Thursday 22 March 2018

Golden rules for children in a marriage break-upLast week, RTE's Mary Wilson spoke words of wisdom about her relationship split. Sinead Ryan reports

Sinead Ryan

Sinead Ryan

The recent revelation from RTE's Drivetime presenter, Mary Wilson, that her marriage to Sportscaster Tony O Donoghue ended two years ago, taking her all of that time and more to get over it, is sad, but her determination to pick herself up and move on for the sake of their daughter, Aoife, 10, is heart-warming.

"Life happens, it's tough, it's horrible, it's awful. But you pick yourself up, you dust yourself down and you've two choices, I've learned that", she said in a recent interview. She added that making that choice was the first step to moving on. "You can either throw your hands in the air and give up, or you get up and get on with living your life".

Keeping their daughter as the "number one" priority helped Mary deal with her marriage break-up and she insists that her relationship with her ex-husband remains amicable.

It's a position counselling psychologist Sinead Benn agrees with. "Once a couple has decided to separate it's really important to try and negate blame when you're telling your children. Telling them the news together using age-appropriate language will limit the negative effects on them."

Every break-up is difficult to deal with for the parties involved and especially children. "There will always be anxiety, and maybe some acting out", says Benn, "but the couples who are able to develop the ability to co-parent successfully find their children dealing better with the situation."

John Farrelly, Director of Counselling with Accord, says if parents who are splitting can do only one thing they agree on it should be to learn the mantra, "I will not undermine my children's mum/dad".

Undermining your partner undermines your children, he says. "Concentrating on putting them first can help with all the other decisions." It's not just children of course, who can be hurt when a marriage ends. Extended family often 'take sides', says Benn and this can add to an already stressful situation.

"Your own family will be on your side in the majority of cases, but it's important not to get drawn in to conflict. Make sure family knows the boundary between 'support' and being 'adversarial', especially in front of children. Don't be afraid to give them clear messages about your needs."

Deciding practical issues can also be challenging. Benn says, "Children will have questions about where they're going to live, or go to school. They'll be reassured if you have a plan, are in control of what's going to happen and most importantly, that it's consistent between both parents. Try to have all this worked out before you talk to them about the split -- they will feel quite insecure, a parent's job is not to heighten that."

John Farrelly points out that most people going through divorce or separation are still suffering from shock and grief. "Because a marriage ends doesn't mean both parties want it to end. Even when the decision is made, there's a reaction to the loss."

Surprisingly it is predominantly women who instigate the final step of separation. "We have a saying", says Farrelly, "Women either mend it or end it. Over 80pc of divorces are brought by women. On the whole she'll put up with a marriage where she's happy and feels connected -- isolation causes the problem.

"Men, on the other hand, rarely see it coming. Even as late as the actual divorce, they can be in denial about basic things like finding somewhere to live. It's as if he thinks there's something happening, but it's not really happening."

But there is consensus that the minute solicitors get involved, the situation immediately gets adversarial. "Only 1 pc of our 10,000 referrals are from a solicitor", says Farrelly.

"If I could recommend anything, it would be that couples who have decided definitely to split get mediation from somewhere like the Family Support Agency who offer constructive settlements without the adversarial content."


Dr. John Sharry's book 'When Parents Separate: Helping your Children Cope', helps make sure the transition through marriage break-up lessens the impact on children.

"Be Positive. Children suffer a range of emotional difficulties when their parents separate, but their attitude can help ensure that children cope relatively well.

"Develop a good relationship with your ex: The level of conflict between parents is a predictor of stress children are under, whether or not the parents live together.

"It is crucial to work hard to develop a constructive relationship with your ex. Try to remain amicable -- even develop a 'business-like' relationship with him/her, if possible.

"Don't encourage children to take sides: Children commonly experience divided loyalty between parents. Make sure to give them a balanced account of the separation.

"Let them know both parents still love them. Try and speak positively about your ex in front of the children. Never use your child as a go-between or bargaining tool.

"Work on communication: Listen carefully to what your children are saying - they may need individual support and special understanding. It's good to have one-to-one time with them to see how they are coping. Minimise other changes: Sometimes major losses are not due to the separation, but to other factors like moving home, school and leaving friends behind.

"Instead of being a 'fresh start' it can be lonely and stressful for children. If you move, maintain contact with old pals and extended family -- on both sides.

'When Parents Separate: Helping your Children Cope', by John Sharry, Peter Reid, Eugene Donohoe, is published by Veritas. 'Good Marriage Guide', by John Farrelly in bookshops now. Centre of Professional Therapy, Tel (01) 4789468.

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