Protecting children from a breakup

KIDS FIRST: It's important for children to maintain a relationship with both of their parents.
KIDS FIRST: It's important for children to maintain a relationship with both of their parents.

January is a miserable time for many families. Counselling rooms get busy with parents who have waited patiently until exams and Christmas is over to announce their desire to separate. Some make up their minds that they just can't do it for one more year and make it a New Year's resolution. Then there are others who have it decided for them. In the days of actual separation, partners may experience their first (and usually only) act of violence. Small children will have to pack bags and spend hours in a car or fly between towns to spend time with already-separated parents.  In legal terms, it's called "shared care".

One momentous decision to separate and the practical and emotional fall out affects multiple relationships and even generations to come, especially financially. In ugly cases blame is likely to fracture families and set like concrete in the cracks. Bystanders can judge, family can take sides. Friends can fuel self-intoxicating indignation by confirming that the ex really is a bitch or a bastard.

Outsiders can add to the distress. Well meaning people can give bad advice, services can start treating people like case numbers.  I have heard of parents trying to get more child custody to pay less maintenance and of others fabricating spousal abuse to prevent access to children. Jaded professionals can find it difficult to make the right call because of this. All of it, of course, just further escalates blame and resentment between exes.

Onlookers will be aware only of the terrible events that unfolded at the end, unaware of what lead up to them. Each partner will have varying levels of insight themselves. But when relationships fail, it is not usually the fault of only one party, or even that there is anything wrong with either of them. It is the outcome of a terrible dance, often begun years or even decades before, in which both partners make moves - usually away from each other. They do not realise how their choices or reactions can or will affect their partner and influence the next sequence of steps.

The longer one person blames the other, the longer they will stay stuck in their own pain. It is only through taking responsibility by looking with clear eyes at how we may have contributed to our situation that we can recover from it. Often our actions were not intentional, but we need to be aware of the effects of them regardless - and before we move into our next relationship - otherwise it will be doomed from the start.

When parents separate and assuming it is safe, it is vital for their children's mental health, emotional well-being, and ability to cope - not just at the time but in the future - that their relationship with each parent continues. It is not the parent's separation that can cause the most damage - in high conflict marriages, it is actually advisable - but if the conflict doesn't cease, the child is no better off. If the child becomes estranged from a parent as a result of the acrimony, they are in a considerably worse situation.  

Often children become alienated from a parent because of what they've been told. Children do not need to know the full story. In fact, protecting them from the story and the fall out from the story, is the parents' responsibility. When children are old enough to understand, not just the events, but the reasons behind them, and when they ask what these reasons are, is the right time to share information and let them form their own conclusions. If it is done prematurely it is likely to cause more damage and many a time I have seen the desire to create alliances backfire on the storyteller.

Thankfully, there are many parents who are able to rise above it all. And being willing and able to communicate and co-parent with an ex-partner inoculates a child against the outcomes research tells us will likely be in store for their less fortunate peers: reduced vocabulary in toddlers, lower results in school work, increased experimenting with drinking, drugs and sex in teens, increased mental health issues and compromised relationships as adults. In her book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, author Judith Wallerstein describes the adult children of divorced parents who, even in successful unions of their own, can't shake the underlying feeling of dread that it could all fall apart in an instant.

Even if children appear to be coping well at the time, some will internalise their distress so as not to cause more problems for, or reaction from, a parent. This is why it's so important for separating parents to manage their emotions; the anger, bitterness and depression that mourn the end of a marriage. Children need to be supported to experience and express their own grief in their own time and their own ways and not have to react constantly to one or both parents'. It takes a high degree of awareness, capability and resolve to support a child through separation and divorce. It requires a parent to have the capacity to put their child's needs ahead of their own. Especially difficult for those who have not first learnt to do this for a partner.

And it's important for those of us fortunate enough not to be in this situation ourselves to extend compassion and support to those who may need or want it - or at the very least, do no more harm than has already been done.

- Daily Life

Elly Taylor is a relationship counselor and author of the book Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together.