I was very interested to read Mr Justice Walls’ comments on the impact of parents at war on their children. He takes the view that parents need to think more about the effect on their children of ongoing hostility between the adults. I think most people would agree with that. The difficulty is when one parent wants to come to a reasonable agreement about contact and the other doesn’t.
For example (and this can work equally well the other way) how is a father who wants to be involved in his child’s life and wants a reasonable dialogue with his ex, supposed to behave when the mother simply will not agree to any flexible discussion? What is he supposed to do, when she does all she can to discourage contact or make other arrangements so that the child isn’t free?
The only solution at the moment, if mediation and other more conciliatory approaches fail, is to go through the legal process. Of course, that polarises people and sets them against each other. Of course, it can make things worse, but what is the alternative? I don’t think that the court process is the right place to discuss children issues. However, if the ex won’t talk, is openly hostile, won’t mediate, or will mediate but then changes her mind about what is agreed, what is to be done? The sad reality though about the court process is that even with a court order, a parent who is at the mercy of the spouse who lives with the child, might not get to see his child even then. So many court orders for contact are flouted.
The court can’t fine people who can ill afford a fine. Nor can they put a parent in prison – far too harmful for their child. So although it might feel like the right way to go, to get a solicitor and pursue contact through legal channels, it won’t necessarily reap results. I see many people who wish for a way to see their child without jumping through hoops and having to avoid the verbal onslaught every time a discussion is to be had. It takes two to make things work for a child. Unfortunately its not possible to have a reasonable dialogue alone. It would be good if all parents when going through divorce were truly mindful of the impact of their hostile relationship on their children. We all know that often, children are used as pawns in the battle between parents, but sometimes the situation is more subtle. If one parent denigrates the other either to or in front of the children, that child has to do something with that information. The impact is to make them feel that part of them is ‘bad’ as they are made up of both parents. Usually it means that the child can’t say anything nice about their parent to the other for fear it is not something that she or he will want to hear.
The result is that the child will split things in their mind, always being mindful of what not to say and what to say. Brought up where personal truth is not applauded but only what the parent can tolerate is not healthy for a child. Parents often feel that they can recruit their children to their view in the name of having a close relationship. What is ignored here, is that the child loses out on having a relationship with the other parent which is essential for healthy development into adulthood. One parent may feel that is a good thing as what the other has to offer is not good enough. Usually though, the other parent was good enough whilst married but suddenly becomes not good enough simply through the act of divorce. Overnight, a good enough mother or father becomes not good enough in the eyes of their ex.
It is essential that children are unfettered in their relationship with both parents and that each can encourage him or her in that relationship. That way, guilt, blame, low self esteem and loneliness are not ignited and carried into adulthood. The other parent doesn’t need to be a saint, just someone who loves their child and is good enough.
Charlotte Friedman is the founder of Divorce Support Group, the UK’s leading service run by experts providing emotional support for men and women going through divorce and separation. To read more about Charlotte's work, visit her website here.