What’s the recipe for a successful divorce? If you’ve tried everything, and it’s time to separate or get divorced – how do you do it well, so that you (and your soon-to-be-ex) emerge relatively unscathed? And if you have children, how do you ensure that they are also not traumatized by the process? In this week’s episode, our guest is Dr. Constance Ahrons, one of the world’s leading experts in how to navigate divorce well. Her book, The Good Divorce was a groundbreaking work that studied the effects of divorce on children – and identified exactly what kinds of post-divorce relationships had the best outcomes. In my conversation with Dr. Ahrons, you’ll learn exactly what to do, what not to do, and how to salvage a situation that’s already not going well.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Check out Constance Ahrons’s website
Read Constance Ahrons’s books, including The Good Divorce and We’re Still Family
FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide – it also still helps during separations…
Guide to Understanding Your Needs (and Your Partner’s Needs) in Relationship (ALSO FREE) – even this is helpful for understanding the needs of your co-parent
http://www.neilsattin.com/divorce Visit to download the transcript, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the transcript to this episode with Constance Ahrons.
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Neil Sattin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. Now as you know, we come down strongly in favor of relationships on this show, and in favor of helping you learn the skills required to have an amazing relationship, to turn your relationship around if things aren’t going so well, and especially if things are really not going well, how do you find a foothold and work your way back up to intimacy and togetherness. But, as we’ve also talked about on the show, that isn’t always possible. When it’s not possible, we stand also strongly in favor of finding ways to part from your partner in ways that are kind, in ways that are loving, in ways where you can support each other. We’ve had Katherine Woodward Thomas on the show to talk about conscious uncoupling, her process of using the pain of a break-up to help grow, and learn new skills and new development for yourself, things that you would bring to your next relationship.
Neil Sattin: Today, I want to dive into the nitty gritty of what’s required when you are ending a relationship. What kinds of things do you need to consider in order to have the best chance at being successful? In order to have this conversation, we have a very special guest, Dr. Constance Ahrons, who is the author of the book The Good Divorce, among other books. She was one of the first people to bring to popular awareness this idea that divorce doesn’t have to be a stigma. It doesn’t have to be all fire and brimstone and acrimony. It also doesn’t have to mean that now you’ve created a broken family with kids suffering in the aftermath. Now, both I and Dr. Ahrons share at least one thing in common. We’ve both been through a divorce. This is a topic that’s really personal for me as well, and her book has been really helpful for me, both in terms of my own situation – and when I went through Katherine Woodward Thomas’ conscious uncoupling coach training she uses The Good Divorce as one of the textbooks for the coaches going through that training.
Neil Sattin: It’s such an honor and a privilege to have Dr. Ahrons with us today. We will have a detailed transcript of today’s episode, which you can get if you visit NeilSattin.com/divorce, or if you text the word passion to the number 33444, and follow the instructions. I think that’s it, so Dr. Constance Ahrons, thank you so much for being with us here today on Relationship Alive.
Constance Ahrons: Thank you Neil, I appreciate you asking me.
Neil Sattin: Well, it’s such an important topic. It’s interesting to me, because your book, at least the edition that I was reading, came out in the mid-’90s, and at that time, you were talking about the importance of shifting the culture and our awareness of what’s possible in terms of divorce. You did this comprehensive study of what you called binuclear families, and we’ll get into that in a moment, and I think overall, though, the purpose was to get it out into the public sphere that divorce doesn’t have to be this horrible thing, even though it’s, in many ways, a set-up to be a really traumatizing experience.
Neil Sattin: What’s interesting is that many years later, in fact I think it was probably close to 20 years later, when I was going through my divorce, my experience with my family was that it was really hard to talk to them about the fact that I was going through a divorce. In fact, one of my cousins kind of jokingly said, “You might as well be telling them you have cancer.” That’s what it feels like in our family. So I’m curious if we could start off by just kind of talking about the context of how much has our notion of a good divorce being possible, how much have you seen that shift since your book came out, The Good Divorce, and what do you think still needs to happen to help that conversation continue, along with things like you being here on the Relationship Alive podcast?
