What is the real legacy of divorce? To answer this question, Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., interviewed one hundred and seventy-three grown children whose divorcing parents she had interviewed twenty years earlier for her landmark study, the basis of which was the highly acclaimed book The Good Divorce. What she has learned is both heartening and significant.
Challenging the stereotype that children of divorce are emotionally troubled, drug abusing, academically challenged, and otherwise failing, Dr. Ahrons reveals that most children can and do adapt, and that many even thrive in the face of family change. Although divorce is never easy for any family, she shows that it does not have to destroy children's lives or lead to a family breakdown. With the insight of these grown children and the advice of this gifted family therapist, divorcing parents will find helpful road maps identifying both the benefits and the harms to which postdivorce children are exposed and, ultimately, what they can do to maintain family bonds.
In 1979, sociologist Ahrons randomly selected 98 pairs of divorced parents in Wisconsin for a five-year study. As she reported in 1994's The Good Divorce, while everyone handles the divorce process differently, "divorce doesn't destroy families," even if it rearranges and expands them to embrace new members. This reassuring viewpoint has been attacked by researchers like Judith Wallerstein, who argue that divorce's damage may not appear for a decade or more, when ACODs (adult children of divorce) struggle unsuccessfully to bond with partners. In response, Ahrons went back to her original research panel to learn how their children fared. Her team managed to interview an astounding 90% of the original cohort's children. Approximately three-fourths of these 173 "children" (now 30-somethings) thought their parents' divorces were a good idea, and that parents and children were better off than if they'd stayed together. Their comments on what made a difference to them when their parents were divorcing are instructive. Kids are very tuned into and upset by parental warfare, so "how parents relate to each other" is key. Parents battle over joint custody schedules, oblivious to how stressful the transitioning between parents can be. Ahrons reminds parents it's not the quantity of time they spend with their child, but the quality of relationship they establish: reliability, consistency and genuine interest in their lives are what matter most to children. More prescriptive than descriptive, Ahrons's supportive guidebook should aid anyone trying to make a "good divorce" better.