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What Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's Divorce Can Teach Us

And while no one wishes a divorce on anyone -- unless it's clearly a dangerous situation -- divorce is sometimes the right thing to do, even if there are young kids involved.
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With all the fake divorce alerts certain media want to put out there -- everyone from Brad and Angelina to Ellen and Portia to the seemingly forever-divorcing Will and Jada -- it was hard to give any weight to rumors of Ben and Jen splitting until they announced it last week, a day after their 10th wedding anniversary (financial reasons? Perhaps).

And while no one wishes a divorce on anyone -- unless it's clearly a dangerous situation -- divorce is sometimes the right thing to do, even if there are young kids involved. But not all divorces are equal; there are some acrimonious divorces that last for years, damaging everyone in their path but mostly the kids (the attorneys are usually happy, though). Then there are divorcing couples that should be applauded in how they're handling their split. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are one such couple.

Here's what they are doing right:
  • They allegedly nearly split three years ago and since then have been doing whatever they could to make the marriage work, including marital therapy. Therapy can only go so far, however. Still, they are proof that most couples with kids try really hard before divorcing, which is why the movement to make divorce harder in this country is wrong headed, shaming and potentially damaging. If California had passed such a similar law that was now in place, Ben and Jennifer would be required to go to counseling again -- what are the chances that would make them change their minds and stay together? Oh, I'd bet between zilch and zilch.
  • They say they are sharing joint custody and will co-parent their children -- Violet, 9, Seraphina, 6, and Samuel, 3. There's lots of research that points to how beneficial this is for children. There are many divorcing couples that say they are putting their children first, but if they're not giving Dad (and it's usually Dad) equal access to his kids (assuming there's no addiction, incarceration, abuse, etc. issues) and letting him father his kids, then, sorry, they aren't.
  • Ben will live in a separate residence on the couple's three-acre Hollywood property. That means their children can have access to both parents easily without having to schlep back and forth between houses far apart. This is similar to the parenting marriage model my co-author and I advocate in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels -- while the parents are no longer in a romantic, sexual relationship with each other, they are fully present for their kids.

They are not the first couple to part kindly. A year ago Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin famously uncoupled consciously, and despite the snark and sneers from people who were clueless about the concept (and perhaps about a lot of things pertaining to divorce when you have kids), they, too, have put their kids first. Gwen and Chris, now divorced, live across the street from each other so their kids, Apple, 10, and Moses, 8, also can see their parents easily.

While Ben and Jennifer could have just as easily transformed their marriage into a parenting marriage, it's unlikely they needed to stay married to lessen divorce's financial impact, given their multimillion incomes. That isn't always the case for unhappy couples. But that doesn't mean those couples have to stay miserably together "for the kids."

When parents transform a marriage into a parenting marriage the form of the relationship changes, but they continue their most important job -- parenting. San Francisco psychologist Valerie Tate and her husband no longer have a sexual or romantic relationship, but they remain married and in the same home with their 11-year-old son, who benefits by not having his life upended.

"It was like a shift in what we were fighting for," she told me. Rather than to keep fighting for their romantic lives -- not that they didn't try -- their focus switched. Now they're truly putting their son's needs first by giving him stability, consistency, a relatively conflict-free home and their love.

I am not a fan of our celebrity-driven culture. I don't know what most celebrities can teach us about a healthy, meaningful life, including Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. But this time, we can learn a lot.

A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson's blog, OMG Chronicles. Interested in learning more about a parenting marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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