Separating when you have children is never an easy choice, and there’s no ‘right time’ to make that decision. Sometimes it’s out of your hands – there’s simply no way you can continue to stay together and you’re forced to start making plans when you realise the relationship is over. Sometimes, however, it’s a lot slower and less obvious that things have begun to break down. In these cases, parents may feel like it’s better to stay together ‘for the sake of the children’ and retain the stability of the family home while maintaining a façade of togetherness.
However, a study by Resolution showed that the majority of children do not share this view, with 82% of 14-22-year-old children of divorced parents stating that they would rather their parents were separated but happy than together but unhappy. Former Chair of Resolution Jo Edwards commented: “Being exposed to conflict and uncertainty about the future are what’s most damaging for children, not the fact of divorce itself.”
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from the disruption and upheaval of divorce, and in some cases this leads to couples delaying separation, or waiting until their children are ‘old enough’ to understand, have moved out, or are financially secure. The problem with this approach is that everyone involved must then live under the shadow of a struggling relationship for years and years until it’s finally ‘the right time’. And, as mentioned above, we tend to focus far more on the impact of the actual divorce rather than the impact of a deteriorating marriage, underlying resentments, arguments, and feelings of frustration, day in, day out. Not only can this leave everyone involved feeling utterly miserable, it may also give children and unrealistic expectations for relationships.
The decision to separate once children have left home might make sense from a logistical and financial point of view, as it’s a natural time to downsize, regardless of the situation, but it can also be a potentially emotional blow to young adults who are faced with the double loss of their parents’ marriage and their family home at an already tumultuous time. Another reason for waiting may come down to the current lack of options for no-fault divorce. Sometimes people simply grow apart, particularly once their children have grown and moved out, and there aren’t always obvious grounds for divorce. For older couples, it is also often financially easier to live apart for the requisite two years to separate without attributing specific blame. However, none of these careful plans mean that a split will not become acrimonious when it comes down to it, and leaving things for so long has the potential to let resentments build to bursting point…
Older and grown-up children often know that something isn’t right with their parents’ marriage, and the split will come as no surprise, though they may wonder why it has taken so long. Many of those surveyed by the study said they would rather their parents had made the decision earlier – while they understood and appreciated the attempt to protect them from the situation, they also wondered what life would have been like if it had happened sooner, and wished their parents hadn’t felt like they’d had to hide it from them.
On the other hand, sometimes children may be utterly shocked that their parents have been living together unhappily for so long – breaking their illusion of the happy family of their upbringing. Worse, parents of older or adult children may be more tempted to confide in them, or ask their advice on how to proceed. Regardless of age, children really should not be involved in this way – this is a relationship issue between two people, and while it may affect the children, it’s not up to them to come up with solutions or make decisions on their parents’ behalf.
It’s entirely understandable for parents to be concerned about divorcing with children, but with the right support, a collaborative approach, and a clear co-parenting plan, it’s often better all round to make the decision earlier rather than later.
As one respondent in the Resolution survey said: “Don’t stay together for a child’s sake. Better to divorce than stay together for another few years and divorce on bad terms.” Another added that while children “will certainly be very upset at the time [they] will often realise, later on, that it was for the best.”
Out of court options such as mediation, family arbitration, and collaborative family law encourage cooperation and clear communication between parents to help them make a plan for working together after separation, while keeping children’s well-being at the centre of every decision. We know that the prospect of divorce can feel overwhelming and scary, but our family lawyers are here to help take the weight off your shoulders and find a way towards a happier future.