Constance Ahrons: You know, Neil, that’s such an interesting question, because it seems to, I mean, I believe that it’s changed dramatically, but at the same time, I also find that some people still carry the stereotypic image that it’s going to devastate the whole family, children will always be destroyed in the process, and will have long-term damage. When I started to do this research, which was in 1989, that was the only stereotype that we had. That was the only literature that we had available to us, and it was quite a shift.
Constance Ahrons: My study was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, and it was even a shift for them to fund a study that was not looking for problems, that was looking instead for what does a divorce look like, for how it affects children, how it affects parents, what is the relationship between ex-spouses like, and trying to deal with the stereotype that we had that ex-spouses must, of course, be bitter enemies, and children, of course, must be damaged. There was no literature in the field to say anything that was positive about divorce. What I mean by positive is, I’m not saying divorce is good. I need to make that distinction which is very different from having a good divorce, and sometimes that distinction is sometimes hard to grasp, because divorce in and of itself, it just is. It’s not good, it’s not bad. You can make it good, you can make it bad.
Constance Ahrons: It is a fact of our culture, and it’s a fact of marriage. Still we have the same kind of percentages, with about 50% of marriages ending up in divorce. 50% of our population can’t be all that bad. What I did find, and what was most important about the study, and at the time was groundbreaking, so we have to remember that this goes back now almost 30 years that it was groundbreaking, and not if we were looking at it today as much, was the fact that not all divorces are destructive to the family, not all ex-spouses hate each other, not all divorces have to be full of fury and rage, that maybe there were different types of divorces. That’s what happened in the study.
Constance Ahrons: What had only been studied was the problems with divorce, and just going from A to B, divorce is necessarily bad, rather than there are lots of different outcomes from divorce, and let’s see what they look like. That’s what I have spent most of my career working on, has been looking at the ex-spouse relationship, the relationship between former spouses when they are parents. What does that relationship need to look like for the children to come through the divorce with the minimal amount of long term damage? There is always pain, but the minimal amount of damage to the children. There might be pain and crisis for a year or two, and in a good divorce, where parents can continue to parent effectively, then the children are going to come through it better after the crisis. There’ll be an initial, sometimes a year, sometimes only six months, and it depends on the age of the children of course, too, where there might be a great deal of upset, and then it starts to calm down, and parents begin to get into patterns with each other about how they continue to relate. But it takes a lot of work.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I love how your focus is on uncovering what truly is in the best interests of the children, because that’s something that it seems like it’s just a matter of opinion in a lot of cases. It’s hard to pin down what qualifies as the best interests of the children.
Constance Ahrons: Well, remember that it is a very rare case that children want their parents to divorce. We found that even when there was high conflict in the marriage, children still frequently did not want their parents to divorce. To find out exactly what it takes, and we had 98 pairs of former spouses in our study, and we interviewed them at one and three and five years post-divorce, interviewing both of the ex-spouses, what we found is that the relationship between parents, as we did by the way in marital studies, we found the same thing in divorce, that how ex-parents continued to relate to one another related to how the children came through the process. When ex-spouses could relate to each other in a way that I would call the good divorce, is when they could relate to each other in a way that was respectful, that they were mature enough to look at the difference between being parents and being spouses, and being able to switch gears and remember that they were indeed parents, and then co-parents as well, and that divorce and co-parenting could be for a lifetime.
Constance Ahrons: When we began to switch our thinking a little bit about this, we began to find that the strong relationship was how well the parents continued to relate. Of course, we used a number of different scales and different ways to look at the process and to understand what went on, and then importantly, we looked at change over five years, and then the children’s reactions 20 years later. Those findings were published in a book called We’re Still a Family, also by HarperCollins. What we found over time is that for the most part, the relationship between former spouses was perhaps the most important factor. There were other factors in terms of resilience of children, how much support they had outside of their parents, but when we looked at everything together, it was clear to me that parents could determine a lot about how their children were going to react to their divorce over time, not just initially, but what was it like five years later. Yeah.
Neil Sattin: What I’m noticing is that there’s some irony there, right? That the reason that you’re splitting up with someone, unless you just kind of lost interest, is maybe that you don’t really get along so well. I mean, obviously there’s a whole host of possible issues that bring two people apart, but it sounds like what you’re saying is, is if there are kids involved, now if there aren’t kids involved, you can just kind of go your separate ways. There may still be things to figure out about property divisions and things like that, but if there are kids involved, you’re still going to have to figure out how to get along, even if it was something that vexed you as a married couple.
