Couples can divorce without drama: Beyond the hurt, anger and fear

By Susan Kelleher, NW Magazine
August, 2013

Five years ago, Kristin Little did everything in her power to stop her divorce. “I had a new baby and I was terrified,” she says. “I loved our life. The whole time I was thinking, ‘How can I keep this from happening?’ ”

She cried. Argued. Dragged her feet and lamented the unfairness of it all, even as she sat in a room with her husband and two attorneys, crafting a divorce agreement. It took more than a year to work out the details, but Kristin, now 47, slowly began making the transition from stay-at-home mom to full-time therapist who now helps others through difficult periods.

Curled up on her living-room couch in Magnolia with a mug of coffee, she pages through a family photo album, pointing out milestones. There’s her baby, Sebastian, now a smiling boy of 6, with his dad, Stefan, his dad’s new partner and their newborn daughter. There he is at his birthday party, attended by both parents and grandparents. Him at Christmas, celebrated at both his mom’s and dad’s houses.

“It’s a family affair, and it gets easier and easier and easier,’’ Kristin says as a breeze sweeps through the open front door. “This is a relationship that we built because it makes sense.”

Kristin and Stefan have created what seems to be an increasingly common relationship: the good divorce. We’ve all seen them, once-married couples who cheer together on the sidelines at their kid’s soccer games, celebrate Thanksgiving as a family that includes new spouses, pose without drama in photos at their kids’ wedding. Sometimes they like each other enough to take a joint vacation with the kids. Sometimes they merely tolerate each other. Either way, they keep the ugliness to a minimum and work together to raise their children and enjoy their grandchildren.

Kristin says people misinterpret her behavior as selflessness and call her a saint. Or they tell her she’s still not over Stefan. It drives her crazy. “I make my relationship work with Stefan because I feel it is the right thing to do and it helps me to create a better story for myself than the ‘victim,’ and a better future for my family rather than tragedy,’’ she says. “It just feels good and empowering to me, and I’m doing it not just for us, but mostly for myself.”

Just as same-sex unions are redefining family through the bonds of marriage, so, too, are people like Kristin and Stefan redefining family by maintaining bonds after divorce. It’s no small feat. A good divorce, like a good marriage, takes work. With nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, it’s worth exploring how the good ones move forward from darkness to light.

I know what you’re thinking. “Good divorce? What’s good about divorce?” So let’s be clear. No one is saying divorce is good. Anyone who’s ended a marriage knows it can be an emotional free-fall that feels a lot like a death in the family. And that’s before the financial toll and disruption are calculated. But divorce doesn’t have to be ugly, either.

Constance Ahrons, a psychologist and sociologist who coined the phrase “the good divorce” in her 1994 book by the same name, says the winning formula for a good divorce is supportive parents who stay involved in their children’s lives, keep the kids out of adult conflicts, respect each other’s rights as parents and provide a stable life that preserves family ties and important relationships on both sides of the family.

“It’s conflict, not divorce per say, that is most destructive to the kids whether their parents are married or divorced,’’ she says. “The expectations have changed. People all know people who have been divorced, and they expect you to behave civilized.”

A novelty only 30 years ago, good divorce has developed into something of a cottage industry here with a variety of mediators, “collaborative law” specialists who craft agreements outside the court system, even legal consultants who review agreements written by couples themselves. If good divorce sounds like an oxymoron, it’s likely because the language used to describe divorce hasn’t caught up with reality, Ahrons says. Words like “broken family,” “failed marriage,” “custody,” and “the ex” still follow divorced couples, forever calcifying relationships in the past and reinforcing the stigma of divorce as disaster — a funeral pyre where the adults crawl from the ashes.

Some marriages do end that way. Last year, 457 divorces went to trial in King County, with nearly 85 percent of them involving children. The number has been declining since 2003, when 787 went to trial. Whether that’s a reflection of the bad economy or people’s embrace of kinder, gentler divorce is hard to say. There’s a paucity of research on the subject because it’s hard to get money to study it, Ahrons says. “There’s a concern if we make it sound too nice, and you’re doing OK a couple years later, and your kids are OK a couple of years later, then we’re encouraging divorce,’’ Ahrons says.

Ahrons’ research has been criticized by sociologists who say a bad marriage — absent abuse or violence — is preferable to a good divorce. “People who are getting divorced are often in a very dark place,’’ says sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, an initiative to increase marital stability. “We have to realize if you really value the welfare of your kids, you have to maximize every resource you have.” Yet Wilcox acknowledges that a majority of children whose parents divorce will become well-functioning adults.

Stefan is a little nervous to talk about his divorce. People are eager to judge. Why open up? But he’s talking because Kristin asked him to. It might help some people and put a spotlight on the work she does helping other families in her counseling business, he says. We’re sitting in a coffee shop near his Belltown office, and a couple at a nearby table perk up as he speaks with disarming honesty about the day he began thinking about ending his marriage.

His neighbors in Ballard — people who seemed to be the “perfect couple” — came over for a barbecue one day in 2007 and announced they were divorcing. (The couple, he says, are “almost freakishly still friends.”) “I thought, ’You’ve got to be kidding me!’ ” It got him thinking about what he wanted from life.

He and Kristin dated for two years before marrying in 2001, when Stefan was going through personal and professional crises. Their son was born in 2006, but Stefan says he had a gnawing sense that, as much as he liked and admired Kristin, he was unhappy and unable to give her what she needed. He thought about his parents’ unhappy marriage. “My parents should have gotten divorced a long time ago, but stayed together for the kids,’’ he says. “My sister and I always joke, ‘You didn’t do us any favors.’ ”

He and Kristin went to couple’s counseling, but Stefan says it became increasingly clear he wanted out. “The hardest and cruelest thing was telling her,’’ he says, closing his eyes.
Stefan, 42, had seen nasty divorces and wanted no part of it. He chose a collaborative law practice, where parties commit to solving their disputes outside of court. He and Kristin signed agreements to be honest and forthcoming in their discussions and disclosures. “Children and assets are the main reasons people fight,” he says. “The commitment we made was to bring it to resolution and not enrich one person over the other.”

They wrote a “mission statement,” agreeing to “respectfully work as partners to create and maintain a stable, fun and loving family for Sebastian that will preserve our current family’s most important lifestyle values and opportunities.” They promised to maintain continuity and important relationships in Sebastian’s daily life, support each other as equal parents and as professionals. They had hard discussions, argued and talked about their fears as two divorce coaches, a financial specialist and a child-development specialist helped solve problems and guide them through a process led by two attorneys.

The process was expensive and protracted, mostly because Kristin could not accept that her life was going to change. Her parents had been married 53 years, she says, and she was resistant to the idea of not being home with Sebastian. Her divorce coach — a person hired specifically to keep things moving along — confronted Kristin about her denial. “I’d say, ‘Stefan and I decided I was going to be a stay-at-home mom.’ And Ann would say, ‘You can’t do that. You’re getting divorced.’ ... I needed to hear it.”

But it was the financial specialist who helped Kristin see a viable future, she says. Kristin had worked as a counselor on a contract basis for large agencies. They thought she could build it into a full-time career as a therapist over a few years. “We worked out different scenarios to get there,’’ Kristin says. “We made a business plan. That was a turning point for me. When I did that, I started getting excited and started feeling on equal ground.” The financial planner figured out how much spousal support Kristin would need so she and Sebastian could live comfortably while she built her practice. “It worked brilliantly,’’ Stefan says. “Her career is taking off.”

The agreement, however, was made before the economy tanked. Stefan says without a hint of bitterness that he had to pay the support from savings. We stop for a second. How in the world did he not get angry or resentful about that? “We made an agreement,’’ he says. “I know why writing it was fair. I know why it was necessary. The fact the economy crashed didn’t change that. I get irritated at times. But the question was, ‘How did I want Sebastian to live?’
“It was for him. That made it easy to sleep at night.”

Like Kristin, he thought about what he wanted his life to look like. “Every step of the process, I’d think, ‘I have to do this with integrity. If I can look in the mirror every day and say I’ve been fair — not spiteful or vengeful, but is this fair and reasonable? I don’t want to live my life angry,’’ he says. “It takes so much less energy to try to be fair than to be angry.”

It wasn’t so long ago that all divorces were nasty affairs. Before 1973, if you wanted a divorce in Washington, you had to show bad conduct on the part of your spouse. Seattle attorney J. Mark Weiss, a family and collaborative law specialist, says that led to a lot of lying in court as people made things up about their partners in order to meet the state’s requirements. Reputations were damaged, and families were ripped apart with the mother typically gaining custody of the children and the father receding into the background.
Under no-fault divorce, a spouse can file for divorce by declaring the marriage “irretrievably broken.” That took some ugliness out of the process, but the adversarial system where lawyers fight for their clients can set things off on a bad foot, Weiss says. “The court system is not set up for divorcing families,’’ he says. “It creates winners and losers. It becomes a contest, which is not helpful to resolving conflict.”

Washington’s Legislature recently passed a law to standardize the practice of collaborative law, which Kristin and Stefan used. Cynthia First, a Seattle collaborative-law specialist, notes that in court, a judge will often split things down the middle, leaving both parties feeling cheated. A better approach, say First, is finding out what’s at stake for each partner. Say, for instance, a couple is fighting over an orange. A discussion about why they want it could produce surprising results. “You find out she wants the juice, and he wants the rind. They could each have 100 percent of what they want,’’ she says.

The same is true of parenting arrangements. “You’d be surprised at how creative people can be. I’ve seen agreements where people have joint decision-making on tattoos and piercing.’’ Others spell out how significant others will be introduced to the children, whether a consult with the other parent is required before cutting a child’s hair, whether children will be able to marry before age 18 or have a cellphone or deviate from homework or restrictions on screen time. To preserve flexibility, parents might agree to hold regular “board meetings” to discuss issues. “They treat it like a business,’’

For Stefan, the divorce has opened up new possibilities for friendship with Kristin. “The best things that Kris and I had weren’t contingent on us being married,’’ he says. “When you’re not resentful that you’re not getting those things you need, it creates space to appreciate the things that you do appreciate. It makes it so easy to see those other things.”
Kristin and Stefan both have new partners who are supportive of their growing post-divorce family. “Now that we have a daughter, it’s changed the dynamics significantly,’’ Stefan says. “We’re really committed to doing things together. Sebastian is so happy when we do things together and Kris holds our daughter. For him, it’s having the definition of family. Once it was at the point where he could give everyone a name — once he had a definition of family, he was happy.”