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'90s FAMILY : REAL LIFE : Can Divorces Be Civilized for the Sake of the Kids?

May 25, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lately, more voices are being raised in favor of staying together for the sake of the children. The notion of a "good divorce" when children are involved seems a selfish rationalization left over from the human potential movement of the '60s.

Yet, as the average length of marriage has dropped to six years and serial monogamy becomes more popular, many individuals and some jurisdictions are pursuing a '90s definition of the good divorce--also for the sake of the children.

Like many divorced parents, Geoff, now 35, and Barbara Lipscomb, 37, couldn't see past their own emotions in the beginning. Married for five years, they separated three years ago. At the time, their son, Colin, was only 2.

"It was bitter and angry in the beginning," recalled Barbara, who had planned a future for herself as a stay-at-home mom. "I was angry he left and shocked, rejected and hurt."

There were practical things to take care of: lawyers, moving, a new preschool, a new job, new child-care arrangements.

And there was Colin. "I think it's heartbreaking for the child. The hardest part was to hear him say, 'I wish you and me and Daddy all lived together.' "

It took nine months before she would even agree to talk with Geoff. With the help of a court-appointed mediator, they ironed out custody and visitation disagreements and now talk about their son's needs and development at least three times a week. They attend school events together. They say they never criticize each other in front of their child. They have even spent Christmas together.

"Most people, I think, are surprised," Geoff said.

Contrary to popular belief, a number of parents have learned ways to continue to raising their children together effectively, said Constance Ahrons, associate director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at USC.

"The truth is, 50% of divorces do not do long-term damage to children or adults," said Ahrons, whose book "The Good Divorce" (HarperCollins) is scheduled to be published in the fall.

Ahrons said she studied 98 families in the Midwest that she found through court records. She interviewed them three times over five years, the last in 1985. The children were not interviewed.

"About 50% fell into what is the negative stereotype," she said. "They were still angry or litigating. But 50% were not doing that. They got on with trying to resolve it, finding ways to effectively handle their parenting.

"The research clearly indicates the damage done to children is done in bad marriages prior to divorce, not so much the divorce itself," said Ahrons, who struggled to attain a civilized divorce herself. Although she and her ex-husband never became friendly after the divorce, they did manage a holiday dinner or two and when their daughter married, walked her down the aisle together.

Lessening the impact of divorce is complicated. The overriding rule is that children should never become caught in the cross-fire between the parents. They need to be reassured that they are not the cause of the divorce and that while there will be changes, both parents will still love them and take care of them.

One of the more important tools in a good divorce, Ahrons said, is compromise.

Colin sees his father every other weekend plus Wednesday nights. Barbara learned to consult Geoff on arrangements she made, such as changing preschools. Geoff sends the child support check on time. When Colin is sick, sometimes he takes the day off to stay with him.

More parents can have civilized divorces if society expects them to, Ahrons believes.

Several jurisdictions are experimenting with mandating "parenting plans" when couples with children divorce. Under the state of Washington's 1987 Parenting Act, divorcing parents must file a parenting plan that delineates a dispute resolution process, allocation of decision-making authority and residential provisions for holidays, birthdays, vacations and other special events. Exceptions are allowed in cases of abuse.

While mandated parenting plans resemble the old joint custody and visitation arrangements, supporters believe that the new language will help parents see their roles in terms of responsibility rather than of control.

Geoff said that in some ways, a good divorce is not that much different from a good marriage: "It takes a lot of work."

* Do you have a family issue, a problem or a solution, for exploration in this column? Please write to Lynn Smith, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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