Leading family judge Sir Paul Coleridge has today warned about the impact of divorce on children. He says that “the cost of divorce isn’t money, but sheer pain and human suffering”. He points out that the real cost of family breakdown comes in the pain of children and divorce and how they are affected by it deep into their adult lives.
He says he sees that the “children are given no choice, are never consulted and only rarely considered before it and it’s effects are dumped into their lives, slowly to release their legacy over the whole course of their upbringing and way beyond into their adult lives”.
He called for parents to learn ‘personal restraint and self-imposed boundaries’ to replace the taboos against divorce and single parenthood that have faded from life in Britain over the past five decades. He notes that families were no longer held together by unwritten rules which forbade husbands and wives to split, or unmarried women to have children. ‘In the old days society was held together by rigid taboos and stigmas which prevented parties from divorcing and stigmatised illegitimate children,’ he said. ‘These taboos were indiscriminate in their application and led to much inhuman behaviour and unhappiness. I am genuinely thankful they have evaporated and been consigned to the scrap heap of history in favour of individual choice. ‘However, if we are to enjoy freedom to choose we must be helped to understand and make the right choices for ourselves and our children.
‘If we are not to have restraint by taboo, we must have personal restraint and self-imposed boundaries born of a sophisticated understanding of what makes us all, as individuals and as a society, happy and fulfilled.’
I have to say that I agree with him on many levels – children are always going to be severely traumatised by the breakdown of their parents relationship – friends whose parents divorced when they were young have been scarred for life because it caused huge issues for them growing up and the choices they now make in adult life are partly because of how they felt and what they want to avoid.
That said, he of course sees the worst case scenarios – the parents who haven’t found a way to resolve their differences without court intervention. For most of us, who thankfully don’t make it to court he shouldn’t undermine quite how much pain and concern and consideration goes into trying to protect the children from the fallout. Damage limitation is a huge issue, but obviously we don’t always get it right. I am quite sure that for most parents faced with the sad realisation that divorce is the only option left they have agonised for months, probably years, about how their children will cope. They might have even been to counselling to help with their decision and maybe the counsellor suggested that children living in an unhappy household were going to be equally if not more badly affected long term.
The court room battles he sees must be truly horrendous to watch. People who once loved each other ripping each other’s hearts out. I recently witnessed a case like that and found it the saddest thing I had seen in a long time. But when parents are battling over assets and children, in a courtroom, I imagine they quite often believe they are doing it with their children’s best interests at heart.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the separation that is going to traumatise the children forever, I think it is how the parents behave during the separation and avoiding court is one of the most important things to do – get mediation, try and be as reasonable as possible, talk and attempt to resolve your differences as much as you can in the knowledge that you have produced children together and you need to be a role model to them. They can learn to understand that we all have our faults and are human and can be hurt, angry, bitter, deeply saddened and/or married to the wrong person for whatever reason and can indeed therefore behave very badly – but the crucial thing is to help them understand that a) it’s not their fault b) they are deeply loved and c) that their voices can be heard.
They have to be listened to. That is important. They are generally the ones with far more reasonable suggestions and requests that the adults, so maybe the answer is to introduce a childrens aspect to the legal proceedings so that they feel they have a voice too. I’m not saying they should be there in court or listening to what their parents are discussing necessarily, but perhaps there should be trained counsellors allocated to children (means tested) when divorce proceedings begin (or before preferably). Times have changed. We have more choices and as Judge Coleridge has pointed out there no longer is stigma. But on a psychological level we are not addressing the very relevant needs of the children and this needs to be addressed immediately.