As a child, I felt defensive whenever a friend's parent would look at me with pity. I could hear their thoughts in their concerned gaze: Your parents are divorced? Your life must be miserable. I didn't feel miserable. My parents didn't fight. I was closer to both my mom and my dad than many of my peers with married parents. Two parents who were no longer married seemed far less misery-making than some of the other family dynamics I saw around me—alcoholism kept secret, mistrust and lying, even violence at home.
When my husband and I decided to split, forty years later, I was surprised by some of the very same sentiment surfacing. This was in 2012, decades later. Family life had changed dramatically. Half my forty-something friends in New York City hadn't married at all. And yet, the fear of divorce persisted, and the conviction that our child's life would be destroyed if our relationship no longer included marriage.
I began researching divorce, wanting to know why this negative view has lasted well into the new millennium, and why my own experience wasn't as devastating as that of some people around me. Also, I wanted to know how my parents divorce had affected me, really. Perhaps it left lasting scars I couldn't see?
What I discovered was that many of our fears are based on the facts of an earlier era, inflammatory and even biased reporting, conflated stats, and outdated or inaccurate studies—one so faulty its own author retracted it.
Divorce has such a bad reputation for other reasons, too. It's incredibly hard to untangle two lives, and we have all seen battles between former-weds that last for years, or even decades. We probably all know children derailed by their parents' anger and preoccupation and instability.
The biggest thing I learned in my three years of research is that when it comes to divorce, how you do it matters. It isn't marriage or divorce that leads to a child's happiness, but rather having good relationships with parents who are not embroiled in fighting.
This idea is the motivation behind the parenting classes available in most states today, and mandated in some jurisdictions. The best meta-study on the topic is by University of Cambridge scholar Michael Lamb, shows. And this is something we can all work on, in marriage and in divorce.
The more I researched this topic, the more passionate I became about our need to expand our definition of a "good family," and to bring our best selves to all our relationships—those with our children and with a former partner.
Fortunately, there are more tools available today than at any time in history to help us all protect our families, move past anger, and shore up our sense of security and stability.
* This post originally appeared on wendyparis.com.