Fewer than 30 pages into psychologist and divorce mediator Robert Emery’s new book, Two Homes, One Childhood, I was taking notes. I’m not getting divorced, and I’m not going to be time-sharing my toddler with another caregiver. But, I realized I could still use his advice. “Like parents who live apart,” Dr. Emery said in an email when I asked him about this, “married parents often struggle to be a team as parents as well as partners.” Agree.
About 50 percent of the children growing up right now will experience their parents divorcing before they turn 18. Research —some of it conducted by Dr. Emery — has shown that “children of divorce” suffer psychologically, they perform worse in school, they’re less healthy, and they’re even more likely to attempt suicide later in life. But Dr. Emery’s book argues that none of that needs be so. He writes that children whose parents divorce need not be “children of divorce,” and they can, in fact, avoid all of these consequences, even if they experience the deep pain of their parents’ separation.
But the book works for all parents, I think, particularly those of young children, because the experience of having a baby can bring an unexpected amount of stress into our lives and relationships. In fact, many people feel like their relationship is put on hold while they learn to keep a new human being alive. It’s a turbulent time, but Emery offers a welcome reminder that we can be effective, loving, and authoritative parents, even when our relationships are under stress.
Conflict, he argues, is the biggest source of pain for children. It’s conflict that causes the problems, anxiety, and fear in our kids. “The cause of your devastating pain,” he writes, “is also your children’s other parent.” The two of you, he goes on, “have a job to do, not a relationship to resolve.”
Dr. Emery gives extremely concrete and valuable advice to parents who are trying to raise children in loving, warm, and safe homes. In the course of doing so, he makes a surprisingly compelling argument that 50/50 arrangements — where parents equally split time caring for the child —aren’t usually best for the child, even if they’re what the parents want. His focus is very firmly on the child; if you’re thinking about your own needs, some of his answers and advice might go down a little bitterly. If you’re the child of divorce yourself, though (as I am), the approach is refreshing — maybe life doesn’t have to be so complicated, if the logistics are considered calmly.
Emery is thinking of the parents’ needs in one extremely important respect: money. He writes that, as a mediator, one of his primary goals is to keep divorcing families out of court, regardless of how acrimonious their ongoing negotiations are. If they can resolve their issues themselves, he says, they will save themselves money, time, and pain, and their arrangements will almost certainly benefit their children moving forward.
He backs this up with a study he conducted of 71 families who had filed petitions for child-custody hearings. The parents were assigned to either try meditation or be evaluated by the court. Emery is himself a mediator and a big fan of the process, which involves paying a professional to sit with you and your (soon-to-be-ex) partner to resolve disputes instead of heading straight to court. His study found that 90 percent of the mediation families settled their “custody dispute without ever arguing their case before a judge,” while a judge was necessary in 70 percent of the court evaluation group.
But maybe more importantly, 12 years later the mediation-group families were more likely to have two involved parents still parenting their children. In other words, he writes, “an average of six hours of mediation twelve years prior causes these huge differences,” helping families to work their problems out on their own, without litigation. It is a compelling and refreshing argument.
“Ironically,” Emery tells me, “some parents communicate openly and honestly for the first time in mediation.” He says that, though it isn’t the point of mediation, couples sometimes even end up deciding to stay together once the lines of communication are opened up. “Most parents are in mediation to make their breakup less painful,” he says, “but some parents do decide to reconcile or at least try” during the process.
Emery’s book is divided in part by the age of the children at issue: babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and so on, and he argues that the approach to co-parenting should be flexible and take their age into account. He also argues, probably somewhat controversially, that younger children are often best served by spending most of their time in one home, not switching back and forth a lot.
This is cold comfort to parents with 50/50 split goals, but it also makes a lot of sense for anyone with a very young baby or child. Emery’s consistent, businesslike approach is a reminder that divorce doesn’t have to be as awful for your children as it is for you.