When couples separate, especially when there are children involved, often very basic and difficult feelings are released. All the hurts and misunderstandings which led to this point, and the incompatibilities and disagreements which lie behind them, surface and threaten to overwhelm even the most reasonable of people.
Some of these feelings can seem very primitive – triggering early feelings of abandonment and a sense of inconsolable grief – feelings we had no idea were in there. It takes a lot of support and a great deal of courage to make “a good divorce”, and even then, it is not guaranteed that both parties will share the same idea about what “doing it well” might mean.
After all, this separation is because of the impossibility of staying together. Agreement at such a time is bound to be particularly difficult.
In this turmoil, children and the feelings they have about their parents splitting up need extra special care and attention. Unhappily, this is not easily managed. There are plenty of examples of children becoming pawns in the negotiations between parents.
The love children have for both parents can easily be used manipulatively – by making contact difficult, by setting a child against one parent, by using children as go-betweens or informants.
Peter was seven when his parents separated. His mother and father managed a reasonable separation, with agreed access, but after a few months, Peter’s mother became aware that his father was seeing someone else. She asked Peter who his dad was seeing.
Peter, in his innocence, provided the information she asked for. His mum was upset and confronted his dad who, in his turn, was angry with Peter.
This was the first time that the separation had really impacted emotionally on Peter. He began to wonder if something was his fault. What was it? Perhaps it was the fact that his parents could not stay together anymore. Perhaps that was his fault.
This sort of tangle needs unravelling quickly if it is not to take hold in a child’s mind. The difficulty is that in the case above both parents were driven by their distress. Very few of us are especially skilled at managing intense feelings. Loss; jealousy; betrayal: this is the stuff of dramatic tragedy, but in this case, playing out in real life rather than any theatre.
Peter was curiously fortunate. He brought his upset into school where there was counselling support available from Place2Be.
But this is not rocket science. It is about providing a place for Peter and his feelings, and a reliable witness in the counsellor, who can reassure him that this is not – it cannot be – his fault.
Of course, Peter’s parents also need emotional support to unravel their feelings so as not to place those unresolved issues at Peter’s door.
But once again, this was the toughest thing for these separating parents to acknowledge. After all, they (both of them) were the injured party. It was only after being made aware of the extent of Peter’s distress that they were able to take a step back and start working – ironically, outside of their marriage – to resolve their differences for his sake.
This is a happy ending story. Peter, now aged nine, has a good but different relationship with each parent.
He has learnt a great deal about relationships – not only the potential negative aspects, but also about how people can resolve their difficulties, for the good of others, through talking. That is an important thing to know.
Place2Be has joined forces with law firm Mishcon de Reya to produce a book by children for adults on the topic of parental separation. Splitting Up – A Child’s Guide to a Grown Up Problem is available to purchase on Amazon
Jonathan Wood, Place2Be National Manager for Scotland