This summer I ran a competition focused on a fictional scenario about a family falling apart at the seams, and asked what advice you would give them. Could the marriage be saved? What would a good financial settlement be? How could the couple best prepare their children?
Given the overwhelming quality and number of the entries, I have decided to run another! This is a Christmas Competition, which will close on 3rd January 2012 at 9am. Once again, I am asking you to give your opinion of the outcome. You don’t need to be a lawyer to take part and, although it’s a puzzle, there are no right or wrong answers. The prize will be a fabulous box of chocolates and a bottle of good champagne!
The focus this time is firmly on the children of the family. I also hope that by highlighting some of the issues our firm regularly encounters, some readers may be helped and inspired by other readers’ answers to resolve their own conflicts.
My view remains clear: however messy it may seem, no problem is ever insurmountable. It requires give and take, understanding of everyone’s feelings, common sense, and much goodwill. But isn’t that what this season is all about?
Ed and Jane have been married for 14 years. Ed, 44, is an investment banker in the City of London and now lives in rented accommodation near his work. Jane, 43, is a housewife and lives in East Dulwich, a fairly prosperous suburb in the south east of the capital. They have two children; Charlie is 12 and Sam is 10. The boys live with Jane in the family home.
Ed and Jane have both had occasional flings outside their marriage and they know about each other’s misdemeanours. They stayed together until Ed started an affair with Naomi last year. She works in Central London and lives in a flat in Pimlico. Naomi is 40 years old, divorced, and lives with her daughter Betsy, who is 8.
Ed was dazzled by Naomi; she was fun and exciting. His love for Jane had waned and had become more a “sisterly” affection and, although he never stopped respecting her abilities as a mother, Naomi emphasised how much the sparkle had gone from his marriage. After a great deal of soul searching, he made up his mind to leave.
He was sure his children would think the same of Naomi as he did and on one occasion, even engineered for Charlie and Sam to accidentally bump into Naomi and Betsy when he took them out for lunch after rugby practice. She was introduced as “a friend from work” and they all got on very well. Naomi said afterwards that she was thrilled to meet the boys and it was clear they liked her too. The boys said she was “hot”, but thought nothing more of it as Ed was careful to make sure it was as casual as possible.
Over the following months, the relationship between Ed and Jane became increasingly strained. Ed went to see a solicitor and was advised about his financial position. He felt he could afford to go ahead, so he made the decision to tell Jane about his feelings for Naomi, after which he wrote a long email to her in which he unburdened himself, going into detail about their relationship had changed. He then left home and he moved into a rented flat near his work but has been staying mostly with Naomi and Betsy.
Ed’s decision to leave came as a huge shock to Jane and the two boys. All were distraught and even Ed became more distressed and emotional about the situation than he had thought he would be. It affected his focus at work. Money problems mounted too as he realised leaving home was going to cost more than he had anticipated. His carefully planned idea of an amicable divorce had taken a turn for the worse. In his mind, Jane was becoming incredibly and unnecessarily bitter; she employed highly expensive lawyers who on her instructions immediately issued proceedings.
As he saw it, she “went” for him. He now blames Jane for wrecking his relationship with his children, whose attitude towards him has changed. Ed has more or less given up communicating with Jane. Every email is bitter and unforgiving and Ed believes she is showing her true colours. He invariably responds in kind.
The boys were initially bewildered and shocked by their father’s sudden departure from home. They watch their mother alternate between shock, denial and anger and usually get a front row seat. She frequently breaks down in tears and starts ranting about their father and “that bloody woman”, before telling them how much they mean to her and that she is depending on them. They are scared too since she has told them they may be losing their home and that “it’s all because of their selfish father who has put his own happiness first”.
Ed’s overriding concern is for his children. At first he tried to give each of them the space to process what had happened, but he is growing increasingly fearful that their view is simply being made more partisan by Jane by the day. This is made worse by the fact that the children are feeling the pressure at school and at home. They love both their parents but do not know what to do or how to react. Of course they act as children; they feel desperately upset for their mother and for themselves, they are angry with their father who they believe has deserted them.
As yet Ed has not mentioned their mother’s adultery during the marriage but it has certainly crossed his mind since she has taken the moral high ground with the children. He believes the marriage broke down over many years, not just because of Naomi and he resents her attitude.
Charlie is being overprotective towards his mother and refuses to see, or even speak to his father. He will not talk to him on the phone and has completely cut him off. Jane has become increasingly dependent on Charlie, calling him “the man of the house” and “her rock”. She keeps saying, “How could I manage without you?”
Sam has become silent and withdrawn except that if pressed by Jane to say something, he will lash out and run to his room. Sam stays with his father, and is clingy when they are together. He is generally morose and moody with both parents. He does get on with Naomi and Betsy when they meet up at Ed’s flat and go out. At school however, he has become argumentative and his work is suffering. His teachers complain that he is becoming increasingly difficult.
One issue that no one saw coming is that the children no longer come as a unit. They have individual views and needs. Ed is bewildered trying to treat the children as adults (particularly Charlie), yet remembering that only a short time ago he treated them as children who did as they were told.
Jane is determined that Naomi will play no part whatsoever in the children’s lives. She refuses to permit them to meet her. Sam told her that he had met Naomi and Betsy and as a result Jane’s solicitors have said that until an undertaking is received that Naomi will not be present, there will be no further contact between Sam and his father. Sam is playing it both ways. He tells his parents and Charlie what he thinks they want to hear. Jane genuinely thinks he doesn’t like Naomi and Betsy.
As for the Christmas arrangements, the family has made it clear that Ed is unwelcome at home, citing that “it would be too distressing all round”. A letter he wrote to Charlie has been returned, unopened. Ed is informed that subject to the undertaking not to bring Sam into contact with Naomi he may see Sam on Boxing Day, but that thereafter they are all going to stay with Jane’s parents in Yorkshire until after the New Year to give the family some space.
Sam has told Ed that Jane is talking of moving the family back to Yorkshire when the house is sold. He told him: “Mum has been saying how green it is in Yorkshire. The people are friendly, there is lots of nice scenery and we will be getting dogs and going horse riding. We will have new schools, a new life and we will all be happy again. She says that ‘we don’t need Dad”.
Ed is deeply concerned. He wonders whether it might be easier all round to go along with Jane’s wishes. However, he feels he must see Charlie soon before things deteriorate further. He is worried that his son is taking on too much emotional responsibility. Ed is also worried about Sam, there is a danger that he too could slip through the net in the complicated emotional structure.
Another problem is that the schools are expressing concerns. Charlie has seen a school counsellor and now the Educational Welfare Officer wants to talk to Ed and Jane together. Jane won’t attend with Ed and has received a worrying letter in which she feels they are blaming her as the obstructive one.
Ed is upset at not being with his family on Christmas Day. Although he likes Betsy he feels tormented by the thought of spending Christmas with a child who is not his own. He can never feel the same about Betsy as he does about his own boys and her presence reinforces his feelings. It is affecting his behaviour towards Betsy, who in turn can sometimes be rude to him.
Overall, Ed sees his relationship with the children as deeply fractured and is appalled by the thought of the family moving up to Yorkshire. He thinks Jane is being downright evil and hitting back at him as hard as she can through the children.
Jane is furious and hurt. She blames Ed for all their problems. The possibility of calmly rising above those emotions to consider Ed as the good father he is will be difficult for her and she is in no mood for compromise at the moment.
What is YOUR advice to this family?
With Christmas imminent, what should they do next?