Constance Ahrons: That’s very correct. Excuse me. But if you don’t figure out how to get along, then you’re going to really run into a lot of problems with your kids over the years. There is a difference between not getting along as spouses, but being able to get along as parents. I often see couples who come and tell me that, “We’re great as parents. We are really good parents, I respect her or his parenting. We do fine together as parents, but we just can’t live together. My anger with him or her is about being married to one another, being partners, being spouses. That’s where my anger is.” It takes some learning, and it also takes a lot of maturity, that for the sake of our children, we are not going to keep enacting the same marital communication that we had that brought us to the level of divorce, that we’re going to try to … In fact, parents often become better parents, and many talk about having better relationships once they are not living in the same household.
Neil Sattin: Now, if we could, let’s just quickly enumerate the different, I think you call them typologies, of post-divorce families. Just to give our listeners a chance, if you’re in a divorced situation, or a post-divorce situation, these are the possible couplings, or decouplings, that you may find yourself in. They each have their impact on the outcome in terms of what we are talking about, the best interests of the children, and probably also your own best interest, in terms of your own levels of stress and being able to function well in your life, in your non-married life, to that person, anyway.
Constance Ahrons: Well, what you’re referring to is that coming out of the research data, we did all sorts of fancy things with factor analysis and so on, and came up with some typologies. We came up with 5 typologies that were at one point given very academic names and then we changed the names with the help of my daughters to some much more acceptable names that everybody could understand and identify with. We came up with five types essentially but it’s really a continuum. It’s not as set differently as it sounds. They run the continuum from very very angry to friendly.
Constance Ahrons: Start at the friendly end. First group we called the friendly – I’ve forgotten the name of that.
Neil Sattin: The perfect pals.
Constance Ahrons: Perfect pals, that’s right. That was a small group that you would anticipate it would be. But it was couples that when they divorce, they’ve been friends in the marriage and then whatever went awry went awry and they got divorced but they still had a friendship that they continued. The next group, which is where the majority of the couples fell into, was call cooperative colleagues. This is a group of people that would not call themselves friends. If you think of a collegial relationship it may even be with somebody you don’t like who smokes in the next room to you or you don’t like their language or whatever but for the sake of the job you’re doing you cooperate. That’s the same intent. For the sake of parenting, for the sake of your children you learn to cooperate and you learn what things not to talk about, what things to talk about. We talk about things like what boundaries do we set up, what’s acceptable to discuss and what’s not acceptable. What’s gonna get us into a fight and what’s not. How can we say with talking about the kids and not talking about, well when you did this to me 20 years ago and so on.
Constance Ahrons: That was very important and those people we called cooperative colleagues who could stifle the anger. They weren’t best friends by any means but they learned to put their children’s interests before their own at that point and learn not to go back into old history. They learn to cooperate as parents and they were good co-parents over time. The next group we had were the angry associates. And the angry associates, you could push their buttons asking anything about their marriage and they were off and running. They had trouble separating out the difference between being ex-spouses and being co-parents after divorce and those boundaries were blurred for them.
Constance Ahrons: Then we had a group below that call the fiery foes. The fiery foes really could not stop fighting. Essentially, they could not have a conversation that didn’t end up in conflict and of course the children were often caught in that conflict. The sad part about it is in many of those situations and with the fiery foes that if the children, if it was a bad marriage or a high conflict marriage they were caught in a high conflict divorce.
Constance Ahrons: Then we have a group called the dissolved duos. In that group one parent drops out of the relationship with the children and frequently that parent is the dad. Each of those types or the continuum of types had an effect on children. Had an effect down the line of stressing the children out for many years following the divorce. Parent continued to play out the marital conflicts through their divorce for whatever reason. Sometimes it was maturity, sometimes it was just not knowing how to let go of anger. But for whatever reasons they could not move beyond the marriage and talk about their children’s best interests and how to deal with that most effectively, then the children of course would feel that over the years.
Constance Ahrons: And so I think it would help if I moved on to what the book We’re Still Family is about.
Neil Sattin: Great.
