“We love each other very much…We are and always will be a family…In many ways we are closer than we have ever been…We are parents first and foremost.”
It all sounds rather sweet and innocent, doesn’t it?
So it was a bit of a shock to discover that these happy words preceded the sad announcement that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin will separate or, in their own words, “consciously uncouple and co-parent.”
Now I have no idea what goes on in their lives and am not about to speculate about their marriage or what went wrong. It’s none of my business.
However, what is my business is the illusion that they or anyone else can somehow paper over the family tragedy that is divorce.
Paltrow and Martin’s flowery announcement suggests that what matters now is that they continue to be loving and supportive parents. If the parents can get along and cooperate together as parents, then things will work out fine. The kids needn’t be embroiled in the sadness of a marriage ended but can continue to be brought up by both parents in a caring, nurturing family.
This is the “good divorce,” an idea that has been kicking around for the last thirty years or more. The only problem with this widely held belief is that it’s just not supported by the evidence.
The Stanford Divorce Study in the late 1990s first illustrated how parents and children can have very different perspectives. Parental conflict was linked with teenage well-being, according to teenagers’ reports. But not according to parent reports.
The myth of the “good divorce” was finally shattered by top sociologist Paul Amato and his colleagues in 2011.
In a study involving just under 1,000 children and their parents, all of whom had been through divorce, Amato found that “cooperative coparenting” benefited teenagers in two ways: they exhibited better behavior at home and had better relationships with their fathers than teens who were raised after the divorce by just one parent or by two non-cooperative parents.
However, across ten other measures where the “good divorce” should have worked its magic—self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance use, liking school, and earning good school grades during the teenage years, and in the young adult years, early sex, early cohabiting, number of sexual partners, substance abuse, and closeness to mother—teenagers and young adults of divorced “cooperative coparents” fared no better or worse than those being raised by just one parent.
It’s easy to understand how parents see good behavior at home and a good relationship with dad and think all is well. But they don’t see how their children feel about themselves and the world, and then how likely it is that they might engage in risky behavior, with consequences for their future as adults.
For most families, the biggest consequence of divorce or parental break-up is the lack of resources. Lone parents, however brilliantly they coparent, have only one pair of hands. That means less time and less money, which, not surprisingly, can then influence parenting style and children’s opportunities.
I don’t suppose Gwyneth and Chris will have too many problems in that area.
But divorce is so much more than money and parenting. Divorce means loss, stress, change. Divorce is also viewed through the lens of what went before. It’s not the end of a high-conflict marriage that damages children—in fact, the only type of divorce that could be called “good” for them is one that ends a truly high-conflict marriage—but the end of a low-conflict one. They don’t see it coming.
It’s what the divorce means to a child that really matters. No amount of flowery language and cooperative coparenting will alter that.
Harry Benson is Communications Director of the UK-based Marriage Foundation. A version of this piece first ran on the Marriage Foundation website.