Sometimes you can’t choose – just like the kids!

> This clipping is from the February 18 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition. >
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> THE ACADEMIC
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> THE PSYCHOLOGIST
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> THE BARRISTER
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> THE FEMINIST
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> Is there ever a good divorce?
> SMH – Saturday, 18 Feb 2012 – Page 33
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> FOR decades, people have been told in the popular media that a ‘‘ good divorce’ ’ is better for children than an unhappy marriage. Yet the evidence has been mounting for years that for many children, this is simply not so. If children escape from a marital war zone involving serious ongoing conflict, and especially recurrent violence, then they are likely to be better off after the divorce. However, many parents separate because one or both are deeply dissatisfied with the relationship, even though conflict is limited and the family home provides a happy environment for the children. Paul Amato’s new research is confronting. He and his team finds that often, children are negatively affected in the long-term even by ‘‘ amicable’ ’ divorces, and not much better off than children in much less amicable divorces. It is almost inevitable that children will experience some loss, emotionally and financially , from a parental separation . Children often report missing the non-resident parent (usually fathers). In making the decision to separate , we cannot assume that the children will be all right as long as it is a ‘‘ good divorce’’ . Yes, sometimes it is better to stay together for the sake of the children. There are different ways that grown-ups can take responsibility for their own dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and do something about it, while keeping the family home intact. Children are most affected when their parents are hostile to one another; but as any family lawyer will testify, separation doesn’t necessarily end conflict. It often just changes what the former partners are in conflict about. Sometimes it increases conflict. >
> After separation, parents’ interests may diverge sharply. Mum wants to stay in the family home with the kids; dad needs capital to rehouse himself . Mum wants 70 per cent of the assets. Dad wants half. Child support often causes ongoing arguments. There may also be arguments about the parenting arrangements. They may resolve this amicably until mum wants to move 1000 kilometres away to live with a new partner, or dad decides he wants equal time and mum thinks the children are better off just seeing him every other weekend. Conflict may also increase because one of them is aggrieved by the other’s decision to leave. >
> There is little doubt that a ‘‘ good’ ’ divorce is still better than a ‘‘ bad’ ’ divorce. The trouble is that at the time parents separate, neither may know how their divorce will turn out. >
> Patrick Parkinson is a professor of law at the University of Sydney and president of the International Society of Family Law. >
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> Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald
> For one of the parents to suddenly become absent is disastrous. >
> THE finding that a positive post-divorce family environment is no guarantee children will be unharmed is both surprising and, I suspect , an oversimplification. Put aside that this ‘‘ one size fits all’ ’ view of divorcing families denies the complexity of the personalities involved. My clinical experience is that there are specific obstacles that the former parental dyad must overcome and if they do, then the outcome is usually positive for the children. >
> First, for one of the parents to suddenly become absent is disastrous. As long as both parents remain involved in their lives, write letters, make phone calls, and ask lots of questions, the young people I have worked with seem generally well adjusted. On the other hand, when a parent does a Houdini, it leaves many of my patients under the impression they were unimportant and weren’t really ever loved. >
> Second those parents who adhere to the old Texas saying ‘‘ never wrestle with a pig in the mud, because you both get dirty, and the pig loves it’ ’ inevitably seem to find peace. That is, they consciously elect to simply stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other, especially when it came to matters that concern their offspring. >
> Also, even though it can be hard, not fighting about the children – especially in front of the children – reduces the likelihood of my clients thinking that they are to blame for what has transpired . All they really want is to love both parents and enjoy the time that they spend with each of them. >
> Also, committing from the outset to only communicate directly with the other parent (via text or email) obviates turning the children into messenger pigeons that fly back and forth. This is a trap into which many parents fall. >
> When the children are with one parent, if that parent refrains from making pejorative remarks about the other, saying nothing or making only positive comments, this results in young people not feeling pressure to take sides. >
> Professor Amato and his colleagues from Pennsylvania State University can argue all they like that children of ‘‘ good’ ’ divorces are no better off than those of divorced parents who do not get on, but it flies in the face of common sense and of my 20 years of working with separating families. >
