Pathologizing the “good divorce”

I have always been a fan of the ideas in Constance Ahrons book, The Good Divorce.1

On the second page of the book she writes, “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.”

This perspective is consistent with a resiliency framework furthered by prominent researchers in the field of family science (e.g. Masten, Rutter) 23 who conceptualize resilience in several ways.

The “bounce back” when we recover from a threat to as good a state as we were before The “better than” when we are stronger or more well-adjusted following a tribulation than we were prior to it The “steeling effect” when we are able to withstand adversity relatively unscathed.

The developmental nature of resilience means that the concept is constantly adapting with us as we grow in age and experience. What defines a person as being “resilient” has more to do with their adaptation following risk than any specific aspect of the individual. Thus, a marriage ending does not automatically categorize spouses as non-resilient. Perhaps the best way for them to function healthily and happily is to continue their life journeys on separate paths.

But, the divorce process is just one hurdle. There also is a period of post-divorce adaptation, which may shed more light on a person’s capacity for resilience than how they weather the legal proceedings.

Enter in Ahrons’ concept of binuclear families:

“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.”

What she is describing is an adaptive post-marriage parenting relationship. Emphasizing “family” as a living system with children at its nucleus, Ahrons describes a high-conflict court case where the judge awarded the contested home to the children requiring parents to follow a month-to-month visitation schedule.

With children prioritized as the core of the unique family unit, the binuclear family can be maintained and nurtured despite the future relationship status of either parent. The pages of Ahrons book are spent delineating the divorce process as it relates to post-divorce resilience and healthy family adaptation.

The Good Divorce was written in 1994

Divorce rates have seemingly declined over the years. But this number is deceiving because, in fact, fewer people are getting married in the first place.4 It becomes even more convoluted to try and determine state-by-state divorce trends due to a diversity of reporting methods and record-keeping.5

In the December, 2011 edition of Family Relations, one of three scholarly journals offered by the National Council on Family Relations, researchers revisited the issue of a “good divorce” with some contention.

As much as I appreciate Ahrons for her resilience approach to divorce, I also esteem Dr. Paul Amato, whose divorce-related research is premier in the family field. Their views contrast in terms of post-divorce adaptation among children and families.

Amato acknowledges subgroups of children who adapt differently to divorce, but maintains that children are generally adversely impacted when their parents’ relationship dissolves.6

Amato and colleagues take issue with the concept of a “good divorce” cautioning us from being “lulled into believing that…children are adequately protected from all the potential risks” of parental separation simply because positive post-divorce adaptation that looks like Ahrons’ binuclear family is possible – because it often isn’t very probable.

Just because it doesn’t happen all the time doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t…or that it couldn’t.

Standing by her work, Ahrons emphasizes that the idea of a “good divorce” is fundamentally grounded in reduced parental conflict and sustained relationships between fathers and children.7 A “good divorce” takes into account child and family well-being before, during, and following the separation.

And a “good divorce” only occurs when children and families are functioning as good or better than they were before the divorce. I don’t believe the process of marital dissolution lends itself to “steeling” against adversity, particularly for children.

The full debate, which includes multiple findings from empirical research, can be found in the December, 2011 edition of Family Relations.

The questions I pose to you are these:

What can you, as a family law attorney, contribute to the divorce process to reduce parental conflict and promote sustained bonds between both sets of parents and their children?

What can you do to slow the process so that everyone involved has time to thoroughly consider their choices and adjust to life changes as they emerge?

Families won’t want to pay for a “slowed-down” legal process billed by the hour; how can you balance your financial needs with the needs of the families you serve?

These are important questions that bring scholars’ heady arguments over theory and data analysis to a grinding halt at the feet of families who walk through your door.

I doubt anyone would contend that divorce is a good thing. However, pathologizing the entire experience does not appear to benefit families or the researchers who study them.

As I said before, I appreciate and admire the work of both Ahrons and Amato and, despite the occasional tone of this post, I’m certainly not “choosing sides.” As an emerging family scholar, my preference would be for the process of marriage to slow down8 , before couples get to the divorce stage.

Individual reasons for divorce range from hedonistic gratification to escaping intimate terrorism, making a legal “out” from the marriage contract a necessary mechanism. Having said that, I believe that focusing on resilience processes and children’s capacity for post-divorce adaptation are important future directions.

Amato et al., describe divorce mediation and parent training as beneficial in the short-term, but note no long-term benefits for children. Perhaps we haven’t yet asked the right questions to adequately capture what “resilience” looks like among families and children of divorce.

Long-term, interdisciplinary collaborations among researchers, practitioners, and legal counsel on different sides of the issue might be just the “panacea” to better understand the longitudinal impact of divorce and how we can make the process less adverse for the vulnerable and involuntary participants.


  1. Ahrons, C. (1994). The good divorce: Keeping your family together when your marriage comes apart. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  2. Masten, A. (2011). Resilience in children threatened by extreme adversity: Frameworks for research, practice, and translational synergy. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 493-506.
  3. Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience: Causal pathways and social ecology. In M. Unger (Ed.), The social ecology of resilience: A handbook of theory and practice (Part 1, pp. 33-42). New York: Springer.
  4. Coleman, M. (2011). A note from the guest editor. Family Relations, 60(5), 505-510.
  5. Kelly M. Roberts, Personal Communication
  6. Amato, P., Kane, J., & James, S. (2011). Reconsidering the “good divorce.” Family Relations, 60(5), 511-524.
  7. Ahrons, C. (2011). Commentary on “Reconsidering the good divorce.” Family Relations, 60(5), 528-532.
  8. Pryor, J. (2011). Commentary on “Reconsidering the ‘Good Divorce’” by Paul Amato et al. Family Relations, 60(5), 525-527.

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