3 Ways Parents Today Are Divorcing Better Than They Used To
We all know the stereotype, the worst-case scenario where a child’s world is torn apart by his parents’ divorce. A new home, maybe even a new school. He rides a roller coaster of adult resentment and accusations, ending up queasy from divided loyalty—and worries that it’s all his fault.
But divorce certainly doesn’t have to be that way, and these days, it often isn’t. As a child of divorce and a mother of three who went through one myself last year, I see many parents doing things differently now, and their children seem to be thriving. “If your relationship really isn’t working and there’s no salvaging it, you can focus on what’s best for your children,” says Parents advisor David L. Hill, M.D., coauthor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ book Co-parenting Through Separation and Divorce.
Although it might seem as if fewer parents are getting divorced than when we were kids, that’s mostly because not as many couples are getting married. In fact, a child today has about the same chance of living in a two-parent home and having his parents break up as a child of the 1990s had. And with divorces expected to rise in the wake of the pandemic—as forced time together has strained relationships—more moms and dads may be navigating this process in the coming year.
Even when a marriage ends for the most painful of reasons, quite a few members of our generation have been trying to forge a better path than many parents did in the past. Ex-partners may always disagree about certain things, but they can still manage to work as a team and put the needs of their kids first.
They're Making More Thoughtful Arrangements
Couples are striving to make the process less hostile from the outset, says Bari Weinberger, an attorney who founded one of New Jersey’s largest family law practices. They’re less likely to leave their fate up to sparring lawyers and a judge and are opting for mediation (in which a legal expert helps them broker an agreement) or a collaborative divorce (lawyers represent the parties in negotiations, rather than in an adversarial setting). Some couples even use DIY services like Wevorce (picture TurboTax, but for divorce).
The shift to a cheaper, less stressful process can benefit everyone, but parents are trying to avoid conflict for their kids’ sake. “My ex-husband and I both have parents who went through a rough divorce and didn’t necessarily coparent well afterward,” says Brooke McCullough, of City Park, Colorado. “We wanted our daughter to have a different experience."
However, the biggest change over the years has been the increase in shared custody. Societal norms on who should take care of kids have been shifting, and the legal system has tried to keep pace. There aren’t detailed national statistics, but data from states that keep good records show that up to 80 percent of cases used to award sole custody to the mother. Now all states have a law saying that a child is entitled to time with both parents when possible. In 2010, sole custody was awarded to mothers in only around 40 percent of cases in Wisconsin, for example.
Parents increasingly share custody using creative schedules that allow kids to see both of their parents more frequently, especially when they’re young. That can mean a 2-2-5-5 (two days with parent A, two with parent B, 5 with parent A, then 5 with parent B), a 2-2-3, or a 3-4-4-3. Some switch daily. (My kids have Mommy on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays; Daddy on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays; and alternating Fridays.) Others use a week-on, week-off schedule, which is especially popular among tweens and teens. “Every family has to figure out the solution that works best for them, and realize that kids’ needs may adapt and change over time,” says Dr. Hill. Parents are also bringing flexibility to the table, swapping days to accommodate each other’s needs and those of their kids.
All of this cooperation requires a logistical infrastructure. Parents often maintain joint accounts for kids’ expenses and rely on a Google calendar and spreadsheets. Others turn to specially designed apps such as Our Family Wizard, Fayr, WeParent, Smart Coparent, and 2Houses. To increase predictability for younger kids, they might make a calendar where each day has a picture of the on-duty parent.
They're More Optimistic Over Time
Of course, divorce is still upsetting for kids, and many people worry that even a low-drama mediation and time with both parents won’t protect them from being traumatized. When doctors first introduced the concept of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—situations that tend to decrease a child’s well-being, such as witnessing physical violence—parental separation was thought to be a risk factor for all sorts of things from antisocial behavior to academic floundering to drug abuse.
But studies have gotten more sophisticated, and researchers have found that the differences between kids who have and haven’t experienced divorce are much smaller than once believed. One reason is that living with parents who argue can have a negative impact on a child whether they split up or not. (That’s the whole “correlation, not causation” thing.)
In fact, recent research from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, found that even if there is stress associated with a family’s reorganization, so-called counter- ACEs, like having a warm, supportive relationship with a parent, can neutralize the effects of divorce on a child’s life. Says Dr. Hill, “The most valuable thing you can do is not disparage the other parent to your children.”
They're Focused on Continued Cooperation
For many moms and dads, the goal is to make post-divorce family life more like pre-divorce family life. Bess Kennedy and her ex-wife, Camille Gonzalez Kennedy, “nested” in their Menlo Park, California, home for a year. “Every other night, we would trade who stayed at the house with the kids,” Kennedy explains. She felt like she was living out of the gym bag in the trunk of her car, but they reasoned that if anyone had to bear the burden of being transient, it should be the adults.
Although nesting has become more popular in recent years—and was spotlighted on the sitcom Splitting Up Together—it’s usually a temporary strategy. That’s because it often requires three residences (ka-ching), since most people don’t have the emotional bandwidth to share their off-night home with their ex. What’s more, former couples have to agree on things like who does the laundry and how clean the nest must be kept. If they argue over the details, their kids usually witness or sense the clash, and experts say being insulated from conflict is more important for children than living in one home. Plus, the arrangement can cause anxiety (imagine a 4-year-old who wakes up unsure of which parent she’ll find in the big bed) and rarely works when a new partner comes with another set of children.
Most parents focus on smoothing everyday transitions within their new normal. When they can afford it, parents buy duplicates of belongings so their kids don’t have to lug bags back and forth and both houses feel like home. “We want our kids to know that even though we have two different houses, we’re still one family,” says Boston-area mom Sara Austin Brown. She helped her ex-husband move, even buying his first groceries, and they went shopping for the kids’ beds as a family.
Moms and dads are also finding ways to share important moments in kids’ lives. Marianne Kotubetey, of Winchester, Massachusetts, says that her ex would arrive early on Christmas so he was there when their daughter woke up. They even coordinated to sneak The Elf on the Shelf back and forth between their two houses. KC Rogers, of St. Augustine, Florida, says her son’s first birthday party after her divorce was a challenge, especially because her ex brought his girlfriend, but they made it work. These days, their son knows they’ll have no problem being at his tae kwon do belt tests together.
Some exes manage to reach friend territory, even when new partners have entered the picture. Kennedy says that her fiancé, Dan Goins, and her ex-wife, bond over their appreciation for vintage watches and a shared mission: keeping Kennedy calm on the sidelines at soccer games.
Don’t get them wrong. None of these parents say it’s been easy. While divorce has changed since we were kids, feelings haven’t, and “it’s emotionally unnatural to want to collaborate after a painful breakup,” says Robert E. Emery, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. As well as Rogers and her ex have done, she says, “It wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘conscious uncoupling.’ I don’t want people to think we just hugged and parted ways and were calm about it.”
Yet modern parents who’ve divorced differently from their own parents’ generation say that taking the high road gets easier—and reaps rewards for all involved. Jamie Leigh, an Aspen, Colorado, mom who kept cooking for her ex-husband as they transitioned from one home to two, says people criticized her for not “ripping off the Band-Aid,” but she knew their creativity and compromise had paid off when her son said, “I’m really glad you guys got nice-divorced.”