While there is a lot of research exploring the effects of messy or high-conflict divorces and separations on children, there has not been any research in Australia exploring what a “good” divorce with children looks like. Now, in what has been described as “groundbreaking” research, Flinders University sociologists have conducted a study looking at the types of positive co-parenting relationships that separating couples experience.
Dr Kris Natalier and Dr Priscilla Dunk-West are behind a soon-to-be-published study which looked at the positive experiences of co-parenting for the first time. In contrast to only studying the negative effects of relationship breakdowns, the “Positive Post-Separation Parenting Study” was an interview-based piece of research which explored this under-researched area into how people experience “good” relationships after separation.
As co-parents, separating couples are united by an immutable joint-parenting contract, unable to fully disengage from each other due to sharing the children, forcing them to have to negotiate co-parenting relationships.
But despite the focus on the damaging effects of high-conflict divorces, the researchers point out that previous Australian research “suggests low conflict or cooperative post-separation relationships are common”.
The Flinders Uni researchers identified three distinct kinds of “good” post-separation parental relationships: allied, arms’ length and autonomous. It emerged that the main reason parents would define their co-parenting relationship as “good”, no matter which of the three styles of co-parenting relationship they exhibited, was that they shared a child-centred focus with their ex.
The three “good” types of co-parenting relationships
These are the most common forms of “good” co-parenting relationship. The parents retain a close emotional connection, although they understand the connection now exists only because of the children. The parents are practically supportive and responsive to their co-parent’s needs, and they are generous and flexible in arrangements to accommodate the other parent’s needs. Shared events (e.g. regular family dinners) are seen as important as a way of reassuring the kids that the parents are still unified.
Arms’ length relationships
While these co-parents are civil and cooperative, there is not the same emotional connection and maintenance of shared rituals and activities as is characteristic of allied relationships. Each parent is present in their kids’ life but absent from their ex’s. Boundaries are set limiting interactions to children’s issues, and parents are not especially responsive to or flexible in relation to their ex’s needs. The relationships are still, however, described as good, because of the shared focus on the children.
These relationships demonstrate limited communication between the parents, revolving around “basic logistical information about children’s routines”. Despite this, each parent knows that the other parent loves the children and is responsive to them, understanding that in the post-separation context, the importance lies in the other parent’s contribution (emotional and practical) to the children’s lives and not to the ex-partner. “This separate approach also created economic, emotional and logistical freedoms for each parent,” say the researchers.
Are “good” divorces still bad for kids?
In the past, the assumption used to be that “if you came from a family that had separated that it must be damaging in some way”, said Dr Dunk-West. But as the concept of family has broadened beyond the nuclear one, the concept of a creating a “broken home” through separation has become less popular. What is becoming clearer is that so long as the needs of the child are considered, “a good separation is better than a bad relationship”.
The researchers note that based on prior studies, “it’s the tenor and practice of relationships rather than how much time children spend with each parent that makes the most difference in children’s post-separation lives”—quality, not quantity, matters. “Yet debates continue to centre on the importance of how much time children spend with each parent.” Food for thought.
The researchers hypothesised that a good divorce can occur if the co-parenting relationship:
- is child-centred with a real commitment to putting the kids first;
- involves effective communication;
- has rituals and practices in place for the children which support stability (e.g. endeavouring to maintain consistency between the two households); and
- allows for each partner to have their own support network.
As Dr Natalier writes, “Good post-separation relationships are hard work. They require constant emotional thoughtfulness, careful negotiation and letting go of past wrongs. But when the payoff is a happy and healthy child the hard work is well worth the effort.”
Source: The Conversation
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