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The Good Divorce

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by Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D..

Pete's Photo World is a Cincinnati household name, providing the latest photographic equipment and services through its seven stores, along with generous tips from experts like Pete. What is remarkable is that Pete (an engaging, technical, sales guy) and his business partner Linda (a savvy, marketing, management gal) are divorced.

When Linda and Pete Koerbel decided to end their marriage five years ago, they also decided that they still had the capacity to be good business partners. They were well motivated to sustain their family business together, not only because it was their most significant asset, but also because their only son Michael, a purchasing wiz now in his 30s, provided the third leg of their management team, and he loved the business too.

How would divorce, or the possibility of divorce, affect your family business? Tough as it may be to imagine a scenario like Pete's, the divorce rate in the U.S. has hovered around 50% for some time now, and family business owners are not exempt. The good news is that a growing body of information about how to manage a divorce (may I say "successfully"?) is now available. A marital divorce between business owners gives new meaning to the term "limited partnership" - a partnership that focuses on sustaining a business, or providing for children, even though the marriage has legally ended.

The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Falls Apart by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., published in 1994, provides durable information about how to walk through the thickets of divorce in the least painful way possible. Some divorcing couples become so hostile and vindictive that there is no way they can continue to operate a successful business together; others really can develop co-operative relationships to accomplish significant goals beyond themselves.

There is no "one size fits all" divorce. Ahrons developed a typology of five different types of divorces, based on her intensive research with 98 couples, that may help you determine whether or not your own family members may be able to sustain a "limited partnership".

Perfect Pals are high communicators, about 12% of the sample. They continue to speak with each other once or twice a week, and trust each other as friends, even if they can no longer live together. They remain involved with each other's extended families, often raising children through shared parenting arrangements and joining together frequently for birthdays parties and soccer tournaments. Although a minority, this style works best in the early years of a divorce, with young children, before remarriage, or later in life, after children are raised.

Cooperative Colleagues (38% of Ahrons' sample) are functional communicators who talk to each other when necessary, and can collaborate as parents for their children's benefit. They can usually divide holidays and vacation time without calling in lawyers, because they can "compartmentalize" the issues that they must resolve, and compromise when necessary. Although remarriage and financial differences eventually complicate their lives, these colleagues maintain fundamental respect for each other. They can attend major family events, such as graduations or weddings with civility, and perhaps conduct business together, if they have separate turf and clearly defined responsibilities.

Angry Associates let their unresolved anger smolder, not far below the surface. Even if they have been legally divorced for years, they may not be emotionally divorced, since they remain connected through the electricity of their anger. This 25% of Ahrons' sample have the same fights over and over, often about financial control or parenting issues. When they do communicate, they have difficulty resolving issues in a rational or practical way, since anger continues to dominate their relationship.

Fiery Foes, another 25% of the sample, can't tolerate any contact with each other, especially after highly litigious divorces. If they do meet unexpectedly, any tinder can re-kindle rage. These exes can't remember good times in their marriages at all. Because they usually feel that their just rights have been violated, perhaps by infidelity or other deceptions, they continually build evidence of the other's alleged wrongdoings, since they expect trouble again in the future.

Dissolved Duos are not counted in Ahrons' study, because one of the parties was not even available for interviews, usually having moved out of town, without any predictable contact with their children. This is a truly single parent family, with only vague memories of a married life, and a lack of emotion, or indifference, characterizing their predominant attitudes towards the former spouse.

Since divorces can evolve in so many different ways, business owners need to first assess the degree of hostility within the couple. Perfect Pals and Cooperative Colleagues (which together make up half of the divorced population) may have a chance of continuing to work together effectively, especially if they are well motivated through common interest and the talent to sustain a business.

Members of a Dissolved Duo will function very much like single persons, especially after they let go of their sadness about the marriage "that might have been". The other half represented in Ahrons' sample - the Angry Associates or Fiery Foes - will ferment conflict wherever they come together. The business stands at risk, especially if both persist in maintaining their conflict - and their association with the company.

So, even though you and I both have a bias in favor of marriage, sometimes marriage counseling fails, and divorce becomes inevitable. Here are some tips for avoiding the worst outcomes, and developing a "Good Divorce" - good enough for the former partners, and good enough for the family business.

1. Let go of old myths about divorce: that it always results in a "broken" family; that it is absolutely a personal failure; that it is the worst thing that can happen.

Some relationships become healthier once the family is re-structured and tension is reduced. For abusive or addictive behavior, sometimes the reality of divorce is the only shock that gets an individual - and the whole family - into treatment. Divorce then becomes a relief, a source of safety. Sometimes a divorce happens even though one partner is highly motivated to change, and the other is not. It takes two to make a marriage work, but either one can end it. Only the couple, not outsiders, knows who contributed what kind of effort within their intimate life together.

I once met a couple who said that, because of their religious beliefs, divorce was absolutely out of the question. They then continued to fight and demean each other, certain that, no matter how nasty it got, neither would leave. As painful as divorce may be, without it as an option, some of us would be much less motivated to change.