Constance Ahrons: 20 years after the divorce we went back and interviewed 163 children from the 98 families.
Neil Sattin: I was wondering about that. If you had done follow up.
Constance Ahrons: Yes. And that’s in We’re Still Family. We didn’t have enough funds we would’ve loved to interview the parents as well at 20 years post divorce, but we decide that it was most valuable to interview the children. That’s what we also were funded for. We found out from the kids, not surprisingly really, from the kids that when they look back the kids that did the best, the children who came through the divorce process in the healthiest way that they could, had parents that were more like cooperative colleagues. Who had learned over the years and because it was 20 years after the divorce these 163 adult children could then reflect on how things changed over the years as well and what they were most comfortable with. You would expect most people at that time had remarried by then. Almost everyone had remarried and some had re-divorced during those 20 years span.
Constance Ahrons: But the children were able to reflect back and say to us the same thing that we were finding with the parents. That when their parents found a way to get along, they didn’t have to be friendly, they might only see each other at family occasions. A child’s graduation, a wedding and so on, when they were able to not put children in the middle and function well as co-parents, the children did better. One thing the children hated the most is when their parents continued to fight. And that was the most destructive to children as you would expect. Different children in the same family had different responses. Which were depended on their age at the time, their personal resilience, what kind of support they had. Because children showed us very strongly that there were other factors that entered in that could help them in difficult times. That could be a coach in school, or it could be a grandparent or a close adult friend of their parent. Somebody who intervened at a time when their parents were not able to function very well. These children learned who they could depend on outside of their parent to help them through.
Constance Ahrons: Some of us are just born with more resilience than others and the age at which the children were when their parents divorced made a big difference and sometimes whether they had older siblings who were able to help them through the crisis. There were a number of factors but the one that just kep popping up over and over again was how the parents continued to relate even 20 years later. And sometimes they related poorly in the first 3-5 years but improved their relationship over the years and that had an impact as well. It’s never too late to have a good divorce.
Neil Sattin: Let’s start there because I have two questions that are closely related. But let’s start there with let’s say that you’re listening, you’re divorced and that probably true for a lot of my listeners because so many of us are. We go through that first marriage, we get divorced and we’re like okay I’m gonna do it right the next time. And so you’re tuning into Relationship Alive to hopefully get it right the next time. But let’s say you’re hearing these descriptions and if you’re like me you might be thinking wow sometimes we’re cooperative colleagues and other times we’re angry associates and I would love to be more strongly in the cooperative colleagues camp for the sake of my kids and the sake of my life.
Neil Sattin: What are some ways that you advocate for people to start moving the needle in that direction for that relationship with their ex-spouse?
Constance Ahrons: The first is what you mentioned, which is motivation. I really wanna do this I want to improve what’s going on with my ex and that if they knew that they could parent better that they would better, that their children would profit from that. The first thing is just an awareness of doing it. Second is to know what your hot buttons are. Know what happens when you talk with your ex on the phone, why does it all of a sudden end up in conflict. What happens? To understand what does happen and what particularly gets you set off and where the anger comes from. To be able to stay away from those areas. I’m not suggesting that we get over all of our anger at an ex-spouse from a 20 year marriage for example. But I am suggesting that I can find ways to at least not keep stepping into that same trap again of every time I say this he says that and off we go.
Constance Ahrons: If I’m working with couples and trying to establish a better relationship over time, I help them to see where they get into trouble. What happens, what kind of conversations do they get into that takes them on a bad road. Almost always it’s the same kind of conversation over and over again. It’s when they get into some of their own spousal history. When you start to talk about the kids can you stay on that plane of just talking about the children without going in to recriminations of when you always did that or you remember when you did this and so on. But rather trying to stay as much as possible in the present, focus on the children. If things get hot – calm things down. If you’re on the phone say “why don’t we talk later.” Sometimes couples only do well if they’re meeting in Starbucks for example. They really can’t meet alone. Never have these discussions in front of the children. It’s always better to have a separate time when you talk about this.
Constance Ahrons: For each of the spouses to identify within themselves when do I start to see red flags? When do I feel myself getting angry? When am I getting off the track? When are we talking about what to do for Jeanie’s birthday and all of a sudden we’re talking about 10 years ago when this happened or when that happened. Or you always did this in the marriage. And to also understand that your partner, your ex-spouse is always changing. Because one of the things we found is that dads often became better parents after divorce. Sometimes it was hard for their former spouses to accept that change.
