Saturday 17 March 2018

Dear Mary: When do we tell the children we are separating?

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Mary O'Connor

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

Question: My husband and I have tried everything but we just can't get along. It seems to me that he didn't turn out to be the man I thought I was marrying and I'm really sorry now that we didn't live together beforehand because I would have been saved a lot of heartache. We tried marriage counselling, but we just fought all the time during the sessions and I don't think it did any good at all. So we have decided to separate and then ultimately get a divorce.

In an effort to make things better we had a child and then we had another one. Both of us are only children which was not ideal for either of us so one of the few things we agreed on was that we wouldn't have just one child. The rows got less when the children were very small, but quickly resumed as they started to grow and have now reached the stage where they are very frequent. The children are both under 10 - I don't want to give too many details, as you can understand. While I try to make sure that we don't row in front of them, despite all my good intentions we sometimes do, and so they know that we don't get on but they have no idea about the impending separation.

They sometimes ask me why Daddy and I aren't friends and I feel awful. When we separate I am going to stay in the family home and he is going to rent an apartment and he has asked that none of us are there when he moves out. It's not going to be for a few months and by that time they will have holidays from school. The children and I are going to my parents in the country for a month as we always do in early summer and he has suggested that he moves while we are gone and that he will then have his apartment ready for them to come to visit him. He feels it would be easier to tell them when we come back from holidays. I don't agree and want to tell them before we go on holidays but he says he can't bear living with them having told them that he is going to go. It seems we can't even tell the children without having a row about it.

Mary replies: You and your husband have not had it easy and no doubt you have put a lot of thought and debate into the decision to separate. But as your two children are the ones who are going to be most directly affected by all the changes that are ahead, every effort has to be made to ensure their happiness and security to allow them to make the transition into their teenage years and young adulthood. So this means that you both have to put aside your differences and look at what is in the best interests of the children.

Children need time to adjust to a new situation. They also need to be able to ask questions and get answers and go away and digest the information in order to ask some more questions. This process doesn't follow the adult conversation route where things are more clearly defined. Children also have vivid imaginations and can conjure up all sorts of scenarios, some of which bear no relationship to real life. I'm sure you have found it absolutely fascinating to watch their development so far and they will continue to surprise you as the years go by.

It is also truly amazing what they remember from childhood as indeed you do yourself, so you are wise to ponder on what is the best way to tell them what lies ahead. I remember a client of mine many years ago rehearsing in the counselling room what he was going to tell his children about his impending separation and the emotion that he felt was so strong that he decided he couldn't do it and was going to end his affair and try to make a go of his marriage. I'm not for a moment suggesting that this might happen to you, I'm just illustrating how fraught the whole situation of telling the children can be.

I think that you both should tell the children together, and it should be some weeks before you go on holidays. They realise that you are not great friends, which is what a mother and father should be, and explain to them that because of that you are going to live separately in a few weeks time. You should stress that you both love them very much and it is important to tell them that none of this is their fault. Then you will both be around to answer the questions that will inevitably come, and it probably will be quite a sad time for you all, but I agree that it seems to be preferable to them witnessing constant arguing and fighting. Your husband will get part of what he wants as he can move while you are all away, but in the interests of the children they cannot be allowed to come home to a fatherless house with no prior knowledge. If this were to happen they would never again go to their grandparents' home without fearing some huge change when they came back. They may even not want to go on holidays again because of the bad memories. So you should stand firm on this one and insist that they are told well in advance of their holidays. You will then also have the support of your parents to help you come to terms with your new situation.

My son of 16 smokes: how can I stop him?

Question: How do I get my son to give  up smoking ? He is 16 and is good at school and very ambitious for his future. In every way he is an ideal son - except that he is smoking, and denies it ! But I can smell it from his clothes when he has been out with his friends at the weekend and also from his breath.

Both my parents died from lung cancer and an aunt has terrible emphysema, so it's in my genes. All of them were chain smokers and I keep telling my son that he is going to die that way too if he doesn't stop. I know all his friends smoke and that there is peer pressure to keep at it but I am in despair. If you have a magical answer please share it with me.

Mary replies: I don't have a magical answer but I do have some thoughts. At 16 we think we will live forever and so the prospect of death as a result of smoking or anything else for that matter does not really put fear into a teenager's mind.

Perhaps he is telling the truth and is not smoking. Other people's smoke gets infiltrated into clothing very easily and that might be what you smell. You really need to be sure about his breath, as most secret smokers chew gum all the time to mask their guilty secret.

He is at school and therefore reliant on you for pocket money, unless he has a part-time job. Tell him that despite his protestations you know that he is smoking. Estimate how many he smokes and deduct the cost of that amount of cigarettes. Tell him when he has proven that he has stopped smoking the money will be restored.

Both my sons were smokers in their teens and are now very anti-smoking, so it may just be a passing phase. Peer pressure is pretty intense as is the wish to be one of the gang. It takes more courage to say no. Many years ago I was at a party where a joint of marijuana was being passed around with each person taking a drag. When one guy refused and said that he didn't smoke it was amazing to watch most people after him refuse also.

What would be really effective is if he were to meet a girl that he fancied and he got to kiss her and she wasn't a smoker and didn't like the smell of cigarettes on his breath. That might change his mind about smoking pretty quickly - and give you something else to worry about!

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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