This is a topic that comes up in family mediation from time to time. We sometimes see a couple who recognise that their relationship is not working well and one has taken the decision to end it but the other felt they should have stayed together until the children left home so as not to ‘break up the family’. This is such a huge decision and one no one takes lightly. So how can you make this decision and is there a right way of thinking?
Here at LKW Family Mediation we are in the business of facilitating discussion, providing information and encouraging people to reflect on how they feel and what’s happening. We don’t make decisions for people. In line with that here are some of the things that we would suggest you think about if you are struggling with this decision and what the ‘right’ thing to do is:
1. How much are your children aware of difficulties in the relationship honestly? We see couples who believe their children have no idea that they have been having difficulties but it has later transpired that the children were not surprised by the separation. Even young children talk to each other about their experiences of their parents and can bring things up if they feel troubled by them without knowing why. “Do your parents shout at each other?”, “Do your parents watch TV together or watch different TVs”. “I don’t even know why my parents stay together”. If you think it’s possible your children might say any of these things (or variations) then they’re probably aware of more than you think. This doesn’t mean they want you to separate but it may mean that the idea that you might has entered their minds. With approximately 1 in 3 relationships ending in separation most children have encountered friends or classmates with separated parents by the time they are well into primary school.
2. If your children grew up to have your own experience of this relationship right now would you be happy for them? This may sound like a huge question but it’s important to remember that early experiences model to children their ideas on what things like relationships should be like? If you can see your children saying or doing things that mirror things happening in your own relationship then are you comfortable with this? We have had clients tell us that they came to the decision that they must separate after hearing their children having an argument in a similar tone to the way they argued with the other parent. They just felt it wasn’t healthy and were uncomfortable about this.
3. All of the research done looking at the effects of their parents separating on children suggests that it is the conflict children are exposed to, rather than the separation of their parents itself, that causes the lasting effects and difficulties. So if your children are exposed to conflict (even downstairs after they’ve gone to bed) then that it likely to be having an effect on them even without you separating. It also means that if they are not exposed to conflict then separating from the other parent may not cause any long term problems for them if you are able to work together in a constructive way.
If you feel your struggling with this decision then it might be helpful to talk it through with an impartial person like a therapist. If you feel things aren’t working in your relationship then it may be helpful to explore relationship counselling to see whether you can improve things. Having tools to help communication can greatly improve a relationship and can also benefit your relationship with your children as you learn things that you can pass on to them. They can also see their parents talking more and communicating well and may well learn from this themselves.
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