Constance Ahrons: “Well you were never there when I needed you before, how come now all of a sudden you’re willing to do this for the kids or do that for the kids?” The other thing is to accept that we never change anybody else. To be able to accept that she was always late, she was never on time. Then he anticipates that she’s probably going to be late several times when you’re picking up or dropping off the kids. And allowing some space for that because it comes up so often. What I’ll say if I’m seeing one of the couple at the time, I’ll say to them did she do that in the marriage too? And the husband will say yeah. And did you try to change her? Oh for 20 years I tried to change her. And did it work? No it didn’t work. Well don’t think it’s gonna work now. If you couldn’t change somebody. Especially in the time of a loving relationship, you’re certainly not gonna change them in a time in an unloving relationship.
Neil Sattin: What have you seen work as far as, let’s say I’m the ex-partner who’s listening to this podcast and I’m thinking, okay I wanna take the initiative and help try to shift us toward being cooperative colleagues. Are there ways that you’ve seen in particular that work for introducing that conversation? Like hey I read this book called The Good Divorce. Something along those lines where you’re like let’s step back a minute and look at how we’re doing here and maybe there are ways we could do this better or where we’d feel less stressed out with each other? Is there something that you’ve seen really helpful for people who wanna make that shift towards the more positive interaction style?
Constance Ahrons: I think most helpful is when they have some good intervention. When they see a counselor together, which many people do after divorce. Because what you can accept from somebody else like how about you read this book, you may not accept from your spouse or from your former spouse. You may be resistant to anything that your former spouse presents you as being biased or whatever. Where sometimes a third party can help by presenting the same information that your ex would present but in a way that you can hear it better, that doesn’t feel critical. That makes a world of difference.
Constance Ahrons: I think in varying points in time it usually benefits most couples going through a divorce and afterwards to get some kind of help. Whether it’s counselors, mediators, those people that can give you a third party view of you that isn’t biased that can help you sort out what’s going on. Frequently that person will see each of you individually to get a handle on things to be able to coach you. We’re doing much more coaching today. It’s not therapy. It’s much more related to the current situation, not to go back into the history of the marriage, but to go forward with how are we gonna relate from here on no matter what went on in the marriage. How are we gonna be able to handle that? But very frequently it takes somebody outside the two of you.
Constance Ahrons: … it takes somebody outside the two of you to bring in that new information in a way that you can hear. So I strongly suggest then, especially in times of remarriage and at varying times in the post-divorce relationship between ex-spouses. There are times we can almost predict when there’s going to be a crisis that is looming. One of them is re-coupling, having a new partner, remarrying and all of the possibilities within there. The other partner has children of their own, changes in schedules are difficult, moving away. There are all sorts of situations that are going to produce a crisis. How you come through that crisis will predict a lot about how you’re going to manage the next five, eight, 10, 15 years.
Constance Ahrons: The thing to remember is that once you’re parents, you are a parent forever. If you want to be involved in your children’s lives, and if you know that you’re going to grandparent together, for example, you better start pretty early on trying to have a good relationship so that neither one of you loses out on times with the children. There are too many children I’ve heard recently who have said, “I’m not going to have a wedding because I can’t stand having to deal with my parents together in one room. So we’re just going to elope.” Or, “We’re not going to invite one of the parents”, usually Dad. That’s how dads get left out a lot.
Constance Ahrons: If you want to avoid those kinds of situations, then it pays to do all the work that you can early on so that you can try to avoid those situations so that 10 or 15, 20 years later, you are still able to enjoy all the wonderful occasions that come with children. You don’t want a graduation occurring and the kids being scared to death because Mom and Dad are going to fight. Who are they going to go up to afterwards, after the graduation? Parents sitting on the opposite side of the assembly or wherever the graduation is occurring. The child is the one who has to look back and forth, has to make the decision so that who’s going to have dinner, who’s going to have the party and so on.
