Sunday 15 September 2019

Stephanie Regan: 'Forget who's at fault when a marriage breaks up - for the sake of the children'

Breaking up: It is almost 25 years since divorce became legal in Ireland. Picture posed
Breaking up: It is almost 25 years since divorce became legal in Ireland. Picture posed

Stephanie Regan

Do we really need to know who stepped out of the marital bed first or who is at fault when a marriage breaks up?

This kind of intimate information can damage relationships with extended family and friends, relationships which are a big part of life for children in most families.

There were 94,924 separated or divorced men and 127,149 women in Ireland in 2016. We are 25 years since divorce became legalised by that very small margin of less than half a percent. Everything takes adjustment, but are we progressing or are we still harsh, critical and judgmental about this?

In my clinical and personal experience, no one is fickle about the ending of a marriage. Usually there are many months and often years of painful self-questioning and sincere efforts at 'trying again'. I've worked with couples who want to keep their marriages together, who care about their children, who feel stressed and torn, but who, in the end, concede it's just not going to work. By 2016, 283,802 people had suffered marriage breakdown.

Whether it is a marriage or a relationship, the details of a break-up can be readily offered for discussion. You may listen out of genuine concern, you may even be one of the people who 'knew this would happen'.

Sometimes, though, the interest is less noble, maybe even prurient. People like to know who wanted out, who was bored with who, or if there were any breaches in the fidelity department - eye roll.

But the moment you know those details, your views, feelings and relationship with that person is changed. Often the teller knows this and is venting their anger, purging their distress, which is understandable. But when these relationships are damaged in this early phase they are often broken forever, with an immediate end to calls, invites or further communications between one parent and previous friends, grandparents or in-laws, and who does it really hurt? The children.

My clinical work has allowed me to see many sides and no one gets off pain-free in these situations. There are different stresses for both parents, the one who leaves and the one who stays. There can be heartbreak, disappointment and grief, but also shame and guilt, as someone feels they have failed or that it is their fault. There is someone kissing their children before sleep and someone who turns out the light alone. It's not easy and it is no help to have a layer of condemnation from friends or family who know bits of that marriage story.

The children are at the centre, watching the parent they love walk out the door and sleep elsewhere. The stability of home and their world is shattered. They breathe in the angst and emotional turmoil of parents and feel helpless. They can be impossibly torn when there is open parental conflict or if they hear of the wrongdoing of the other. They feel burdened with anger, feelings of disloyalty and concern for the adults they love. They love them both and being able to do that is central to their world.

Protecting children post-divorce or break-up needs lots more than legal documentation. It requires communication, talk, chat, civility and respect between the parents, so they can continue to be parents and they need support to do this whether married or not. Splitting and establishing sides of family and friends who agree on who is at fault simply adds a further layer of complication, stopping precious invitations, dinners, coffees and effectively estranging one parent from the family and friends of the other.

In therapy, I have heard the impossible dilemmas of adult children whose parents and families have been estranged as they grew up. For them, every Christmas and celebration is laced with tension, until death does it end. What a shame and what a loss.

Relationships will always break, we need to accept that. Humanity is such that there will always be errors, infidelities or simply a growing apart, the blame for which is irrelevant.

Supporting separations and facilitating civilised relationships after a break-up can begin with the small conversations we have when we hear a marriage has broken. We can avoid the details and focus on the parenting as soon as possible. In this way, parents, grandparents and friends are left free to maintain at least a working relationship with the departing spouse.

Children will benefit as both parents can attend birthdays or other celebrations without a room filled with tension and silence. I am aware of the many exceptions when this is not possible, where there has been abuse or domestic violence or other impossible scenarios, but in the main we need to look at breaking up better when we can, for the children's sake.

There was some excuse when marriage breakdown was new but now it is in all our lives. We need to resist simple judgments and analysis of another's marriage and remember this delicate structure needs to function post break-up. We need to accept marriages are sometimes untenable and need to break. We need to support both parents, leaving the intimate working out to the people themselves and their very close supports. Efforts to lay blame and find fault makes the future more difficult for everyone. We can do better.

Stephanie Regan is a clinical psychotherapist in private practice and a regular contributor on Newstalk and Ireland AM

Irish Independent

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