Overall I think that since I separated from my ex-partner I have made the right decisions and, broadly speaking, parented my daughter correctly. However, one thing I do think I got wrong was how long I fought to maintain the relationship beforehand.
I hold my hands up and admit that I was absolutely horrified by the thought of my daughter having to experience a parental break-up. Part of this, I think, is due to my own childhood. My parents are as solid as a rock and I have always been able to rely on them 100%. Their love and support has formed the absolute backbone of my life and my achievements. I can’t even imagine what life would be like without that foundation.
There are some scary statistics out there about the possible impact of parental separation on children, too. A 2014 report from Resolution – which, please do note, is an organisation that is “committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes” – said in 2014 that 65% of children felt that their GCSE results had been affected by the separation of their parents. For A-level students the number was 44%.
Even worse was the claim that 33% of kids felt one parent was trying to turn them against another, and 25% felt unwillingly dragged into parental disputes. Which is all just too dreadful for words.
It was for these reasons that no matter how unhappy I was and how bad the behaviour of certain parties was getting, for me, separation was just not an option. I was not going to walk out on my daughter, so the question became how much I would be willing to endure to stay with her. The answer, it transpires, was a lot. Too much, really.
It’s impossible to gauge the exact impact our split had on my daughter. Certainly she was horrified when I told her mum had left. A horror, it should be noted, that lasted around 30 minutes before the tears dried up and the pressing matter of what was for dinner became Priority No.1. Kids are amazing!
In fact, I was absolutely inspired by how she coped with everything. She certainly coped far, far better than I did! Obviously I researched the issue and learned that problems, if there were any, would most likely manifest at school. I spoke to her head mistress, who was brilliant, and luckily none of the expected warning signals (distraction, behavioural changes, dip in work quality) materialised. In fact, in the time that has followed her academic performance has significantly improved and she’s as happy now as I have ever seen her.
There were some observable changes, of course. My daughter became very clingy with me. Whereas historically she could be happily dropped off at her grandparents without barely a backwards glance, the moment of my leaving turned into a very distressing affair. She also struggled to cope if away from home for more than a night or two, and outings that previously she’d be fine to go on with friends and family were suddenly only acceptable if I accompanied her.
Interestingly, while we discussed the subject a lot at the time and every now and then in the years that have followed, she’s only ever confessed one thing to me that has broken my heart – that she sometimes wondered if she’d done something wrong that made her mum leave. The thought that my little girl would ponder this alone in the quiet of night is the most gut-wrenching thing in the world, but I always knew no matter how hard I tried some sort of impact was inevitable. However, it’s also likely that the troubled relationship of her parents was impacting on her before our separation.
There is lots and lots of research on the subject so it’s impossible to give any definitive answers about how kids are affected by divorce. An older report from The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that “although short-term distress at the time of separation is common, this usually fades with time and long-term adverse outcomes typically apply only to a minority of children experiencing the separation of their parents”.
It did find, however, that “these children have roughly twice the probability of experiencing specific poor outcomes in the long term compared with those in intact families” and that “support may be needed and intervention required at any stage to reduce possible detrimental effects on children”.
The poor outcomes in question include worsening school results, behavioural problems, leaving school early, becoming sexually active earlier, substance abuse and a propensity for depression. Also of significance is the fact that children in these situations are more likely to experience dire financial situations and poor housing.
This latter fact is crucial – it’s easy to assume that the act of experiencing separation itself is damaging, but in reality this is a problem that can be addressed with proper parenting. Financial hardship is less easy to overcome and the effects potentially far more devastating. In other words, the real danger is the consequences of divorce as opposed to divorce itself.
The good news is that poor outcomes are in no way inevitable and the best ways to support a child through divorce are pretty much in line with established good parenting practice. Making your child feel loved and letting them know they’re not to blame is crucial, as is the ability to maintain a relationship with the separated parent and letting them see the two of you interacting normally together.
It is, however, impossible to answer the core question of when it is right to divorce. It goes without saying that it is definitely in a child’s best interests for parents to work together to improve a struggling relationship. Making a judgement about how far this goes is incredibly difficult, and these efforts can only endure for as long as both parties remain committed. Having been in a situation where one parent has already given up and the other is still fighting, I can tell you first-hand how damaging that situation is.
There is the potential for separation and divorce to harm your children. But then, there is potential for all manner of things to harm your children. I an not sure I have ever really recovered from the death of Optimus Prime in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie! Kids can make it through separation largely unscathed providing they have the love, support and parenting that they deserve. Never drag them into the battle, never try and force them to take sides and as divided as you may be behind the scenes, always present them with a united front. A family that is staying together only for the sake of the kids is rarely going to be a happy one. Divorce should never be taken lightly, but nor should the potentially damaging effects of a fundamentally unhappy home.
Image by Andrew Tarrant under a creative commons licence
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