Constance Ahrons: Whereas a parent can do some of this deciding, it makes it much better for the children. They’re not caught in between in the same way. I’ve heard of children being invited by both parents for dinner, separate dinners at the same time by both parents. Well that’s terrible for kids. The last thing you want to do is … You know, the worst thing for children is to be caught into a loyalty conflict between their parents. “If I chose Mom, Dad will be furious.” So you want to help your children by the two of you deciding beforehand how are things going to go.
Constance Ahrons: You don’t have to do everything together, but at least don’t do them concurrently. Don’t have Mom and Dad having a party at [6:00], in their own homes at the same night. At least split of the evenings or something.
Neil Sattin: Right. There’s a situation that I’ve seen in clients. I’m curious for your take on this, which is … I love your practical advice here. Like figure out what your hot button items are, and just don’t talk about those. Try to keep it about the kids.
Constance Ahrons: That’s right.
Neil Sattin: Yet, many times, the contentious issues end up being things like, what’s our visitation schedule? How much is the child support going to be? That sort of thing. So I’m wondering when you’re in that kind of thing where it’s like, okay, you know it’s going to be contentious, but maybe one of the ex-partners wants to be collegial and wants to just say, “Hey, let’s work through this,” and the other one is more stuck in angry associate mode where they’re just like, “Nope, I don’t have to listen to you, that’s why I divorced you.”, etc, etc. What do you suggest that helps people come to the table around an issue that really can’t be avoided like that?
Constance Ahrons: Well, you know that’s an important question because rarely are two people in the same place at the same time in terms of their emotions. So I think the best we can hope for is that one of them hopefully will take the high road and not get into that fight over and over again. Then, if they can, then get some help for how can we get around this? How can we find some way to compromise? It’s all about compromise, just as marriage is too, for that matter.
Constance Ahrons: So how can we find a way to compromise? We have to accept some things and not others. Sometimes parents do trade offs. I’ll give you this if you’ll give me that. If you’ll give me that extra day next week, I’ll give that extra day next month. What they’re fighting about usually, what the things you’re talking about is child support and issues which are frequently contentious, they’re not really about the kids. They’re about the parents. They rarely fight about the children, I find, directly related to the children. Except if you have people whose value systems are very, very different. One is very conservative, and the other is very liberal, and they want their children freely brought up that way, or big religious differences I found are problematic. But there are things that are definitely related to the children, and not related to each other.
Constance Ahrons: Yeah, sometimes you do have to take the high road. You have to bite your tongue, and you have to say, “Okay, I’ll compromise here if you’ll compromise there.” That, sometimes, works out very well by seeing a mediator. Sometimes it only takes one or two sessions with a mediator, to help you come to some compromise solution.
Neil Sattin: Right, right. That’s one thing I love about mediators is hopefully they are very skilled in their training, which is all about helping everyone get their needs met. I also appreciate too, that you still do coaching and consulting to help people around collaborative divorce. Your books are great guideposts, especially The Good Divorce, for how to recognize these different characteristics that you want to shoot for, that become your ideal. So you kind of know what you’re modeling after.
Neil Sattin: Constance, I’m wondering if we could take one last moment to chat about if someone is here and thinking, “Okay, I’m headed down this path. I’m getting divorced.” What’s a key element for that person to help steer the conversation towards the path of one that will leave them as cooperative colleagues so that they’re starting off on the right foot? Because we’ve spent a lot of time talking about people who maybe aren’t quite there, but who are already divorced.
Constance Ahrons: Yes, well one important thing is don’t use an adversarial process. I am a firm believer in using an out-of-court process because it doesn’t escalate things – and when you tend to use an adversarial process, the issues become escalated. Somebody has to win, somebody has to lose. You want to use a process where you hope it’s going to be a win-win.
Constance Ahrons: So the first thing I would say is don’t try an adversarial process. Don’t go through the lawyer and say, “I want to get the most out of this that I can get. I want the kids all this time. He or she didn’t do very much for the kids and wasn’t good.” Don’t try to get your way in the divorce. So instead choose a path that is non-adversarial. Choose a path like mediation. I’m a firm believer in collaborative divorce because it’s a non-court approach by a team. I think that that’s a very effective approach to coming up with resolving the differences, and it’s almost always using compromise. But the major part of it is the lawyers and the divorce coaches, and child specialists and financial people all sit around the table together and say, “We as a team,” which includes the clients, “are going to work together to make this the best divorce we can possibly make it.”
