Prominent psychotherapist Constance Ahrons challenged negative stereotypes around divorce
Constance Ahrons, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, died Nov. 29, 2021, after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. She was 84.
A champion of “collaborative” divorce, Ahrons encouraged couples to navigate divorce in a positive fashion that enabled them to “agree to disagree,” to continue parenting their children while meeting their physical and emotional needs and to avoid a court case.
“In a good divorce,” she wrote, “a family with children remains a family,” even when the parents create different households with new partners.
Both Ahrons’ own marriages ended in divorce — the first, she often noted, had been contentious — and she was determined to help others find a better way.
Ahrons joined USC Dornsife in 1984 and taught sociology until she was appointed professor emeritus in 2001. She is best known for her book The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart(HarperCollins, 1994).
Ahrons, who coined the term “binuclear” to describe a family where the parents live apart in two separate households but are both involved in parenting their children, used the book to argue for collaborative divorce at a time when the dissolution of a marriage still bore considerable stigma.
“The good divorce is not an oxymoron,” Ahrons wrote. “A good divorce is one in which both the adults and children emerge at least as emotionally well as they were before the divorce.”
Jennifer Hook, professor of sociology at USC Dornsife, notes that the book, written for a public audience, was based on a longitudinal study of families that spanned more than 20 years.
“Ahrons found that about half of divorces were ‘good,’ meaning that the former spouses maintained family bonds and met the needs of their children,” Hook said. “She argued that to support families, we need to destigmatize divorce and support parents and children to thrive in their new ‘binuclear’ (rather than ‘single parent’) family structure. Her work was prescient; we can see the echoes in the increased use of co-parenting plans today.”
Conservative critics saw her work as contributing to the decline of the nuclear family, but Ahrons insisted that she was not advocating for divorce. Instead, she wanted to help couples who had already made the decision to end their marriage to understand that there were ways to handle the process in a positive and constructive manner that could be beneficial.
Her book proved immensely popular and was translated into several languages, while Ahrons was a frequent guest on talk shows and the lecture circuit.
The Good Divorce was followed by We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce(Harper, 2004), in which she studied how grown children viewed their parents’ divorce. The adult children she interviewed for this book were the same children of the divorced parents she had interviewed 20 years earlier for her initial research.
“Connie Ahrons’ book The Good Divorce was an extremely important contribution to public sociology at a moment of vicious backlash against single mothers,” he said. “She was a generous mentor, and when she needed to be, a very tough cookie, including fighting to hire and tenure junior women at a time when there were very few women in the sociology department.”
Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Florence Everline Professor of Sociology at USC Dornsife, agreed. “Connie Ahrons’ legacy lives on through the feminist mentorship she provided to so many graduate students, and through her impactful scholarship on family and divorce.”
Inspired by feminism
Ahrons was born April 16, 1937, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, to Russian immigrant Jacob Ahrons and his Polish-born wife Estelle (Katz) Ahrons. The couple owned and operated an appliance store in Somerville, New Jersey, where Ahrons grew up.
She attended Beaver College in Glenside, Pennsylvania, (renamed Arcadia University in 2001), but dropped out of college when she married lawyer Jac Weiseman in 1956 and gave birth to her first child the following year.
Finding herself caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of housework, laundry and child care, the former undergraduate was — like many women of that era — prescribed tranquilizers. But after reading Betty Friedan’s 1963 seminal feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique, Ahrons threw away the pills and resumed her studies at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, graduating in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She and Weiseman divorced the same year.
In 1967, she earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and, two years later, married therapist Morton Perlmutter, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Social Work.
Ahrons received her PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1973. She taught at the university’s School of Social Work for several years and co-founded the Wisconsin Family Studies Institute, where she worked as a therapist.
A lasting legacy
After joining USC Dornsife’s Department of Sociology in 1984, she became the director of USC’s Marriage and Family Therapy Training Program (MFT) in 1996.
Alumna Gloria González-López, now a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, was one of Ahrons’ doctoral students.
“The feminist poster of Golda Meir with the legend ‘But can she type?’ was the first thing I remember seeing every time she opened the door to meet with us during her office hours at USC,” González-López said. “She introduced me to the world of feminist psychotherapy in my professional training and was a great role model. Her important theorizing and research in family studies and feminism across disciplines will survive the test of time.”
Ahrons’ influence on USC Dornsife students continues to this day, according to Hook.
“The PhD program at USC Dornsife’s Department of Sociology owes a special debt to Professor Ahrons — she ensured that the Frey Endowment that we use to support graduate student travel and research transferred to our PhD program when the MFT program ended in 2000,” Hook said.
The department recently honored Ahrons by naming its graduate student travel award after her. The Constance Ahrons Travel Award pays for costs related to participation in professional meetings.
According to her daughters, Geri Kolesar and Amy Weiseman, Ahrons’ work excelled at USC Dornsife and she felt particularly fond of the students.
“Our mother happily left behind Wisconsin winters and quickly made Southern California her home,” Kolesar and Weiseman said in a written statement. “The acclaim from her groundbreaking research reached new heights while she was at USC, and she welcomed the support she received to continue her research. Mom adored her students and was thrilled to work with PhD candidates who shared her interest in making her research accessible to the public and practitioners.”
Ahrons was the founding co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit group of family researchers that uses peer-reviewed academic research to provide an alternative to ideologically oriented think tanks. She was also an internationally renowned lecturer, consultant and workshop leader and the director of Divorce and Remarriage Consulting Associates in San Diego.
A Radcliffe Institute Fellow from 2000 to 2001, Ahrons was honored with an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Literary Association for The Good Divorce.
Ahrons, a strong believer in choice about how one lives and how one dies, chose to end her life by the process set forth in the California End of Life Option Act, with trusted medical professionals and family by her side at her home in San Diego.
She is survived by her daughters, Kolesar and Weiseman; four grandchildren; and a brother, Richard Ahrons. Her longtime partner, Roy Rodgers, with whom she wrote her first book, Divorced Families: A Multidisciplinary Developmental View (W. W. Norton & Co., 1987), died two months after her.