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The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive,

by Robert E. Emery, Ph.D. (Viking Penguin, 2004, 321 pages, $24.95)

Reviewed by Carl D. Schneider, Ph.D.

ACResolution, Summer 2005, Vol. 4, #4, p. 5.

The Truth about Children and Divorce, Bob Emery’s new book, has just joined the short list of books I recommend to my divorcing clients. Emery brings to his work the special combination of being at the same time a mediator, researcher and therapist. And, I would add, he is also a skilled writer who avoids a lot of academic jargon and communicates his research findings in a form that is accessible to the public as well as to practitioners.

Some readers will react to a book titled “The Truth About…” But it’s a publisher’s title. The book’s sub-title is Emery’s real concern: “Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive” As a therapist, he spells out clearly how handling one’s emotions in divorce where children are involved is the key task. As he puts it, “How you manage or fail to manage your emotions is the most important task of divorce.”

As a researcher, he has another goal: clarifying the conflicting data on the impact of divorce on children. Ever since Judith Wallerstein’s controversial book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce suggested that parents might choose not to divorce for the sake of their children, we have seen divorcing parents anxious that they are harming their children. And on the other side, we have the self-help shelves offering the ‘good’ divorce.

In this book Emery takes his place alongside the judicious and thoughtful work of Joan Kelly as well as Mavis Hetherington. Emery offers an assessment of where the ‘truth’ lies about divorce: in the vast majority of cases, divorce, he notes, does not permanently damage children. But it is a major stressor and causes much pain. As he summarizes: “pain is not pathology. Grief is not a mental disorder. But it is also true that resilience is not invulnerability. The pain /is/ real.” (p. 81).

Finally, Emery employed his research skills on his own work as a mediator. He studied a group of couples contesting custody. Though working with small numbers, he was able to assign people randomly to two groups: one was offered mediation; the other had no intervention and so continued litigation. Amazingly, he found in a follow-up study that nonresidential parents in the couples who mediated “were three times more likely to see their children at least once a week twelve years after the mediation or legal proceedings ended” (p. 228). This is just one of a host of similar findings of significant difference between the litigated and mediated group 12 years later! Emery offers one of the most dramatic findings I know about the impact of mediation. All mediators should be aware of this study.

This is a self-help book, written for parents in the midst of divorce, but one that a professional can recommend in good conscience. The way Emery is able to make familiar points with fresh images and apt metaphors leaves the book a cut above the rest of the field. For example, regarding new relationships: “You get to pick your partner, but whom you get involved with is an arranged marriage for your children.”

About dating: “You’re ready to date when you’re ready to tell other people–including your ex and your children–that you’re dating…Beginning to date after divorce is kind of like unprotected sex: You shouldn’t start doing it unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.”

About parents abdicating decisions to their children about schedules: “How many children would be truant if parents asked them every morning if they wanted to go to school–and actually let the children decide?”

And I love his vivid description of the difference between the leaver and the left in divorce: “…the leaver…has thought through why he wants a divorce, built up a case in his mind about why his decision is right, and probably even carefully considered where the children might live, how the property might be divided, how his life might be afterward. If there is an affair, the leaver has already made a leap into a future–perhaps even what seems a very promising future–without the current spouse. The leaver possesses something her [his?] partner may need a very long time to develop–a vision of the future, a future outside this marriage… This might have taken him years or perhaps only months, but he has already started distancing himself from the marriage; he has already begun thinking of it as something that once was–not something that is, will be, could be, should be, might be.” (p. 38).

Emery is passionate in urging that parents do the hard work of being adults in order to protect their children in divorce. His passion, as well as his wisdom, clearly shines through in this book. I recommend it.

Carl D. Schneider, Ph.D. is director of Mediation Matters in Rockville, Maryland and an Advanced Practitioner member of ACR.

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