Thursday, 1 March 2012

When love goes wrong, who is hurt the most?

Tug of War © Lyn Baxter |
There are plans afoot to reconsider the Childrens Act of 1989, with a view to giving children the right to see both parents after divorce or separation. 
For a long time now, many fathers have found themselves separated from their children and unable to maintain a close connection. On the other hand many mothers have needed to safeguard themselves and their children from potentially abusive behaviour. As a result family courts have favoured custody arrangements where children are primarily with their mother. But are children missing out on their right to have a relationship with both their parents?
Maintaining a civil relationship
The thing is, if you have children together you are always going to have some sort of relationship with your 'ex'. We are parents of children who had to live through the breakdown of our own first marriages. We know how tough it can be to maintain a civil relationship with the 'ex', especially when every discussion also seems to involve money. Even so we bent over backwards to make sure our children had good contact with their other parent - and I'm glad to say our ex-partners did the same. 
It was extraordinarily difficult at times. Things happen that you think are very unfair, or that have a continuing impact on your everyday lives. You can never quite forget the past relationship that you really want to put behind you, which makes it difficult to move on. 
The toughest thing is to stop yourself scoring points and highlighting your ex-partner's failings to your children with some relish. This is asking the children to choose who is the better parent and is completely unfair. I'm not sure we were 'squeaky clean' all the time, though that was our intention. We were clear this was our divorce, not the children's. Their preferred option, if we had to split up, was for us to live next door to our 'ex' so they could be in whichever house they wanted!
In our current work as Relationship Practitioners, we are saddened by the number of cases we come across where parents who have custody do little to encourage continuing access for the absent parent. It is not uncommon to hear of parents (usually mothers) actively preventing access and 'poisoning' their children's views of their ex-partner. This is an issue we feel really strongly about and although we might understand about the impact of past hurts and the desire to punish, this is never a good way forward. What we see in reality is a child who misses out on one of their parental relationships and an adult who is holding back from their own healing, unable to move beyond their bitterness and desire for revenge.
Whose responsibility?
There is so much evidence that children thrive when they have good contact with both parents. Children need the certainty and unconditional love of their primary caregivers to grow up as balanced individuals. Depriving them of this hits at a core need all human beings have. 

Why then do parents put obstacles in the way of their own child's future happiness and wellbeing? Generally because their own deep fears of lonliness and separation get in the way. Although we can all say "they are the grown ups and have chosen to separate", in reality the trauma of going from love to hate or indifference throws us back to being as vulnerable as our children. Living in the 'blame' culture of the 'civilised west' means failure brings with it loss of self esteem, loss of control, depression and illness. 

Yet we expect the couple to behave in reasonable and civilised ways. The loss of strong attachment to our spouse or partner is bad enough. Adding to that the potential loss of the other most significant people in our life, our children, causes both men and women to revert to primeval instincts and engage in 'life or death' behaviour.  
When we work with couples and help them come to terms with their own fears, this puts them in a better place to find a way forward apart, which is based around the parenting needs of their children. In our view parents do not have a right but a responsibility to make sure they agree arrangements which work primarily for their children. This might mean accepting the pain of less  contact than they'd like and certainly means accepting there will be changes once separation takes place.

One of the stages of reaching an agreement over child care is to consider the different patterns of contact. Inevitably this focusses on the practicalities:
  • What flexibility is there around work?
  • Who will take responsibility for making other arrangements when something unexpected happens, such as a child who is too sick for school?
  • How will the handover take place - when, where and with whom?
  • Will grandparents get a look-in?
  • Are you both confident and experienced about meeting your children's needs
Such arrangements can and do work when there is good will on both sides.  Keeping it going demands flexibility when the unexpected happens, or as children grow up and start to make their own preferences known. It almost certainly will need both parents to put aside their own hurts and from time to time actively encourage their children to visit their 'ex'. 

Whose right?
A good arrangement is unlikely if either parent is prioritising their 'rights' to contact or if their children are seen as leverage in agreeing a financial settlement. How many parents in today's court rooms are insisting on a 50:50 childcare split simply so the finances can also be split evenly?

The proposed changes to the act are based on the premise that the child has the 'right' to contact with both parents, while the parents only have 'responsibilities' to ensure this is made possible. This seems a positive change to the underlying principles of what happens to children after divorce.
We hold out a hope that parents begin to prioritise their child's rights, paying most attention to what pattern of contact will give them the greatest sense of security, continuity and certainty that although their parents no longer live together, that will not stop them continuing their own loving relationship with each of them. 
How to get to a good agreement
Some couples find this relatively easy. Others need some sort form of objective facilitation or therapeutic intervention to help them move their own pain out of the way. When we help couples arrive at arrangements they are both comfortable with, we ask them to start with an agreement that they both want what is best for the children. The next steps are always about teasing out the principles they hold important, so that they leave the details till last. 
Details are always the most tricky part about any negotiation. We might delay discussing them till a later meeting because it doesn't help to rush things, especially when emotions are running high.  
Please get in touch if you want help
  • in identifying what is important to you about your agreement with your 'ex' 
  • or dealing with your own separation issues

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