A recent New York Times article about divorce has it all wrong.
Pamela Paul's article, titled Kramer.com vs. Kramer.com, is about new online software for divorced couples that allows them to communicate solely via email and text. The article promotes the stereotype of warring divorced couples and is damaging and unfair.
It's true that technology can be a viable communication vehicle for divorced parents, but Paul goofs when she writes, "If you didn't get along with someone well enough to stay married, chances are you will probably disagree after you divorce." Her view is as dated as the 1970s "Kramer vs. Kramer" movie that she uses to illustrate the certainty that people behave badly in the aftermath of divorce.
In interviewing divorced couples for my book, Befriending Your Ex: How To Make Life Better for You, Your Children, and Yes, Your Ex (New Harbinger Press, January 2013) I learned that a sizeable group of ex spouses actually enjoy a cooperative co-parenting relationship once the tsunami of divorce subsides. Even if you didn't get along with your ex well enough to stay married, once you don't have to share your entire life together you might discover that your ex is a perfectly adequate parent and co-parent. And the value of collaborative co-parenting cannot be overestimated. One of the few consistent research findings is that children of divorce do best when they grow up in amicable environments with two loving parents.
Co-parenting doesn't require the enormous investment or degree of intimacy, negotiation and compromise that a marriage does. When done right, co-parenting can resemble an amiable and productive business relationship or one with a friendly neighbor who will water your garden while you are away and borrow the occasional cup of sugar. In other words, co-parenting with an ex-spouse is usually a relationship that goes only so far. When you no longer have to suffer your ex's tirades or argue about whether you are having too much or too little action in the sack, you might find that your ex is a valuable ally.
My psychotherapy practice is filled with divorced parents who have become friends. Molly, age 39, worked for a company that assigned last-minute business trips. She and her ex were on such good terms she could ask him to take care of their nine year-old daughter while she was away. "I don't feel so guilty leaving when I know my daughter will get extra time with her dad," Molly said. Divorced for five years, Molly and her ex have worked out a new relationship that is far happier than the one they had as a married couple. Like many other befriended exes, they decided early on to love their child more than hate one another.
Ms. Paul cites "clashing summer vacation plans, the who-goes-to-Lucy's-birthday-party, the Max-forgot-his-homework-again-at-Dad's" as examples of the back-and-forth annoyances that she claims often lead to "teary phone calls, angry exchanges during drop-off, and all-out fights." To which I say: grow up! Mature adults know how to plan summer vacation schedules in advance so that their child gets to have special time with Mom and Dad. Responsible parents can remind Max to check for his homework before leaving each parent's house. Distance permitting, the parent can pick up the forgotten homework. Or Max can ride his bike to retrieve his homework, thereby learning to be responsible for his own things.
My own experience as a divorced co-parent has taught me a lot about the value of sitting with my ex at swim meets, soccer games and parent teacher conferences. Once the marital issues were off the table, my ex and I found that our childrens' birthday parties, graduations, weddings and the birth of grandchildren were moments of shared enjoyment. My research has taught me that such shared enjoyment is not uncommon.
And those angry exchanges during drop-off that Ms. Paul cites? Not only do they set a terrible example of adult behavior to your child, but constant conflict between parents puts your child in the impossible position of having to choose sides between the two people she loves best.
It's true, as Ms. Paul says, that today's binuclear families and joint custody arrangements offer equal influence to both parents. That's a hopeful development. Studies show that children, especially boys, have a much better chance of succeeding in school when their fathers are involved in their lives. In this generation, men have become more hands-on with childrearing, whether or not they are married to the child's mother.
Divorced couples can be incredibly generous and kind with one another. I've known divorced parents who vacation together with their small children, sometimes bringing along a new partner. I've known women to care for their ex-husbands undergoing cancer treatments decades after that same man ran off with his secretary or nurse. Forgiveness is a powerful human tool.
I'm not saying that befriending your ex is easy or that everyone will want to vacation with their ex spouse or care for him when sick. But if you accept that children who have two involved parents do better than those who do not, you might decide it's worth it to nourish the co-parenting relationship. If not for yourself, for your child. Why hang on to animosity? It hurts everyone, especially you!