Friday 24 May 2019

Stella O'Malley: What couples really need at this difficult time is a reflective and thoughtful divorce process

Life lessons: a still from Ollie Lambert's film Mum and Dad are Splitting Up
Life lessons: a still from Ollie Lambert's film Mum and Dad are Splitting Up
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

Following the 'yes' vote to repeal the Eighth and the 'yes' vote to allow gay marriage, it feels like Ireland is on the crest of a liberal wave. It is likely there will be yet another 'yes' vote in the forthcoming referendum on the legal framework of divorce.

There is a general feeling that we Irish have finally rid ourselves of the tag of being a lowly, priest-ridden backwater, and we are basking in the glow of being perceived internationally as progressive and forward-thinking.

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But does easing restrictions on divorce wait times, as proposed in the referendum, mean that we are forward-thinking, progressive liberals? Or does it mean that we are simply following a mindless culture that encourages quick decisions that stem from an immature desire for instant gratification?

The reasoning is that we don't have to wait years if we wish to get married so, in many ways it doesn't make sense that we have to wait years before we can divorce.

It is arguable that the current enforced waiting time of four years just creates a messy limbo at the very time when clarity and certainty is needed. It leaves divorcing parents without the means to provide a concise explanation to their children's questions.

When a client comes into my clinic needing support as they go through the divorce process, they usually just want to get the whole thing out of their hair and move on as fast as they can, but this is not necessarily the most helpful or therapeutic route to take. Indeed, I often recommend the client watches Olly Lambert's film Mum and Dad are Splitting Up as a way to encourage further thought and analysis about how to best manage the situation.

Although putting in arbitrary time lags seems counter-intuitive, the longer I practice psychotherapy, the more I appreciate the need to take time for thoughtful contemplation and reflection when we face life-changing situations.

Dismantling process

The truth is that divorce is inherently messy. It is difficult and complicated to dismantle a life that was set up to be permanent. It can be even harder when one person wants out while the other wishes to try again, and when children are involved, the couple are pretty much bound together for life - whether they like it or not - and so the dismantling process is even more complex.

Although an enforced period of reflection might seem like a heavy-handed attempt to try to encourage deeper thought, there is significant value found in slowing down when you wish to speed up. But perhaps a more practical way to produce the same results would be to take the lead from an interesting new innovation that Denmark has brought in to manage the messy business of divorce.

This new Danish law, brought in last month, requires parents with children under the age of 18 to take an online 'divorce course' designed to help the family to adapt to the new situation before they are allowed to legally end the marriage.

The fundamentals of every family breakdown could be covered in a divorce course, such as communication challenges, potential conflict areas and specific issues such as how to manage children's schooling, holidays, future birthday parties and extended families.

Even the logistics of Christmas could be addressed, as it can often be a disaster zone for divorced parents.

The Danish 'divorce course' seems to be akin to the marriage courses that many Irish people complain about having to take when wishing to marry in church, and then later generally remark were surprisingly helpful.

Currently, many liberal countries make it very easy to get a divorce - in Denmark it costs approximately €60 and it can be signed, sealed and delivered within a few months.

Although this might seem attractive to anyone who is withering under the compulsory four-year restriction in Ireland, it must be noted that Denmark has the highest divorce rate in Europe and, with nearly half of all Danish marriages failing, this doesn't seem like such a great result for anyone.

The truth is that divorce almost always hurts - especially when children are involved.

It has been said before that abortion is "always wrong but sometimes necessary" and the same could perhaps be applied to divorce.

No one gets married with a view to divorcing but life can go wrong, things fall apart and the best laid plans do go awry. It's not helpful to pretend this doesn't happen - but nor is it helpful to pretend that divorce isn't painful.

It is much braver - and more therapeutic - to confront the issue head on. Divorce might hurt the children, but then a lot of things in life will hurt our children - and staying together can cause even more hurt. Perhaps the most productive approach is to undergo a divorce course that requires the involved parents to resolve their communication challenges and come to some sort of agreement about the future before they legally dissolve the marriage.

If the parents haven't found a way to communicate and cannot come to any discernible agreement, then the children often get profoundly hurt. If the couple can communicate well, then the kids have a better chance of emerging from the break-up still bruised but not broken.

The most powerful gift you can provide for your children is your own behaviour - even when your ex-partner is incredibly difficult to deal with. We can't hope to protect our children from all the ways that they can get hurt, but we can provide them with an approach that will help them deal with their problems as they happen.

And so what many divorcing couples need is not a quickie divorce nor an artificially lengthy divorce, but a thoughtful and reflective divorce process that encourages people to learn from their experiences and plan ahead so that everyone can move on with a deeper understanding of what has happened to their family unit. This isn't at all easy - but it is entirely necessary.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker. Her new book, 'Fragile: Why We Feel More Stressed, Anxious and Overwhelmed Than Ever, and What We Can Do About It', is out now

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