One of the major challenges divorce parents face is how to communicate effectively post-split, without major arguments. Self-help guides and divorced parenting programs regularly include strategies and suggestions about how to maintain a cordial working relationship with a former spouse. Why? Because one of the most consistent findings about what facilitates children's adjustment post-divorce is the degree to which former partners limit conflict.
So it is not surprising that scientists have begun to examine whether new electronic communication tools can be a help or hindrance to parents working out their post-divorce relationships. Early work by Aimee Miller suggests that in some cases, e-mail may help faciilate post-divorce communication, but no one has taken an in-depth look at all of the available communication tools until now.
A team of scientists at the University of Missouri led by Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman studied a group of 49 parents (mostly mothers) after their divorce to determine how divorced parents use communication technologies to manage their coparenting. This qualitative study involved 60 to 90 minute interviews followed by detailed coding methods to extract common themes.
In general, the parents interviewed for this study reported a wide range of ratings about the quality of their post-divorce relationship. Some parents reported a very positive relationship with their ex and others reported a very negative relationship.
The study's findings indicate that communication technologies can be used in both helpful and harmful ways. Parents with good relationships used communication technologies such as online calendars, email reminders and others to keep their former spouse informed about activities and routines. On the other hand, parents with poor relationships did not report that technology tools improve co-parenting. For these parents, technology was used as a controlling strategy to limit the information the other parent had or to try to influence their reactions to events. In some cases, cell phones were used five or more times per day; parents on the receiving end of the calls viewed this contact as harassment or troublesome and often sought to limit the contact.
There were a few cases in which technology was used to limit conflict. In these cases, e-mail could be used to reduce the volatility of the conversations. E-mail often gives parents the chance to edit their comments to reduce the hostility in the communication. The researchers reported that one parent was ordered by the judge to only communicate via e-mail or text in order to reduce the amount of conflict.
The authors conclude that "communication technologies... make boundary maintenance both easier and more challenging. They are unequivocally neither boon nor bane to divorced co-parents." For the most part, it seems that the technology tools matter relatively little. Parents who are trying to work on co-parenting can use these tools to enhance their communication and parenting skills. On the other hand, parents who are having difficulty co-parenting together after divorce may use these tools to harass, control and mislead the other parent. The big challenge that remains for divorced parents is not what technology to use to communicate, but how to find a way to work together to raise their children.