2. Recognize that your family is not ended, but changed: Children raised in a household with two biological parents who love each other, work together effectively as parents, and have the skills and resources to sustain a stable, nurturing home are lucky indeed, but that is not the only alternative. If a nuclear family experiences divorce, there are other healthy structures that can evolve. Some single family homes are quite healthy, especially if there is a "co-parent" around - a relative or another single parent, who provides practical and emotional back up when needed.

Even though you will always be parents to your children, there is no such thing as a "blended family", no matter how much the popular press insists on using the term. "Blended" implies smooth, as if everything folds in together without lumps or streaks. "Bi-nuclear" is probably a more accurate term to describe a family that now has two centers, with many differences between mom's house or dad's house.

3. Recognize that kids are resilient, but also vulnerable: especially if they are told the truth, without unnecessary adult details, and neither parent uses the children as weapons against the other, many children adapt amazingly well. If their extended family - grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles - continues to reach out to them, kids figure out new ways to be family. Grandparents develop new, essential roles. The sib relationship often becomes stronger, since brothers and sisters share only with each other the unique experience of moving back and forth between binuclear homes.

But the new research of psychologist Judith Wallerstein also recognizes the vulnerabilities of children in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark:

  • if the marriage was unexpectedly disrupted, without overt conflict,

  • if the divorce was nasty,

  • if divorced fathers did not continue to support their children (in her sample 30% of fathers did not fund their childrens' college education) or

  • above all, if the quality of parental support before, during, and after the divorce, was diminished,

children of divorce had difficulty in sustaining personal relationships in adulthood. They had difficulty trusting others sufficiently to form a lasting bond, and they became pessimistic about their own ability to do so, since those they had trusted most, their own parents, had been unable to do so.

4.When divorcing parents are under maximum stress, their children's needs are maximum too: some parents "lose it" for months following the shock of a divorce, and work so hard to keep body and soul together (to get everybody fed, to school on time and bills paid) that they miss their children's emotional needs.

Meanwhile, your children may protect you from their pain, because they know you are overwhelmed. Or they may idealize the absent parent - the one who doesn't make them take out the garbage every day. If you can't focus on each child for at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time each day, call in the reserves - family, friends, ministers, counselors, coaches, teachers, pediatricians - whoever can help your child sort out this major disruption in his/her life, so it does not become a recurring problem of trust, as Wallerstein described, in adult life. Can you still have a family meal once a week, even if one of the chairs is empty? Can you play a game or shoot some baskets? You and your children may heal each other.

5. The process of divorce is predictable - it can be charted: no matter how upsetting and crazy-making the initial shock of a divorce may be, the psychological process of a divorce follows a pattern, even though it seems like a roller coaster of…

denial (This can't be happening to me!)
rage (How dare you put our family through this!)
bargaining (I'll change whatever you want changed.)
cool compromise (If you want the football tickets, I'll take the time share in the Caymans.)
resolution (How can we get through this in the best way possible?).

Others have been there and have survived. There is life beyond divorce, and sometimes a better one...

Support groups with other divorcing persons can really help manage strange, new emotional reactions, because you learn you are not alone. Co-workers need basic information about what is happening, especially if you are "not quite yourself", but they cannot support you 24/7 and still do their jobs. If you cannot concentrate, sleep or eat normally, and do your job most days, it's time to consult a professional counselor or consider an anti-depressant to help you manage stress, until you can stabilize your life again.

6. It takes two to five years to get over a major loss, such as divorce: so be easy on yourself, knowing that you have to first get through all the seasons of the year in a new way, including holidays, birthdays, and even anniversaries. Usually, by the second year, new customs develop, and the pain dulls. An adjustment that lasts as long as five years depends on whether the marriage had been dysfunctional for years or not, the length of the marriage, the depth of the relationship before it was upended, and the reasons behind the break-up.

Divorcing persons who move quickly into new relationships, without working through the agony of what went wrong in the original marriage, may be condemned to repeat the same mistakes. Even though serial monogamy may be the prevailing form of marriage in the US today, breaking up, as the song says, is hard to do. It takes a psychological, emotional, social, physical, spiritual and financial toll, and healing requires time and effort. Those who never heal may live out their lives in unresolved conflict or bitterness , and transmit those feelings to the next generation.

7. In the midst of a divorce, decisions affecting the business need to be made wearing your business hat: Especially if the family business is your primary financial resource, the last thing you want to do is lose that too. For some, a brief leave of absence, may be appropriate; for others, work becomes essential to give structure to each day.

Of course, in a vindictive divorce between Angry Associates or Fiery Foes the business itself may become the target. I don't believe anyone gets married with the goal of getting divorced, but the family business needs to protect itself in advance from such a possibility, through buy-sells that keep the business stock in the original family, or through pre-nuptual agreements. Even when an amicable divorce happens between owners, retirement plans need to be revisited, in order to support two households rather than one. Divorce highlights the necessity for each family member, employed or holding stock in the family business, to have an exit strategy, and a way to redeem stock fairly and gracefully, without putting the business at risk.

Given our extended life spans and the extraordinary changes that happen before that 50th anniversary party, a lifelong, loving marriage may be something of a miracle. Every family I know, including my own, has at least one divorce within it. Family business owners can't pretend it will never happen to them. They can educate themselves, protect the business from the worst ravages of divorce, and determine that a "Good Divorce" will no longer be only an oxymoron.

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