> Dr Michael Carr-Gregg works as a child and adolescent psychologist. >
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> Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald
> AT FIRST glance, in the absence of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, parents staying together is always the preferred option. On that footing, it would not be surprising that children of a ‘‘ good divorce’ ’ fare worse than those of parents who work at resolving issues and stay together. >
> There is arguably no such thing as a good divorce. Divorce invariably involves conflict, even if minimal. Conflict between parents impacts adversely on children . The greater the conflict, the greater the impact. Some even consider conflict between separating parties and the consequence on children a public health issue. Children can have long-term issues arising out of exposure to conflict such as difficulty in forming relationships. >
> Conflict in divorce arises out of the failure to agree on parenting arrangements (who lives with whom etc) and property and maintenance matters (split up of assets and income). It is magnified in circumstances where a couple require a judicial adjudicated outcome. >
> However, even in a ‘‘ good divorce’ ’ where there is financial agreement, the impact arising out of the adverse economic consequence of one family becoming two families with the same income but double the expenses takes its toll on the children. Again, in the ‘‘ good divorce’’ , the children having to deal with dislocation and the consequent reduction in time spent with each parent and changes in the significant relationship of their parents, and the introduction of siblings into the household, often creates tensions unknown in the neverdivorced household. These are complex matters even for the most sophisticated. >
> The courts and legal practitioners dealing with divorce, and the effect on children, are aware of all this. The Family Court has introduced a less adversarial approach to the determination of parenting cases. The courts and lawyers encourage couples to undertake mediation/conciliation and only seek an adjudicated outcome as a last resort. The Family Relationship Centres are an example of the efforts made to resolve differences by compromise. >
> Perhaps, however, it’s hard to accept that the findings reported in the Herald last week have anywhere near universal meaning or accuracy. How does one really define a good divorce, as opposed to a bad marriage, and its impact on children? Emotions and intellectual traits of couples and their relationships are probably more difficult to assay than a rather random survey may suggest. >
> All the court can do is to try to minimise the long-term emotional conflict and consequent harm on the parties and their children, given that we are free to divorce. >
> Dixie Coulton is a barrister specialising in family law.
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> Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald
> The focus should be on the problems.
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> MY PARENTS divorced and, many years later, so did I. My parents’ divorce was somewhat venomous and I hated it, so I tried to keep mine reasonably civil. There were many factors in both relationships that damaged both adult parties and probably affected me as a child and my daughter. >
> In neither case was it the separation of the parents that caused or exacerbated the problems. >
> Whereas my mother had considerable financial difficulties as a sole parent, my finances actually improved once I had control over the funds. >
> I am not going into details of what did not work, but I mention this point to show how simplistic Professor Paul Amato’s type of analysis is. >
> I need to state here that I am also a researcher and that I can read statistics. >
> Yes, there are significantly more children of divorced parents who show problems, but his figures show they are still a minority – most children , whether in divorced or intact families, are doing as well as one another. >
> Amato does not acknowledge that bad relationships between parents may be the reason for both the separation and the cause of the damage. Pressure to stay together may result in more dysfunctional children in intact families. Why assume the separation is the cause of later problems? There are other causes. Amato himself says that economic stressors also cause breakdown ; we may do better to focus on fixing financial inequality. >
> His research found some broad correlations between family types and some problems that emerge later, and then assumes family breakdown is the cause. >
> This result attracts media attention, since maintaining the nuclear family is a classic symbol of the conservative order. >
> Certain research topics reappear every few years and find funding easily. The damage to children caused by divorce is one such recurrent subject, and Amato is a serial publisher on the topic. >
> He has been writing about the issue since the late ’80s.
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> By making a plea to parents not to separate, he adds guilt to other stressors, and this is my concern. >
> Many families need help: parenting is often tough, and so are adult relationships. >
> The focus should be on the problems, not on whether the parents cohabit, because children deserve parents who can meet their needs, whether under one roof or two. >
> Eva Cox is the convener of the Women’s Equity Think Tank. >
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> Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

New research from sociology professor Paul Amato says children always suffer.