Nearly 25 years ago, Constance Ahrons put two words together that rocked legions of couples:
“Good” and “divorce.”
After the San Diego-based psychologist wrote “The Good Divorce,” she penned “We’re Still Family,” and has become a sought-after speaker and trainer nationwide. She’ll be in town Saturday to speak at the Daisy Camp “Life After Divorce” Parenting Summit in Eagan.
We talked with Ahrons about gray divorce, women paying spousal support, and heartening changes in how couples are approaching divorce.
Q: Your seminal book came out in 1994, yet we’re still striving to make the best of this difficult passage. Are we doing better with divorce?
A: Yes, we’ve seen enormous changes, both social and legal. Thirty years ago, joint custody was just coming about. Until then mothers, in general, got full custody. Now we have far more egalitarian parenting post-divorce. Back then, we didn’t have collaborative divorce. Now many people choose this respectful team approach, which keeps them out of court. And no-fault divorce laws, starting in the 1970s, made us begin to think differently about divorce. That was the most influential shift.
Q: What is a good divorce to you?
A: In a good divorce, a family with children remains a family. The foundation is that parents develop a parenting partnership, one that allows their children to maintain their emotional bonds to each parent, and to their extended families.
Q: When your book was published, its positive spin on divorce was met with skepticism. Why?
A: It was the most difficult book tour. I’d go from city to city and be interviewed on those early morning shows. If the interviewer was married, he or she was not willing to accept that someone else should get a divorce. The feeling was that if you can say “good divorce,” then everybody will run out tomorrow and get divorced. It was as if I was approving of it.
Q: But you weren’t advocating divorce.
A: I’m not saying divorce is good for any of us. It may have good outcomes, but it’s certainly not good to go through it.
Q: What have you discovered through your years of counseling?
A: People have to grieve. They often don’t want to grieve. Sadness can lead to depression and people are afraid of that. They jump right to anger, which is easier. Anger mobilizes. So, I have to find out if these people are open to thinking about different ways of approaching this challenge.
Q: What different ways?
A: One thing I encourage them to remember is some of the good parts of the person they’re divorcing. There has to be something positive or you wouldn’t have married this guy. I also ask them to write a mission statement, which is how they want to handle themselves during this process, what they want the outcome to look like. The process is a roller coaster at times. When people are behaving badly, we pull out the mission statement.
Q: Have you noticed a change in couples coming to you for help?
A: I’m definitely seeing more and more people coming in my door saying, “I want to have a good divorce. We don’t feel like we can do it, but this is where we’d like to end up.” The punitive aspects of divorce have definitely declined. It used to be that you should expect nothing but to be bitter enemies.
Q: You’re a big proponent of collaborative divorce. But are there times when that approach wouldn’t be advised?
A: If there is spousal abuse, child abuse or heavy addiction, if one party has not disclosed financial information. And if there are severe personality disturbances. Collaborative divorce requires compromise. Some people are unable to do that, no matter what. In those cases, I’d advise them to each hire their own lawyer and negotiate.
Q: In some divorces, women are paying spousal support to their ex-husbands. How has that gone over?
A: More women have higher earning power than their husbands, but they have a hard time with the concept of having to pay spousal support. They say, “Who are you kidding?” and “How could you even ask for it?” They still expect their husbands to pay them, even if the men were stay-at-home dads. Switching gears for some women has made them really angry at their husbands.
Q: We’ve also seen a growing number of gray divorces. Why are people in their 60s, 70s and older splitting up?
A: Longevity. We live a whole lot longer than we used to. They think, “I may live 20 more years. Why should I live in this mess?” And some learn from their children who got divorced.
Q: What are the challenges unique to gray divorce?
A: For one, adult children tend to know more about what’s going on with Dad or Mom. They often take a side. They are often worried that they will now have to take care of one parent. And everybody worries about money. “Look, Dad has a new girlfriend. Is she going to get all of his money?” Inheritance, post-divorce, is a growing issue and we don’t talk about it enough.
Q: What’s your takeaway message?
A: That divorce goes on for your lifetime. If you have children, you’re their parents for life. It’s so hard to get out of the place they’re stuck in, but if they look down the line, they realize that they are going to have to be able to relate to this person or they’re going to lose out.
Q: Couples seem to be hearing you.
A: It is amazing when we see parents who, 25 years later, are walking a daughter down the aisle together after a very nasty divorce. You don’t have to be good friends. Very few divorced couples are going to end up as good friends. You kind of have to be good business partners. Your child is a business you’re running.