January 11, 2012

Divorce: is it the best choice? (6 PHOTOS)

Separations rocket in January, but can only increase the conflict in children's lives
Web searches for 'divorce' rise dramatically in January as couples that limped through Christmas give up the ghost. But should we be staying together for the kids? Annalisa Barbieri asks the experts

Web searches for 'divorce' rise dramatically in the period after Christmas, and by the time the estate agents and lawyers are back at their desks, the air is thick with the sound of phones ringing. "My phones go wild come January 3rd," one estate agent said, "with warring couples who have tried to stick it out over Christmas, wanting to get their houses valued."

This is sad enough, but when you have children, the subject of divorce – emotional at the best of times – becomes incredibly complicated. One the questions I get asked most, via my Problem Solved column in the Family section is "should we stay together for the sake of the children?".

(I need to pause here to explain that this isn't a question relevant to a household where there is abuse or violence; in such cases the safety of the children is paramount. This article is looking at households where the parents just don't get on anymore.)

To help look at this enormous question, I asked two people who deal with divorcing couples all the time. Chris Mills, who is an integrative psychotherapist and collaborative family consultant (collaborative law is fairly new in this country, it encourages a more civil divorce proceeding and was started in America by a Buddhist divorce lawyer who got fed up of watching couples tearing each other apart) and Professor Peter Stratton, chair of the UKCP Research faculty and a systemic psychotherapist.

Stratton has an interesting viewpoint, which is that sometimes divorce isn't the end of the quarrelling for couples, it's just the beginning of a whole new kind of war. Whereas once the arguing had been fairly constrained and confined to the couple, divorce opens the floodgates and the children are swept up in it.

"What I sometimes see," says Stratton, is that once separated, a couple will then detour all of the conflict via the children. Conflict can continue after a divorce and it's the conflict that's damaging. For some people it might have been better if they'd stayed together, because children can become the focal point of a separation."

Mills, incidentally, doesn't think it's conflict per se that's damaging, but what you do with it. He thinks children should be taught about conflict and how to deal with it healthily. As for staying together just for the children?
"Staying 'for the sake of the children' teaches them about dishonesty. And if one parent is martyring themselves, it teaches children to do the same," says Mills. I have to say, as someone who comes from a large half-Napolitan family (where martyrdom is next to godliness), I see a lot of women martyring themselves and it's not a model I'd want to follow."

Staying together for the sake of the children is admirable if you manage it, but you must never tell them this is what you've done. Whether you divorce or stay together you – the adults – have to own the decision. "I have students come to me really angry," says Mills, "because they've just left home and their parents have said to them 'now that you've left home we're splitting up'. And they say 'but I don't want that responsibility'."

Think about it, retrospectively it makes their entire life look like a sham. 'When did mum and dad not start getting on? If I stayed at home would they have stayed together?' That's very destabilising for a grown up child, just as they're setting out in life.

Equally, staying in a marriage that makes the household miserable might not earn you the rewards or thanks you'd hoped for. "I wish my parents had split up long ago," is a common refrain amongst some grown-ups I encounter. There can be a lot of resentment towards the parents for not getting their house in order earlier.

Of course this brings us onto a whole other question, is the relationship really over? Only you can answer that. But Mills has something he says to his clients [who have come to him to discuss splitting up] which seems to help them answer it for themselves. "I say to them, 'you sound really certain', and the response can tell me a lot. They may say 'you know, I really am' or they may say 'It's just that I don't know how to make it better'. And we work on it from there."

If you are in the unhappy position of contemplating divorce this month and you have children here are some practical things to think about:

1. Tell the children together in a private place. The children will take their lead from you. Be confident in your decision that all will be okay.

2. Make it clear it's the parents who are separating and it is not the children's fault. This is especially important because children can all too easily internalise things and think it's their fault. Stratton recommends stressing that the separation is between two partners, not between a mum and dad. "We will always be your parents and we will always love you" is a good thing to repeat.

3. Allow the children to ask questions but be aware they may be too shocked to ask anything there and then, give them the opportunity to ask questions at any point in the future.

4. If they ask, be honest about why you're splitting up but don't mud-sling. Don't ask the children to take sides. Remember they are 50% the other parent.

5. Have practical arrangements ready and tell the children what those are. Mills recommends telling the children a few days before something concrete is going to happen (not so long they can build up anxiety about it but time to give them a few days for the news to settle in) such as "mum and dad are splitting up, dad is moving to his new home on Friday, you'll go to see it with him on Saturday."

6. The children will be feeling incredibly insecure, so structure is important. Explain to them exactly what's going to happen, and when. Young children, especially, will want to know things like where their toys will be, who will be taking them to school; information adults may take for granted. Remember that it's from a position of security that understanding comes.

7. If possible, both parents should live close to one another as this minimises the stress of visits.

8. Encourage your children to be open about their 'other lives' and never ask them to carry toxic/passive aggressive messages to your ex or hold secrets.

9. Mills advises making it clear to your children that you, the parents, still talk about them together. So staying stuff like 'Mum and I were talking about your project and saying how good it is.' "it's fabulous for children to know they're being talked about by the two adults in charge of their lives."

What do you think, should you stay together for the sake of the children?

No comments: