I reckon every single one of us has experienced denial at some stage in our lives. I think my first and most brutal lesson in it was the 27 minutes between Ruud van Nistelrooy nodding in Man United’s second goal at St Mary’s and the whistle blowing on the 1-2 defeat that relegated Southampton from the Premier League in 2005.
Denial was probably one of the main things that characterised my relationship with my daughter’s mother. Even as we fell pregnant we both knew that things weren’t really right between us. Indeed, we even separated for a period when our girl was just one, although we were back together after six months.
I was in denial of our problems, in all honesty. Not out of love or heartbreak, do understand, but instead out of absolute terror at the idea of my daughter having to grow up with separated parents. My parents are as solid as a rock and had always been the one thing I could absolutely rely on. I think their love and support had been such a crutch for me throughout my life, that for my daughter to have any less felt like the most tantamount of failings.
And to be fair, we stayed together for another five years after that. Not that it was easy and not that I didn’t experience the worst of times, but it wasn’t all bad. Certainly for my daughter, I think it’s a period she looks back on with fondness. But even right at the end, when behaviour had reached what I could only describe as completely intolerable, I was still fighting to keep the family together, thanks to the combination of fear for what my daughter may lose and denial about the realities that had surrounded me.
Would things have been better had we never got back together the first time? Should we have parted ways before we did? There are no concrete answers to any of these questions. One could argue that my daughter’s current wellbeing (early onset teenager-itus withstanding) and success at school suggests that things turned out pretty well. But that’s not to say they couldn’t have been better.
Telling the difference between being in denial and being rightfully reluctant to give up is almost impossibly difficult. Certainly, though, there are several warning signs that should point toward the former.
- Promising to change but actually putting more effort into changing your partner’s mind about things is a big red flag, although having the foresight and self-awareness to even realise this is happening is actually tougher then you think.
- Also be cautious of a partner’s reluctance to engage in any suggestions of things that could help improve the situation, such as counselling or marriage guidance.
- Postponing telling friends or family about a split, again, does not bode well.
- Nor does continuing on as normal with your day to day life as if nothing has happened.
- By the same token, convincing yourself – and perhaps trying to convince your partner – that the troubles are nothing more than a ‘phase’ suggests a mental unwillingness to engage with the issue.
- Even more worrying is trying to escape the pressures of it all through alcohol, drugs, eating, gambling or spending.
- Or indeed even actual attempts to sabotage a partner’s efforts to leave the home or file for divorce.
Children, too, may rely on similar mechanisms to avoid confronting the reality of separating parents.
- Look out for kids hiding the news from their friends, making up excuses for a parental absence, talking about the family as if everything is the same.
- Also be wary if the begin specifically planning events where both parents will be present.
- Or deliberately changing the subject whenever it is raised.
(In the latter example, however, I subsequently came to believe that my daughter would at times show an element of disinterest in the subject because she was actually coping with it quite well and didn’t really need the level of emotional management I was trying to offer! Like all of these things, every child will be different.)
A desire to avoid the subject can also manifest in kids not wanting to see the absent parent in their new home setting, and as tempting as it might be for the remaining parent to use this as a potential weapon, do try and resist. The best thing for your children – provided it’s safe for them to do so – is to maintain their relationship with both parents.
There’s no credit to be found in walking away too soon either, of course. If there is genuine love and willing from, crucially, both parties, then there’s every reason to hope. Relationships, commitments and kids are hard work, and it’s folly to expect things to always be smooth. If you’re going to drop anchor and hop overboard every time you face adversity (or indeed see a potentially more appealing ship sailing alongside you), you’re probably going to end up alone.
Like many issues relating to separation, patience remains absolutely vital. You may have to be patient with your partner or ex-partner if they’re not at the same stage of dealing with things as you are. You may have to be patient with your kids as they come to terms with things. And most probably you’ll have to be patient with yourself. Changes as drastic as these cannot be tidied up and dealt with overnight. It’s a process, and often a protracted one.
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Image (cropped) by Always Shooting under a creative commons licence