NEW YORK — All those kinship diagrams--the ones that make families look like Mendel's peas--are due for major revamping. Changing living arrangements, spurred primarily by the realities of divorce, are calling for a reassessment of the very notion of family. And, USC professor of social work Constance Ahrons said, the redefined family demands not only a renegotiated life style, but a new code of behavior as well.
Addressing the topic of divorce adjustment at a meeting here not long ago of the American Assn. for Marriage and Family Therapy, Ahrons, also a family therapist with a practice in Santa Monica, challenged the dominance of the concept of the nuclear family, and went so far as to posit the notion of the binuclear family: that is to say, the post-divorce family that spans two households.
"I think," Ahrons said, "that it is critical that we continue to think of divided families as families.
A Continuing System
"For most people," she went on, "the divided family is a continuing kinship system."
And binuclear, Ahrons said, "says nothing about quality. It is a family structure."
Ahrons' venture into the sphere of binuclear families came as the result of a five-year study of former spouses and how they have adapted to the realities of divorce. Funded in large part by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the study of 98 pairs of former spouses began in 1979 and was conducted in Dade County, Wis. The subjects were interviewed at intervals of one, three and five years following divorce, Ahrons said, with the primary objective of examining what happens with the relationships of former spouses over time, particularly in terms of children and issues of child-custody.
"What I was interested in," she said, "was how do they co-parent? What does it take for the non-custodial parent to continue relating to the child?"
And underlying those questions, said Ahrons, was her conviction that "parents are the architects of the family." Specifically, in terms of divorced, binuclear families, "how the parents cooperate and function together will determine how the children survive."
Ahrons actually began her research 10 years ago, "at a time when joint custody was just coming into being," during a sabbatical in San Diego.
"And yet," she said, "there was very little information about how it works."
Plagued by a history of divorce research "that has been from a pathological, clinical perspective," Ahrons said former spouses had been lumped into an all but iron-clad stereotype either of warring people, or people who had no relationship at all.
"In terms of therapists," she said, "until recently, the major theme was that any continuing relationship was a hanging-on.
A Different Finding
"All the studies up until then," Ahrons said, "had made the assumption that the former spouse relationship did not continue."
Or, Ahrons said, existing research talked in terms of single parents, "which I think is a terrible term, because it excludes the non-custodial parent."
And as a therapist, Ahrons said her study actually affected her own way of thinking. "As I have been doing this research," she said, "I have been finding my own values changing. I think it is critical that we think of marriage and divorce in terms of parenting."
Focusing as it did on the parents, Ahrons' study included no interviews with children of divorced families. But in two major studies that looked at the effects of divorce on children, Ahrons said, "they really point to two major factors: the continuing involvement of both parents, and the existence of a cooperative relationship."
Carting in her own preconceptions, Ahrons said she embarked on her study assuming that "the former spouse relationship was on a continuum, from very friendly to very angry." But what she found, on the contrary, was that the former spouses divided themselves into four distinct groups.
Because her five-year data is still too new for thorough assessment, Ahrons made her observations on the basis of three post-divorce years. Of her 98 pairs of parents, she found that 12% were "people who get along together very well, spend a lot of time together, and enjoy each other's company outside the kids."
Disdaining some ponderous sociological label, Ahrons dubbed these people "the perfect pals." In general, she said they tend not to be remarried, and they tend to be joint-custodial parents. "They are that group out there that like each other," she said. "They do not talk about reconciliation. They divorced for a variety of reasons, and most say they get along better now that they are divorced parents. They are still very involved with each other."
Not 'Hanging On'
And unlike those therapists who might consider these people to be "hanging on," Ahrons said that "I do not see it as a negative relationship at all."