Constance Ahrons: Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be problems and differences, of course. There’s going to be … I’ve yet to see one divorce where there isn’t that. But it’s how can we resolve those in a productive way? All of us working toward the best interests of the children. And always putting the children up front.
Neil Sattin: You talk about creating a limited partnership agreement, like figuring out what your principles are and how you’re going to co-parent, and spelling it out ahead of time before you even end up in front of lawyers or a judge.
Constance Ahrons: Absolutely. It’s very important. As we were talking about a little bit earlier, Neil, is what do you do when every time you talk on the phone you end up fighting and so on. In a limited partnership, you decide quickly, “Okay, what are the limits to this partnership? We are going to be partners. We are parents who are partners, divorced or married, or remarried. How are we going to work toward the same goal, which is having a good divorce come out of this where we can continue to relate to our children, continue to give them the best possible options in life by having two parents who love them? Let that be the major focus, and not having two parents who are constantly fighting. I’m not sure that answered your question but I think I was heading in that direction.
Neil Sattin: It does. This makes me think that this term that we started out the episode with, a binuclear family, you talk in The Good Divorce about how challenged we are to have words that actually portray the outcome of divorce in a positive light, that the words themselves are hard. So maybe in closing you could just explain what’s so important about binuclear, because I think it’s such a valuable way of envisioning what happens next.
Constance Ahrons: Well, binuclear, I think if I could have developed a different term than I did … I used binuclear because essentially, I’m a social psychologist. So essentially I was looking to say, “What else can we be but a nuclear family?” The nuclear family does split, and it splits into two households. So if you think of two households as binuclear, so that we are one family that lives in two households, it’s a wonderful message to give children is to say to them, “You know, we are still family. We live in two households.” Maybe some parents will decide to do things together, sometimes celebrate holidays and have family dinners once a month or something. Other families will not. But that we still are a family and it’s just a family that is in two households now. It is binuclear. It’s very, very helpful for the children.
Constance Ahrons: But when you think about the terminology, we’ve only had negative terminology about divorce. Is there a better term that ex-spouses?
Neil Sattin: I wish there were.
Constance Ahrons: Well there is. We talk about ourselves now as co-parents.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Constance Ahrons: We encourage people not to refer to “my ex”, but to refer as to my co-parent. People when they say, “Oh well, why is language so important?” Well language is very important. It really determines what our next steps will be and how we can think about ourselves.
Neil Sattin: Right. It’s part of what frames the emotional state that comes from contemplating any situation.
Constance Ahrons: That’s right. Yeah, and I’m shocked that in all these years that I’ve seen very little change in that area. I still hear that … Nobody’s come up really with getting co-parents as acceptable as ex. People still say my ex rather than my co-parent. One is negative, and one is in the past, and one is positive.
Neil Sattin: Let’s commit right here and now that we’re going to work on that change in terms. The other one I want to put out there that I think I’ve mentioned on the show before is because I’m remarried and we’ve talked about Chloe, my wife, being my kids bonus mom as a way of putting a positive spin on that.
Constance Ahrons: That’s nice for kids because, as you probably know, step-mothers have a terrible image. You can’t find anything positive about step-mothers. All of the humor, everything, is directed at them, and it’s a negative image. That’s all kids hear, “You’re going to have a step-mother?” as if it’s awful, so I think bonus mom is terrific.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, the language does matter.
Constance Ahrons: Oh, it makes a big difference.
Neil Sattin: Well, Constance, thank you so much for being here with us on Relationship Alive. I think we’re bumping up against what you said was your hard stop, and I want to honor that.
Constance Ahrons: Hard stop, yeah.
Neil Sattin: But I really appreciate you being here with us. Such important work. Again, if you want to get a transcript of today’s episode, you can visit NeilSattin.com/divorce, or text the word “passion” to the number 33444. We will have links to Dr. Ahrons’s website and her books on the show page for this episode so that you can connect with her, read her books, and perhaps if you’re going through this, you can even get some guidance from her about how to go through the process. But thank you so much for being with us today, Constance.
Constance Ahrons: Well thank you, Neil, for keeping up the good work.
Neil Sattin: My pleasure.
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