While it is true that marriage counselors are experts in helping couples to stay together and resolve their relationship issues, it is also true that marriage counselors can play a critical role in helping couples to dissolve their relationship. When one or both partners have made a definitive commitment to leave the relationship, divorce counseling or what we call, “marital hospice” is a process that couples can engage to seek refuge in a time of pain and to gain emotional closure from the marriage. As the great family therapist, Carl Whitaker, once said concerning divorce, “even though the marriage has died, the family lives on”. In addition to helping the couple to grieve the marriage and their “vision” for what the marriage could be, marital hospice can also be used to help couples with children to explore what it could look like for them to co-parent effectively even though they are no longer a couple.
The research literature of parenting after divorce suggests that successful and coordinated co-parenting is within the reach of ex-couples. In her landmark study with a 100 divorced couples, Constance Ahron’s (1994) discovered that divorced co-parents generally fall into 5 different groups which she dubbed as: Perfect Pals (12%), Cooperative Colleagues (38%), Angry Associates (25%), Fiery Foes (25%) and Disconnected Duo’s (0%).
The Perfect Pals continue to carry on their parenting duties together and still claim each other as being best friends. While this low-conflict style relationship takes some of the pressure off of the kids, the children are often left wondering, “Are mommy and daddy really divorced?” This ambiguity in the couple relationship can make it difficult for children to grieve the changes in the family as they may hold onto fantasies of mom and dad getting back together.
The Cooperative Colleagues coordinate their parenting well for the sake of their children by problem-solving and openly communicating about issues pertaining to their children. Yet they wouldn’t describe each other as their “best friend”. This is also code for “one partner has re-coupled or remarried”. Since they have obtained a sense of closure on the marriage, their respective divorce-related pain is no longer creating as much “static noise” in their parenting relationship. This type of parenting style has often been reached only after a concerted, mutual effort. In this parenting style, the children notice mommy and daddy’s level of co-action and teamwork and can easily remain connected to either parent without feeling as though they are betraying the other. The following 3 categories represent different types of “difficult divorce”.
The Angry Associates are stormier than cooperative colleagues. The divorce didn’t stop the fighting and there’s plenty of anger and resentment to go around. The children often lose out and notice that mommy and daddy sure do fight a lot. However, ‘Angry Associates’ do occasionally manage to be friendly.
Sadly, it is all out warfare between the Fiery Foes and the children are often the collateral damage. There’s little escape from the rage for anyone in the family. Children often become pawns in the fight and the couple animosity in the living room is carried into the courtroom over custody battles. Dr. Whitaker also was notorious for saying that “Custody battles are about parents fighting over which children will take care of them.” From the kid’s perspective, “mommy and daddy are spending my college fund on lawyers.” These parents are encouraged to consider whether or not they love their children more than they hate their ex.
While the Dissolved Duos were not represented in Ahron’s sample, it is another type of difficult divorce which results in one parent being completely cut-off & out of the picture.
There are a number of important takeaways from Ahron’s study: 1) approximately 50% of divorced couples continue to effectively co-parent! This is exceptional and challenges the cultural myth that divorce is always devastating in every way and that ex-spouses are doomed to be inevitable enemies. This is not the case for the many parents. In fact, 2) many couples who start out as Angry Associates move on to more effective parenting relationships. A five-year follow-up on these couples revealed that 1/3 of angry associates stayed the same; 1/3 improved to cooperative colleagues, and 1/3 got ‘worser’ to fiery foes. This suggests that even if co-parents begin in a difficult place together, they can move with some work and support.
Marital hospice can not only help couples to resolve any unfinished business from their couple relationship but provide parents with support and direction to develop strategies of “good enough coordination” and co-parenting that will allow them to insulate their children from their marital pain and conflict and promote healthy attachment between each parent and child.