What's Good in Divorce
My older daughter got married twenty-five years after her father and I divorced. A large family group took part in the ceremony, including my exhusband, his wife, their two children, and my younger daughter. Looking at the video, I see two proud and happy parents walking their daughter down the aisle. From these images of smiling, laughing people, a stranger could never tell that this couple had not been husband and wife for the past twenty-five years, unless, fast forwarding to the altar scene, they noticed the three beaming parents to the right of the bride. In this scene we three parents stand together tightly holding hands, laughing and crying, deeply moved. This family constellation is like many others around the world--families in which one or both sets of parents are divorced.
Those who witnessed our stormy, acrimonious parting in 1965 would never have predicted that my exhusband and I could share the wedding of our child politely, let alone joyously. No-fault divorces didn't exist back then. To be released from an incompatible union, one of us had to prove the other undeniably at fault. We needed to produce a clearly demonstrable reason to end it, such as adultery or abuse. Already engaged in a furious, pitched battle, we were forced by the no-fault issue to raise the stakes still higher. We knew that the one proved to be at fault would be socially shamed, and probably economically penalized as well. Worst, he or she would be considered responsible for destroying our family's chance to live the American dream. I was the one who left, and for two miserable years my husband and I battled constantly over custody, visitation, and child support. There were private detectives, a kidnapping, several lawyers, and two years of legal fees that took me the next ten years to pay off. That painful time of my life was almost thirty years ago, and even today it is hard to write about.
Some things have changed dramatically since I joined the ranks of the formerly married. Between 1966 and 1976 the divorce rate in the United States doubled. While demographers disagree about their projections of divorce rates in the twenty-first century, they agree that we will never return to pre-1970 rates. In the next century, between four and six out of every ten marriages in the United States are projected to end in divorce.
The cold fact of divorce has not dampened our ideal of marriage. About half the marriages that took place in 1993 in the United States were remarriages in which one or both partners had been divorced. Dramatic legal reforms, such as no-fault and joint custody, have replaced the punitive and moral stance of earlier years. Today, divorce is on the verge of becoming acceptable; serial monogamy has become a popular lifestyle. But the social shame somehow lingers.
The Good Divorce Is Not an Oxymoron
When I tell people the title of this book I usually get one of two distinct reactions. Either I hear a knee-jerk response, an incredulous: "Isn't saying 'good divorce' a contradiction in terms, like saying 'sweet sorrow' or 'cruel kindness'?" The other set of people--increasing in numbers lately--say, "It's about time. Finally. We're tired of hearing only about the horrors of divorce. We need models to help us do what we want--and need--to be able to do." These listeners invariably have a story about someone they know (it might even be themselves) who fits the definition of the binuclear family. They'd just never put a name to it. They go on to describe some family with this strange relationship where they and their new spouses and all their respective kin spend Thanksgiving or some such holiday together--and everyone seems content.
The good divorce is not an oxymoron. A good divorce is one in which both the adults and children emerge at least as emotionally well as they were before the divorce. Because we have been so inundated with negative stories, divorce immediately carries with it a negative association. Even though we have difficulty conjuring up positive images of divorce, the reality is that most people feel their lives improved after their divorces.
In a good divorce, a family with children remains a family. The family undergoes dramatic and unsettling changes in structure and size, but its functions remain the same. The parents--as they did when they were married--continue to be responsible for the emotional, economic, and physical needs of their children. The basic foundation is that ex-spouses develop a parenting partnership, one that is sufficiently cooperative to permit the bonds of kinship--with and through their children--to continue.
If people are going to divorce and remarry (and even redivorce) in droves, as by all predictions they are, then structuring a good divorce process, family by family, has become absolutely essential. Our sanctioning the process must be incorporated into our dreams of the good life, not treated as the root cause of all of our social nightmares.
Healthy Language, Normal Families
Sanctioning divorce means, first of all, developing a healthy language in which we can speak about it--words such as binuclear that can reflect images of a healthy, divorced family, rather than words such as broken home. I chose the term binuclear family because I wanted it to parallel nuclear family. Quite simply, I wanted to normalize families of divorce by putting them on the same par as nuclear families.
Because our language for families of divorce is so clouded by negative perceptions, I have chosen not to hyphenate words such as binuclear, ex-spouse, ex-husband, ex-wife, stepparent, stepkin, stepfamily. The hyphens imply that these words are additions or modifications of other words. In this book these terms are accepted as complete within themselves. Perhaps we'll feel a bit itchy at first with such a language modification, but--as with any other change in the norm--in time we'll grow comfortable with it.
The terms exspouse, expartner, and stepparent aren't perfect, as they pejoratively describe people who lack a relationship and are substitutes for parents, but since they are the terms in common usage, I'll use them too--with hopes that soon we shall come up with better words.
Eskimos have many words for snow, but we have pitifully few words to describe the relationships that exist between people previously bonded by marriage, now bonded through children. The terms ex, former wife, and former husband are in wide use, but all of these rely on past relationships to define the present. Margaret Mead, in 1971, wrote, "The vulgar 'my ex' is all that we have to deal with the relationship which may involve twenty years and five children. We should be able to do better--and soon." It is over two decades later and we still haven't even begun to name these significant relationships. When we do, we will be well on our way to reintegrating a huge, partially disenfranchised portion of society.
To recognize families of divorce as legitimate, we first have to shatter a deeply ingrained myth--the myth that only in a nuclear family can we raise healthy children. Society still sends us the message: "To raise children effectively means they have two heterosexual parents, and only two. Single-parent families, gay and lesbian families, binuclear families, and stepfamilies are all bad and abnormal. The only normal family is the nuclear family."
This nuclearcentric definition, and all language that is nuclearcentric, causes immeasurable harm to children of divorce and can break kinship ties. It causes them to feel deviant, to feel stigmatized, to feel shamed.
As Noam Chomsky said in Language and the Problem of Knowledge, "Language can enlighten or imprison." The negative language so common to divorce imprisons millions of families by making them feel that they are somehow bad and unacceptable. By changing our language to more neutral language we will help raise the self-esteem of children and adults in these families. So that binuclear families can be fully accepted as the normal, common family forms they now are, we must also coin names for each of the significant relationships throughout the spectrum of postdivorce kinship.
Is a Normal Binuclear Family Abnormal?
Is an Abnormal Binuclear Family Normal?
When I started the Binuclear Family Study, I didn't know what I would find. The existing divorce literature identified only the adjustment problems of children and adults. But I knew from my therapy practice and my personal observations that some postdivorce families seemed well adjusted. I didn't know, however, whether or not these histories were highly unusual.
One very important question I wanted to explore was: Why do some fathers stay involved with their children after divorce, while others slowly disappear?
Although the answer to this question is complex and depends on the subtle intricate weaving of individual personalities and family dynamics, one important factor consistently emerged. The fathers who stayed involved with their children after divorce had better relationships with their ex-wives than the fathers who had minimal or no involvement.