over expenses, scheduling issues and other matters related to their two children. They also have a joint checking account; both Held and her ex-husband contribute the same amount each month. "You have to trust each other enough for it to work," she says.

Financial hardship hits hard “Financially, families are suffering much more during divorce. Today, many households have two incomes, are acquiring more things, and have more debt than ever before,” explains Carolan, who adds that after a divorce, families often have two residences they are paying for on top of other debt and living expenses that will just increase as the children get older. “Divorced families are often on a collision course financially.”

Isbell explains that setting up two households these days, using the same income base, compromises both parties financially. “Often you have two complete sets of clothes, furniture for two bedrooms… there are almost double expenses associated with taking care of these children,” she says, noting that this can add strain to an already stressful situation.

Tips for making it work

Cooperation seems to be the recurring theme toward managing a divorce. “Early recognition of the necessity of parental cooperation helps parents keep perspective and remain mature, despite temptation to do otherwise,” says Micki McWade, a clinical social worker specializing in divorce. “The most significant factor in determining the long-term well-being of children is the post-divorce relationship of their parents.”

McWade, who works in Westchester and Putnam Counties and is the author of Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting On: A Twelve Step Guide to Divorce Recovery, suggests that parents take advantage of the new resources available to them during a family split, and makes the following recommendations for parents who want to work together post-divorce:

• Go to your library or local bookstore; most have a divorce section. There are many good books on the subject. Helping Your Kids Through Divorce the Sandcastles Way by Gary Neumann is a good example.

• Talk to friends and relatives who seem to do well with parenting and divorce. Ask them what tips they can share. Sometimes they’ll tell you what not to do.

• Consult professionals like child psychiatrists, child psychologists and social workers. Divorcing people are more likely to attend therapy sessions for support and guidance, and there is less stigma attached to that than there used to be.

• Many states are requiring parents to attend a class which defines the particular parenting issues that most often arise during divorce. The class offers suggestions and strategies to avoid unnecessary damage to the family during this difficult time.

More online resources:

• Online divorce source guide, including financial calculators, news on cases of interest, archived articles and chat rooms.

• A list of law offices that practice collaborative law across the country

• Guides to creating a complete online divorce package, including court filing forms, financial disclosing forms, and a spreadsheet outlining division of assets and debts.

* Names have been changed.

RENEE CHO, ALISON HOGAN and LISA LEWIS contributed to this article.

The next ‘step’: ‘bonus’ Perhaps no book better illustrates how blended families can co-exist than Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation (Chicago Review Press, $14.95). The book is written by Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharlyn Jupe; what makes their partnership unique is that Blackstone-Ford is married to Jupe’s ex-husband. The authors believe, “Good behavior after divorce, something we now call good ex-etiquette, is more than just positive interaction between divorced or separated parents — it’s also gracefully integrating new partners into the mix.”

They are the founders of the Bonus Families organization (; to overcome the negative connotations of the term ‘stepparent’, they coined the term ‘bonus parent’. They write: “A bonus is something positive, a reward for a job well done. Using the word bonus instead of step is simply an acknowledgement of the hard work it takes to be a good stepparent, or a good stepanything, for that matter.”

The book gives the basics of defining and practicing good behavior, acknowledging the difficulty when one parent has had an affair or has otherwise betrayed the ex-partner (violence and other abusive relationships are not addressed). The book looks at ways to blend families and improve relations for everyone’s benefit.

— J.A.

Daily communication

Following his own divorce in 2001, Joseph A. Ekman, founder of the About The Kids Foundation, realized he needed a tool to help him share information with his ex-wife about their children. After extensive research with other divorced and separated parents, he developed the Ekman Co-Parenting Journal as a way to facilitate detailed, objective communication.

The journal consists of triplicate forms for recording observations made during the child's time with each parent. In addition to making notes about the child's behavior, parents can also use the forms to record a variety of issues. If the child has homework, for example, the parent can write this down and note whether it's been completed. Upcoming events such as birthday parties or school holidays can be noted as well. And in the case of a child who's under the weather, the parent can record the child's symptoms and note the times and dosages of any medication that's been given.

The journal also has space for parents to write down medical and insurance information, important contacts and court information related to the divorce. The forms are designed so that each parent gets one copy, with the third copy remaining in the journal for reference. "The journal is a helpful, neutral way to communicate," Ekman says. "The parents get real-time information — they know what's going on in their child's life."

— Lisa Lewis

When Kids Are Grown:

What they have to say about divorce

By Renee Cho

For parents who are contemplating divorce, We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce (Harper Collins, $24.95), the recent and hopeful book by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., provides new evidence that divorce does not have to be as devastating to children and families as the media make it out to be. Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce (1994), professor emerita of the Department of Sociology and former director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Training Program at the University of Southern California, finds that though divorce is never easy, most adult children of divorce emerge stronger and wiser, and feel that their parents’ divorce had positive outcomes, both for their parents and for themselves.

Many of the dire predictions about divorce’s effects on children come from Judith Wallerstein’s 25-year study which concluded that children have long-term problems in life as a result of their parents’ divorce. However, Wallerstein’s skewed sample of 60 families was comprised of divorced parents who were offered counseling in return for participating in her study. Consequently, two-thirds of the participants came to the study with psychological problems such as depression, sexual impulse control, or anger management. Considering how troubled the majority of them were, it is likely that many of their children’s struggles had a variety of causes, divorce being only one of them.

Constance Ahrons’ study of 100 randomly chosen families undergoing divorce began in 1979 and her examination of how their parenting relationships and arrangements affected their children became of the basis of The Good Divorce. In We’re Still Family, Ahrons returned to the children of those families who are now adults and interviewed 90 percent of them. She found that over three-fourths of the adult children of divorce did not wish their parents had stayed together, felt that their parents’ decision to divorce had been a good one, believe that their parents are better off today, and feel that they themselves are better off today or have not been affected. Ahrons writes: “What was perfectly clear from speaking at length with these adults is that many decisions parents make when they rearrange the family can either make it better or worse for the children….One of the most consistent comments was that how the parents relate to each other, both during the marriage and long after, makes the biggest difference of all.”

Through stories of individuals, We’re Still Family examines misconceptions that hinder good divorces; arrangements that work well and those that don’t; remarriage and stepfamilies; the effect of the relationship between ex-spouses on life passages such as graduation, weddings, and the birth of grandchildren; and many other aspects of divorce. Most illuminating and useful, however, is the advice these 173 adult children of divorce offer based on their own experiences:

To children going through divorce: · Try to understand what your parents are going through. · Realize it’s not your fault. · Avoid blaming, taking sides or allowing yourself to be placed in the middle. · Don’t use the divorce as an excuse for your own behavior or problems. · Develop your own identity and get involved in outside interests. · Find someone to talk with, such as a peer, a supportive adult, or your parents. · Realize that it’s not the end of the world and that it gets better and easier with time. Keep an open mind.

To parents going through divorce: · Don’t put your children in the middle, and keep your differences private. · Do whatever it takes to parent well together and don’t bad mouth each other. · Put your children first. · Stay involved in your children’s lives. · Talk to your kids, explain why you’re divorcing, and make sure they know that you love them. · Reassure them that it’s not their fault. · Try to live near one another. · Get the plans straight so that kids know what to expect. · Do try to stay together as best as you can, but if you can’t, don’t stay together for the sake of the children. They can feel the tension and it might be even more detrimental than divorce in the long run. · Get over it and move on! Life is short.