Does Cooperative Divorced Coparenting Matter?
New research explains consistent contact with divorced parents is critical.
Posted Feb 06, 2019
It may seem like common sense that children will experience fewer negative impacts when their parents are able to share parenting responsibilities following divorce (e.g., cooperative coparenting). When we began our forthcoming article on divorced coparenting and parent-youth relationships in the Journal of Family Issues, we expected to find just that. But we didn’t.
For our study, we surveyed almost 400 divorced individuals about their current coparenting experiences with former spouses and several aspects of their relationships with a child between 10 and 18 years old. Unexpectedly, there was little statistical difference in the dynamics in parent-youth relationships based on the type of coparenting relationship. Less surprisingly, we also found that higher-conflict, more disengaged coparents who saw their children infrequently knew the least about their children’s daily lives.
Types of Coparenting Relationships between Former Spouses
We took a Family Systems approach to our research and expected that positive co-parental relationships would spill over into more positive parent-child relationships. Our first step was to cluster the coparenting participants into distinct groups based on the three Cs – Communication, Cooperation, and Conflict (based on Constance Ahrons’ coparenting scales). We identified three types of coparenting: Cooperative; Moderately Engaged; and Conflictual and Disengaged. Cooperative parents (41% of parents) had the highest scores of communication and cooperation and the lowest levels of conflict, while Conflictual and Disengaged parents (16% of parents) had the lowest communication and cooperation scores and the highest levels of conflict. Moderately Engaged (43% of parents) were in the middle. These groups are similar to the types of post-divorce coparenting relationships identified in other studies.
We expected to find significant differences in parent-youth relationship outcomes (parental warmth and closeness, parental knowledge about youth’s daily lives, inconsistent discipline) between the coparenting types, but we did not. We also considered that the connections between coparenting and parent-youth relationships would be influenced by whether or not the parent had a new romantic partner or frequency of parent-youth contact. Although repartnering had no impact, parent-child contact did: We found that parents who reported having contact with their child monthly or less and who had a conflictual and disengaged coparenting relationship reported knowing significantly less about their children (e.g., who their friends are, what they do with their free time, how they do in school) than more conflictual and disengaged coparents who still saw their children more often.
Divorced Parent-Child Contact and Its Impact on Children
Our results may indicate that divorced parents are able to compartmentalize their relationships with former spouses from their relationships with their children. If that is the case, then ongoing, perhaps higher conflict, relationship experiences with former spouses may be kept separate from relationships with children, meaning that relational conflict has a more neutral impact on those parent-child relationships. This can be viewed as both a positive and a negative. As a positive, divorced parents that have conflictual or disengaged coparenting partners may be able to keep those feelings separate from how they interact with and parent their children. On the other hand, our results may suggest that parent-youth relationships do not benefit when former spouses are able to establish cooperative coparenting. As divorce becomes more institutionalized, it may be that divorced parents are better equipped to see their parental identity as separate from their relationship identity.
Although our study was primarily focused on the impact of coparenting following divorce, by including information on parent-youth contact (based on how often parents saw and talked to their children and how often the child spent the night at their house), we were able to determine that it was strongly associated with parent-youth relationships. When parents had daily contact with their child, they also reported more parental warmth, support, knowledge and consistent discipline. We will need to conduct further research to better understand the connections between parent-youth contact and relationship quality in the context of parental divorce. Yet, these results point to the importance of regular contact between parents and youth after parental divorce.
Most states require divorcing parents to attend divorce education programs. The content, length, and delivery of these programs can vastly differ from state-to-state, but these programs are often based on the same assumption as our study; that cooperative coparenting between former spouses will support positive outcomes in the children. Others, though, provide some evidence that cooperation is difficult to sustain among divorced parents. Our results provide some support that children may not be impacted by disengaged or conflictual coparenting and call for a deeper look into how different types of coparenting (i.e., cooperative, parallel) may be beneficial. Divorce education programs should also ensure that they are addressing contact between parents and children.
Beckmeyer, J. J., Coleman, M., & Ganong, L. H. (2014). Postdivorce coparenting typologies and children’s adjustment. Family Relations, 63, 526-537.
Ganong, L. H., Coleman, M., Jamison, T., Feistman, R., & Markham, M. S. (2012). Communication technology and post-divorce coparenting. Family Relations, 61, 397-409.
Markham, M. S., Hartenstein, J. L., Mitchell, Y. T., & Aljayyousi-Khalil, G. (2017). Communication among parents who share physical custody after divorce or separation. Journal of Family Issues, 38, 1414-1442.
Russell, L. T., Beckmeyer, J. J., Coleman, M., & Ganong, L. H. (2016). Perceived barriers to postdivorce coparenting: Differences between men and women and associations with post-divorce coparenting behavior. Family Relations, 65, 450-461
Troilo, J. (2016). Conceptualizations of divorced fathers and interventions to support involvement. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 5, 299 – 316.