New York Times: “New Frontiers: Divorced but Friends”

June 1, 1988

New York Times

June 2, 1988, C:1:4
“New Frontiers: Divorced but Friends”

RELATIONS in families after divorce have come a long way since the mid-1970’s, when the term ”joint custody” was just being defined and when tension or outright hostility between former spouses was the norm. Now that many divorced couples are civil to each other – or at least try to be – comes the next brave frontier: should they, along with their new mates, become close friends?

Experts respond with a ”definite maybe.” They concur that it is good to be able to share such family celebrations as graduations and weddings without a rancorous sideshow among old and new mates. The same holds true in tragedy. The supportive bonds among Jennifer Levin’s mother, father, stepmother and other family members after Miss Levin’s murder were an enormous help to all of them, according to the slain girl’s mother, Ellen Levin.

The full sharing of joys and sorrows requires not just strained civility, but the ability to get along well. It is in the child’s best interest, experts say, if the several parents in a child’s life can work as a team, with the natural parents taking the lead.

Teamwork also eliminates the conflicts of loyalty that children feel in moving between unfriendly homes. For adolescents especially, good will between divorced parents means one less problem in their lives.

A few families take such relationships even further. Former spouses and their new partners all take a joint vacation, for example, or plan parties together for the fun of it.

Jeffry Galper served as best man when his first wife, Miriam, married Herb Cohen four years ago. Mr. Galper, a former Temple University professor, now lives in Hinesburg, Vt., with his third wife, Nicandra. Miriam Galper Cohen of Philadelphia considers her first husband a close friend of 24 years. In fact, she is the only person other than his mother to have been present at all three of his weddings. For his second wedding, she addressed the invitations. She has warm relations with both his second and third wives.

Their situation is ”pretty unique,” said Nicandra Galper, ”but it seems normal to me.”

”It’s the way things should be between mature people,” she said.

”It should not be surprising that there would be a basis for friendship,” said Helen Crohn, a New York family therapist and an author of ”Treating the Remarried Family,” a clinical text published by Brunner/Mazel in 1983. ”They are often of similar age, temperament and socioeconomic grouping. And they also have the common bond of the children.” Ms. Crohn was an initiator of the Stepfamily Association, a national peer organization formed in the New York area in 1983.

When Miriam Galper Cohen, a psychotherapist, and Dr. Galper separated in 1974 after 11 years of marriage, all the family therapists they consulted questioned their decision to become ”co-parents” for their son, Josh. Her decision to become friends with Dr. Galper’s subsequent wives raised even more eyebrows at the time.

”They said it indicated that we had never separated emotionally and that Josh would not be able to distinguish fantasy from reality,” Mrs. Cohen said. ”There was often the intimation that something was wrong with us.”

Josh, now 18, has benefited enormously, she said. That is not to say his life has been problem-free. The main benefit is that he has no need to feel disloyal for showing love to one family or the other.

”I don’t know that everyone can do what we have done, or should do it,” she said. ”People must do what’s right for them.” Myrna Felder, a New York matrimonial lawyer, said that as society’s view of divorce has changed, so has the ability of individuals to adapt cordially to their new situation. She sees the change increasingly in her practice.

”This does not diminish my astonishment that people in these circumstances are able to become good friends,” she said. ”But it certainly hasn’t happened to any of my clients.”

Peter G. Jolin, a psychotherapist in Austin, Tex., and the author of ”How to Succeed as a Stepparent” (New American Library, 1981), said he would never encourage such a relationship as a model. ”It’s full of traps and breaks down when there is a crisis with the children,” he said, ”As far as I’m concerned, cordial is the limit.”

However, Dr. Donald A. Bloch, director of the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy, a nonprofit teaching and research center in Manhattan, said friendship after divorce is ”a good idea for some people.”

”I have seen it work well,” he said. ”But it is much more the exception than the rule.”

Some people, he said, have difficulty moving beyond a ”ferocious sense of personal pain.” Others find the presence of a spouse’s former mate enormously threatening. But that, he said, usually bespeaks a lack of security in the new relationship.

What helped two families change from adversaries to close friends was a week of joint counseling they underwent on television in 1983 on the ABC show ”Good Morning America.” The show’s producers found them through the Stepfamily Association and invited them to appear. The public counseling helped Bob Dinkel and Karen Baxter focus on their responsibility to their children instead of the bitter circumstances of their divorce.

Mrs. Baxter was Mr. Dinkel’s first wife and the mother of his two sons, Greg and Jeff. She and her husband, Jerry Baxter, live in Minneapolis. Mr. Dinkel and his wife, Sharon Hanna, live in Lincoln, Neb.

In describing how far they had come, Ms. Hanna said that when her stepson Jeff graduated from high school in 1982, she and her husband refused to attend the party the Baxters gave in Jeff’s honor. This weekend Ms. Hanna’s daughter by her previous marriage is graduating; the Baxters have been invited and are planning to attend.

The families gave a workshop on what they have achieved at the national Stepfamily Association conference last June in Lincoln, Neb. ”The key thing is to get rid of the emotional baggage you carry around,” Ms. Hanna said.

Mrs. Baxter said therapy was the key to their success. ”Maybe in cases without bitter, hard feelings you would not need a professional,” she said. ”We learned you have to sit down and talk about it. You have to forget what happened in the marriage. You have to learn to listen to your ex-spouse as a person and not as an ex-spouse. You have to be concerned with the children involved and the damage to them that has to be repaired.”

Positive relations among the adults have improved relations between the children and adults, she said. Mr. Dinkel said the effect on his two sons has been ”like night and day.”

”They are now free to love and express positive feelings for all of their parents,” he said, ”and this has deepened my relationship with each of them.”

Other essentials are thick skin and a sense of humor, even in symbolic slights. Ms. Hanna recalled the corsages distributed by the bride’s family at the wedding of her stepson Jeff: orchids for the mothers of the bride and bridegroom, and a carnation for Ms. Hanna.

”Jeff had lived with us for four years,” she said, adding, with a laugh, ”You’d think I’d rate more than a carnation.”

Ms. Hanna said another key to building a comfortable relationship between divorced people is creating occasions for pleasant experiences and opportunities to discuss the children. She spoke of a river trip in Wisconsin the couples took together. While shooting rapids, she capsized and hit her head. Her husband, Bob, and his ex-wife, Karen, came to the rescue. With everyone safe on shore, they imagined the newspaper headline a less happy result might have provoked.