Resolution, the association of family lawyers, has published the results of a poll it commissioned regarding the experience of parental separation or divorce upon children and young people. The ‘headline’ finding of the poll was that eight out of ten of the children and young people who took part in the poll said that they would prefer their parents to split up if they are unhappy, rather than stay together.
According to one national newspaper (which shall not be named), the research has “drawn furious reaction” from those who believe that parents should try to stay together for the sake of their children. The paper even suggested that divorce lawyers would claim that divorce is good for children, as they obviously benefit (although Resolution are not, of course, actually saying that divorce is good for children). Predictably, Sir Paul Coleridge of the Marriage Foundation has reacted against the findings, even echoing the newspaper’s suggestion by saying the findings were ‘self-serving’ from a lawyers’ point of view.
Now, if parents are able to stay together without conflict, that may be fine (if not optimal) for children, but how often is that the case? The reality is that if parents are unhappy, then there is likely to be conflict between them, which will adversely affect the children, who are going to witness the conflict or its results. Surely the children are right: better to be out of the ‘conflict zone’ than in it? This isn’t about lawyers making money, it’s about what is best for the children.
And contrary to what the naysayers would have you believe, no one is suggesting that ‘repairable’ marriages should end. Of course, if a reconciliation is a genuine possibility then it should be attempted. No serious divorce lawyer would disagree with that (in fact, divorce lawyers often raise the possibility of marriage guidance with their clients). However, the poll refers to parents who are ‘unhappy’, i.e. on a permanent, or long-term basis. In such a situation the marriage is almost certainly going to be beyond repair. Of course children would prefer their parents to stay together, but surely only if they are happy.
Which brings me to my next point. At the time of separation many children may be against it, but with hindsight they are likely to realise that it was the right thing for their parents to do. The Resolution poll was of young people who had experienced parental separation or divorce over a year ago – they have therefore had time to reflect. Indeed, in their press release Resolution mention the suggestion of one young person who took part in the survey, who said that children “will certainly be very upset at the time but will often realise, later on, that it was for the best.”
In the end, what is damaging for children is not that their parents have separated but that they have been affected, directly or indirectly, by the conflict between their parents. It is perfectly possible for parents to do a good job of parenting after they have separated. On the other hand, protecting children from the effects of an unhappy relationship when the family is still under the same roof is pretty well impossible – even if they do not directly witness conflict, children are going to pick up on an unhappy atmosphere, and suffer from the consequent lack of cooperation between their parents.
In short, it must be right that it is better for children to have their parents separate, rather than remain unhappily under the same roof. We should therefore concentrate our efforts upon making separation as ‘children-friendly’ as possible (for example, by encouraging a non-confrontational approach to resolving family problems), rather than trying to encourage unhappy couples to remain together ‘for the sake of the children’.