Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Life stresses over the years saw them drifting apart
In 1967 Holmes and Rahe developed a now-famous questionnaire for identifying major stressful life events. Each one of the 43 identified stressful life events was awarded a Life Change Unit depending on how traumatic it was felt to be by a large sample of participants. Coming in at number 2 in the list, following the death of a spouse, is divorce.
Separation and divorce undoubtedly have a profound effect on individuals and on society. Nearly half of all divorces in Australia involve children and how their parents handle this stressful life event will have a critical impact not only on their own mental and physical health but on the development and long-term well-being of their children.
Much is written about acrimonious, bitter divorces, involving court battles and ongoing, unresolved conflict. However, there is also such a thing as a successful divorce. Successful divorces start out stressful, but the stress usually resolves itself within 2-3 years after separation and the adults involved find that they are able to detach emotionally from each other, resolve their conflict, and focus on the needs of their children.
Many parents seek assistance in managing this transition from spouses to separated parents, and some feel that having to access professional help is a sign of failure at this time. Often, however, receiving support from a post-separation service, such as a family Relationship Centre can be a catalyst for a successful divorce.
Peter and Jane had been together for 15 years and they had two boys, Harry aged 13, and Joseph aged 10. Their relationship was initially a good one based on mutual attraction and shared values, but life stresses over the years saw them drifting apart. Peter had a demanding job that involved a lot of travel, and Jenny worked part-time and was very focused on the boys and their needs. Over the years there was very little attention paid to the couple's relationship. Intimacy declined, they communicated less and less, and when they did talk it would often end in a fight. Jane began to suspect that Peter was having an affair with one of his female work colleagues. When she confronted him he denied it, but he continued to be secretive about his phone and work back late at the office.
Jane suggested that they go and see a couple of counselors but Peter did not want to. It was Peter who asked for a divorce, and Jane was devastated and afraid about the future. Both Peter and Jane engaged lawyers and this is a point in the separation story of many parents where things go badly wrong. However, Jane was advised by her lawyer to go to the Family Relationship Centre for Family Dispute Resolution as she suggested that this was the most effective way to work through the issues for the children and agree upon a parenting plan.
In her initial meeting with the Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (or mediator), Jenny felt listened to and she was able to express her grief about the end of the relationship and her anger at Peter for abandoning her and the boys, as she saw it. The FDRP asked her a lot of questions about Harry and Joseph and how she thought they were being impacted by the conflict, and Jane
was encouraged to think about their relationship with Peter as separate from her own relationship with Peter. She completed a group seminar about self-care, managing conflict, and the impact of separation on children, and she asked to be referred for some individual counseling to help her with her own emotional reactions, which she realized were hurting Harry and Joseph.
Peter also engaged with the FDRP and he shared his sense of despair about not being able to spend any quality time with Harry and Joseph and his desire to protect them from the adult issues that he and Jane were going through. He felt guilty about ending the marriage but described a deep sense of loneliness that he had been experiencing within the relationship for many years, and a concern that living in that environment had been impacting his own mental health. In his efforts to shield himself from Jane’s emotions he had stopped responding to her texts and calls, particularly when Harry and Joseph were in his care, and he had told them that they were not to call or text their mother during their time with him, or to speak with their mother about things they did together at his place. Peter was encouraged by the FDRP to think about the impact on Harry and Joseph of having to keep secrets, and the importance for them of being able to have a normal level of connection with both parents, regardless of where they were spending their time. Peter also decided that he would go and see his GP to talk about the symptoms of depression that he was experiencing.
In the joint session, Jane and Peter were able to speak together about what they were observing
happening for their boys. The FDRP assisted them to listen to each other and normalize their experiences. Both Jane and Peter acknowledged that the current level of conflict was exhausting for each of them and that they did wish things to change. The FDRP asked them to describe the kind of relationship that they would like to have and they agreed that the idea presented in the seminar they had both attended of a ‘business-like relationship that was focused on raising their boys was a good and realistic model for them to work towards. With this in mind, they were able to talk about how they wished to conduct their changeovers, manage special days for the boys, and how they would share important parenting decisions. Jane was able to acknowledge that Harry and Joseph were missing Peter and wanted to spend more time with him, and Peter was able to agree to re-opening communication channels with Jane.
Jane and Peter completed their family dispute resolution process with a Parenting Plan, which detailed all aspects of care for their boys. They agreed to return for a review session if the boy’s needs changed or they encountered an issue that they could not resolve independently. Both agreed during a follow-up phone call that Harry and Joseph seemed happier and more settled and were responding well to having two parents who were working through their own issues and now had more energy and time for them.
This is a very typical separation success story and a childhood preservation success story. No one ‘lived happily ever after’, but things improved slowly but surely. Harry and Joseph were able to enjoy normal childhoods without having to devote their mental and emotional energy to managing the conflict and distress of their parents. They didn’t have to pick a side because their parents were able to put aside their own grief and hurt and acknowledge in both their words and actions that their children had the right to love them both.
3 Johnston, Janet, Vivienne Roseby, and Kathryn Kuehnle(2009). "In The Name of theChild".Springer Publishing NY, p.3-4
4 Names and identifying details have been changed.