It is National Families Week – a time to celebrate the importance of families in our lives and to talk about strengthening family relationships. So it may seem odd to write about breaking up; but we cannot just focus on intact families.
About 25% of children born in the early 1980s experienced their parents living apart by the time they were in their late teenage years. For children born in the late-1990s it was 40%. That is not because the divorce rate has increased. It hasn’t. More and more people are living in de facto relationships and these break down at a much greater rate than marriages, even when there are children. Another reason for the increase is that the number of children born to single mothers doubled between the early 1980s and 2005 – the last year that statistics on this were collected.
Anyone who has experienced the breakup of a marriage or de facto relationship knows how messy it can be – in fact it is a tribute to the maturity and self-control of the parents involved if it isn’t messy.
So how do we break up well, and in a way that is most protective of the children?
1. Assume the breakup will be difficult for the children
There was a time when popular magazines told us constantly that it was better for the children that the parents divorce than that they remain in an unhappy marriage. Sometimes that is true. Children suffer from living in the midst of domestic warzones. They can suffer significant psychological harm from being exposed to witnessing domestic violence. However, many breakups are not of that kind. The parents drift apart, or have too many conflicts about money, or one decides that he or she can find greater happiness in a new relationship.
Even if there has been very high conflict in the relationship, the children will still suffer loss. Having had two parents as a constant in their lives, now they only have one. Visiting the other parent at weekends or in school holidays is not the same as having him or her as a regular presence. In shared care arrangements, children have to navigate life in two different homes. This works very well for some, but not others. Finances are likely to be stretched after separation too – having two lots of rent, mortgage payments or utility bills can never be as cheap as a single home.
Children may also suffer other losses, for example having to move schools with the consequent loss of friendships because Mum must move to an area with more affordable housing. All these impact children’s wellbeing.
Recognising that children are likely to suffer from the parents’ breakup should focus each parent’s attention and priorities on the children’s needs, despite all the other issues, concerns and emotions with which they must deal.
2. Realise that the family still exists
Modern divorce is not the end of the family. It is just the end of the parents’ relationship. The family, comprising mother, father and children, continues, but undergoes a significant restructuring into two homes.
This ‘bipolar’ family will continue to evolve as new partners come along or changes occur in where one or both parents live. It is a family that can be added to but not subtracted from, except in the most serious cases of violence and abuse where one parent is deemed unfit to have a continuing connection with the children.
Recognising that children continue to have two parents, whom typically they love and need to be loved by, is an important anchor point for breaking up well. Parents who seek to undermine or destroy the children’s relationship with the other parent may do them incalculable harm. Whatever has caused the breakup, however badly one or other parent has behaved towards the other, these are typically adult issues. These are things that children simply don’t need to know. Maybe when they are adults it might be different, but in the heat of the breakup, they need to be sheltered from the conflict.
3. Realise that you will be happiest if you can forgive
Forgiveness is very hard, because, fundamentally, it is unjust. Justice involves retribution, seeing that the other person gets what he or she deserves. The desire for revenge is often expressed through taking unreasonable positions in family law proceedings; but an attitude of hatred and unforgiveness ultimately hurts only ourselves. It can eat away at us, and trap us in the past rather than being able to move on to a better future.
When I was going through my own divorce, a friend who was a Family Court judge told me that the darkness always ends. He was right. It is so hard to see an end to the sadness and conflict at the time, but however long the tunnel may be, eventually we will see again the light of the sun and feel the freshness of the open air. Every ending opens up the possibility of a new beginning. In that tunnel, we must do everything we can to preserve the children’s capacity for hope and joy.