Family life can be tough – financially, emotionally and in so many ways. But it can also be the most treasured and rewarding experience of our lives. So, it’s hardly surprising that if your own family seems to be falling apart, or cherished dreams seem to be disappearing before your eyes, it can be one of the toughest times of all. But there is some fresh hope for separating families.
Times, though, are changing. 50 years ago, partly in response to escalating divorce rates, a wave of legislation swept the globe: “family law” put legal proceedings and family courts firmly at the heart of family separation and divorce. Today, there’s an increasing recognition that the breakdown or change of relationships within a family should not be primarily a matter of law, especially when children are involved. It’s a matter of health and wellbeing, first and foremost. Occasionally, even, it’s a matter of life and death.
It’s a time when children and families can be at their most vulnerable and need compassionate, non-judgmental help and support as a matter of urgency, not torturous, terrifying processes in a court of law. Remarkably, the past few years have seen some of the world’s top judges step out beyond their own family court systems to make impassioned pleas for a fresh approach too.
The UK’s top family court judge Sir Andrew McFarlane, along with his predecessor Sir James Munby, have both challenged the dominant place that their own family courts retain in the landscape of divorce and suggested there are better ways to separate than in courts. Accessible, compassionate support, education and mediation should not be considered “alternatives” to court; these should, quite simply, be the best-known, best-marketed and universally used elements of any modern family separation.
In Australia, former Chief Justice John Pascoe, went even further in suggesting that his own institution needed the broadest of reviews, a Royal Commission; “tinkering” with family law was not enough to address what’s become a public health crisis. We need a very different approach, a different way of thinking even.
Maybe you saw the photo that went viral in 2017 of an extended family with two sets of parents supporting their 4-year-old daughter at a soccer match in the USA? Maybe you’ve raised an eyebrow, or thought it bizarre – inconceivable even, to hear stories of families where ex-partners join each other for Christmas or family holidays? Maybe “conscious uncoupling”, a term popularised in 2014 by actress Gwyneth Paltrow and the title of a book by Katherine Woodward Thomas who invented it, sounds like a trendy bridge too far?
But contrast those positive images with the language of divorce of past decades. The very term “divorce” itself retains a stigma to this day; it’s not really the topic of polite dinner party conversation. We still talk casually about child “custody”, a term usually reserved for those in prison. The word “ex” is rarely uttered with unbridled joy. Even words that might seem polar opposites like ‘up’ and ‘down’ become equally depressing or negative when used in the context of family break-ups or breakdowns.
Getting separated or divorced still lingers near the top of many lists of most traumatic life experiences. It comes with some of the strongest feelings we’ll ever experience, ranging from grief, humiliation, sorrow, or just sheer numbness and bewilderment, to anger – even rage – or desperation – even terror – about the future. This isn’t generally a moment when we need people judging, lecturing or, worse still, trying to diagnose us. “Sometimes,” to quote Hey Sigmund, an admirable online resource for families, “the only diagnosis is ‘human’”.
It’s human nature too that, when any sort of relationship – business or personal – breaks down, we want people to be on our side – and our side alone. We want them to share our view of what happened. Family friends and bystanders often get caught up in that and provide well-meaning but uncritical support; few are brave or experienced enough to give the help that’s really needed and challenge thinking that may not be constructive, or behaviours that may not be best for children.
When families split up, there’s simply one side we must all be on together: the children’s.
For other widespread social issues or human frailties – especially when lives are at stake, as they are here – society has recognised what’s needed: accessible help; compassionate support; and signposts to navigate the road ahead and warn of dangers, step-by-step. Adults and children alike need someone to hold their hand.
Most of us have heard of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, which provides support of this kind. Many of us are aware of how treating drug addicts with compassion, and using health-focused not law-based approaches, can transform lives for the better. And we’ve all seen signposts or orange flags as we drive through school zones warning distracted drivers of acute danger to children on the road ahead.
Not so with divorce. At this time of intense emotions and high risk to children and parents, we have to embark on a life-changing journey that many of us will do once, and once only, in our lives. And, we have to do so without any standard road map – and with no orange flags to warn us of potentially life-threatening dangers to our children on the road ahead. If navigated well, this journey can lead to new and unexpected joys and avoid great and unimaginable tragedy.
Some things go without saying. We all know that children benefit from developing positive relationships with all who love and care for them. And we shouldn’t be surprised to find out how precious every parent-child connection is; among other things, they’re “the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind”, helping give children the resilience they need to get through life in general, and a family break-up in particular.
For many children, their parents’ separation can be the most frightening and lonely time of their lives. Even if there’s no extreme or overt conflict, it can be the first time they find themselves truly alone – with no-one they feel they can talk to, no-one who’d understand. Their parents, suddenly, are pre-occupied with something else. Whatever age they are, though, children’s lives and futures can be transformed if their family gets the help it needs and avoids being sent off in the wrong direction, as so many are today.
I think there are many words of wisdom in this book that can help, guide and support and that can direct families to people and resources that will help give children the brightest possible future when their parents split up. Someday, they may even help the rest of us to think of this moment not as families breaking up or down, but as families changing, growing new branches, and even thriving.
But, for anyone going through a separation right now, don’t be too hard on yourself. Or your ex. Compassion doesn’t come easy during such a family crisis, but more of it is needed wherever it can be found – especially for the sake of children. One day, your own children will really thank you for that.