The words "normal" and "divorce" don't show up together very often.
But USC sociologist Constance R. Ahrons says it's about time they did.
Instead of defining divorce in the traditional negative terms--failed marriages, broken homes--she said we should see it for what it is: a valid societal institution.
"Divorce in our society is as much an institution as marriage," Ahrons said Saturday at the USC-sponsored Orange County Academic Symposium at the Irvine Hilton and Towers, "so it's best for us to normalize it and help people find ways to do it better.
"It's not a question of whether there should or shouldn't be divorce. There just is," said Ahrons, a professor of sociology and associate director of USC's Marriage and Family Therapy Program. She also has a family therapy practice in Santa Monica and is the co-author, with Roy H. Rodgers, of "Divorced Families," which was published in 1987 and is scheduled for release in paperback later this year.
To Ahrons, divorce is not only normal but, in many cases, successful. "In many ways, divorce is a safety valve," she said. "Good marriages do not end in divorce."
But, she said, that is not to say that the breakup of a marriage is ever a pleasant process: "I have never seen a divorce that wasn't painful and wasn't well thought out. It's a wrenching thing for the whole family. Divorce is painful. But so are many of life's transitions."
During the last 3 decades, Ahrons said, divorce rates "absolutely soared" and then stabilized at "historically high levels."
After a peak in 1979 of 5.4 divorces annually for every 1,000 Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the rate has since hovered at about 5 per thousand.
There have been about 10 marriages each year for every 1,000 people in the total U.S. population during the same period, with remarriages pushing up the overall rate. Ahrons said that by next year, social scientists expect that, for the first time, there will be more remarriages than first marriages.
(Quoting Samuel Johnson's crack, Ahrons called remarriage "the triumph of hope over experience.")
Families are here to stay, Ahrons said, "they're just becoming much more diverse."
"The changes have been really astronomical, and yet our attitudes have not shifted as quickly as the changes in society," she said.
The so-called traditional U.S. family--with its working father, stay-at-home mother and 2-point-something children--"has now come down to somewhere between 4% and 7% of American families," Ahrons said. "But we still hold that romanticized notion of the Ozzie and Harriet family of the '50s."
All other forms tend to be labeled alternative or deviant families, she said.
Social scientists are themselves partly responsible for giving divorce its negative stigma, Ahrons said. Before 1975, the only divorced families that researchers studied were those seeking help at child guidance centers and mental health clinics.
"You get what you look for," she said.
Instead of taking that approach, Ahrons became one of the first researchers in the nation to study a random sampling of divorced families. Under a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, she went through court records in one Wisconsin county, choosing names without knowing who had sought help or was having problems. "I wanted to look at divorce and remarriage from a perspective of normality," she said.
Ninety-eight divorcing couples agreed to participate. Ahrons and her assistants interviewed the couples, their children and later their new partners at 1 year, 3 years and 5 years after the divorce.
From that research, Ahrons concluded that the nuclear family does not cease to exist when there is a divorce. Instead, it becomes what she calls a binuclear family, "with 2 households rather than 1."
Binuclear families become more complex when parents remarry, often to members of other bi-nuclear families. Ahrons passed out copies of a chart describing "one of the simpler examples," in which a child has two parents, two stepparents, four grandparents, four step-grandparents, a half-brother, a half-sister and two stepsisters. The stepparents' former spouses are also part of the network, although they have no official link with the child.
"Between 40% and 50% of children will experience in their lifetime more than two parents," she said.
The divorced couples Ahrons studied tended to fall into four categories, which she dubbed Perfect Pals, Cooperative Colleagues, Angry Associates and Fiery Foes.
Perfect Pals, which made up the smallest proportion of the group, "really feel like they are best friends," Ahrons said. "They just don't want to be married, but they still maintain a very close relationship."
They tend to have joint custody of the children. When they get together for holidays, graduations or other occasions, "they seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company."
Those in the largest group, Cooperative Colleagues, "are able to get along around the kids," she said. "They hadn't necessarily resolved all the issues in the divorce or in their relationship, but they could separate out what was appropriate to the situation and what was not. They were more cordial than friendly.
"I think (members of) this particular group are role models for the divorcing. We've had no role models. All the humor about divorce has always been negative; all of the cards that are out there are negative. There's nothing that acknowledges that these two people, if they have a child, are probably going to have some relationship for the rest of their lives. They will both be grandparents of the same grandchildren."
As for Angry Associates, Ahrons said: "They had about the same amount of anger (as Cooperative Colleagues), but they were not able to separate it out." While the first two groups could function together for certain events, the AAs had trouble planning anything together.
And Fiery Foes? "You can imagine what they were like," she said. "They fought about everything, and they dragged everybody into the fight."
When this group had a graduation or a wedding, "one person, usually the father, would be left out completely." Over the years, these couples tended to shift toward the two middle categories.
Overall, the couples studied were divided about 50-50 between the two positive and two negative groups.
In the first interview, some husbands or wives saw the divorce almost exclusively as their partner's idea. "But as time passed, they came to see it as a mutual decision," Ahrons said.
An emerging pattern of serial monogamy was clear in the couples studied, Ahrons said, adding that the late anthropologist Margaret Mead was a pioneer in that respect: "Someone once asked her, 'To what do you attribute the failure of your three marriages?' And she said, 'I don't know what you mean. I had three successful marriages, all for different developmental phases of my life.'
"Marriage is here to stay," Ahrons said. "We just may have more than one marriage in a lifetime. The person you choose at 19 may not be at 40 a person you can live with."
In the future, Mead's multiple marriages will not seem unusual, she said: "Many people can anticipate three marriages."
Does that mean the words "till death do us part" should be deleted from the marriage vows? That's already happening, Ahrons said: "I've been to weddings where that wasn't said."