Parental Relationships After Divorce: From ‘Perfect Pals’ to ‘Fiery Foes’

Although divorce/relationship breakdown happens at a number of levels, it is children that are usually the first concern.

Relationship break-down

[Photo by jeffhurlow]

Although divorce/relationship breakdown happens at a number of levels – psychological, legal, economic – it is children that are usually the first concern. Who will take custody? How will the parents manage their relationship after they have separated? Continuing the series on the psychology of relationships, this post examines five broad ways psychological research has found people negotiate their newfound status as ‘separated parents’.

Ahrons (1983) finds that co-parenting post-divorce can go one of five ways, the first three of which are considered relatively functional:

1. Dissolved Duos (or “Is Daddy dead?”)
Dad disappears (and it is normally Daddy) and the children lose the relationship with their father. This is the only category resulting in a true single-parent family.

2. Perfect Pals (or “Mummy and Daddy are divorced? Are you sure?”)
The ‘Perfect Pals’ continue to carry out their parenting duties together, still claim each other as their best friends and often do not remarry. Other people (not least psychologists) find their relationship mysterious.

3. Cooperative Colleagues (or “Mummy and Daddy work together.”)
Less mysterious than the ‘Perfect Pals’, ‘Cooperative Colleagues’ work together but wouldn’t describe each other as their best friend. This is code for: have remarried/got a new partner. This type of parenting style has often been reached only after a long, concerted effort.

These are the post-divorce/separation co-parenting styles considered less functional by Ahrons (1983):

4. Angry Associates (or “Mummy and Daddy shout at each other. A lot.”)
Divorce didn’t stop the fighting. There’s plenty of anger and resentment to go around here. The children often lose out although ‘Angry Associates’ occasionally manage to be friendly.

5. Fiery Foes (or “Mummy and Daddy are spending my college fund on lawyers.”)
All out warfare between parents. There’s little escape from the rage for anyone in the family. Children often become pawns in the fight and parents frequently end up in court fighting over custody.

Unable to move on?
These categories, broad as they are, raise some interesting points that often remain concealed.

The idea is still floating around that hanging onto a relationship post-divorce/separation spells trouble. As a result people are often suspicious of the ‘Perfect Pals’, thinking they have been unable to ‘move on’ with their lives. But this isn’t necessarily true. The ‘Perfect Pals’ along with the ‘Cooperative Colleagues’ are doing what’s best for the children, trying to cope with a less than ideal situation.

In whose interests?
With all the talk of the children’s welfare, parents get forgotten. While research is adamant that the both ‘Perfect Pals’ and ‘Cooperative Colleagues’ are doing the best for their children, it’s less clear what’s good for the parents themselves (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1989).

The best category to be in, from the child’s perspective, is the ‘Cooperative Colleagues’ or ‘Perfect Pals’ who continue to have respect for each other, carry out their parental duties and can still remember the good times of their relationship. Unfortunately the mere existence of the other categories proves things don’t always go so smoothly.

The ‘binuclear family’
What four of these categories show is that the so-called ‘single-parent’ is something of a misnomer. Only the ‘Dissolved Duo’ really falls into this category, while all the rest, for better or worse, clearly do not.

Commentators on the family have been much too quick to talk of the father (or mother) being either present or absent (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1989). Often the truth lies somewhere in between. What more normally emerges from separation or divorce is the ‘binuclear family’, a new family system orbiting around two centres: some stable, others less so.

» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.

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Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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