Marilyn Stowe: Should feuding couples stay together for the sake of the children?

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IT is Family Dispute Resolution Week, an annual event organised by aptly named legal organisation Resolution to promote alternatives to the courtroom.

To mark the start of this year’s campaign, Resolution released an eye-catching survey of young people’s attitudes to divorce. A research firm polled young people aged 14 and 22 who had experienced separation and divorce. The headline finding?

A huge majority (82 per cent) said they thought it was ultimately better for parents to split up if they were unhappy then to try and stay together for the sake of the kids – even if the youngsters in question had felt differently when Mum and Dad were actually divorcing.

Resolution quote participants in the research with a clear message for parents. One said: “Don’t stay together for a child’s sake, better to divorce than stay together for another few years and divorce on bad terms.”

Another insisted that while children may be upset when their parents split, they “will often realise, later on, that it was for the best”.

Tellingly, almost a third of the children surveyed (31 per cent) said they wished their parents had not been horrible about each other during the break-up.

Clearly, for many children, a prompt divorce is better than ugly rows and bitterness later on.

The Daily Mail has picked up on the findings, which it found deeply controversial. The poll drew a “furious response from supporters of marriage”, the paper claimed, adding that Sir Paul Coleridge of the Marriage Foundation had found the results “shocking and irresponsible”.

The implication seems to be this: that family lawyers are irresponsibly promoting divorce for their own commercial ends. In his quoted comments, Sir Paul states: “Every child who has been confronted by the spectre of family breakdown wants above all else for their family to remain intact or to get back together.”

My bet is that Resolution never intended its poll and its findings to be interpreted in this way and they will be deeply shocked and concerned that it has.

Not being a member of Resolution myself, I’m not involved, but I do know that both they and Sir Paul Coleridge and Harry Benson, who also speaks for the Marriage Foundation, hold the most sincere views, which on this occasion have polarised and diverged.

Perhaps the phraseology of the survey could have been better, but nevertheless it is interesting to note that the latest divorce statistics published by the Office of National Statistics actually show that the divorce rate amongst couples with children is going down – and has been for a number of years. To me that is the most telling statistic of all.

Couples with children are staying together. Older couples, whose children are presumably no longer dependent/or living at home, are the only group of people for whom the divorce rate is increasing.

Leaving aside factors such as the lack of legal aid to assist in divorce and the growth in co-habiting couples splitting up: how might we account for that? Are modern married couples simply happier than their predecessors? Are they working harder at their marriages? Or are more well-intentioned couples staying together for the sake of their kids and thereby storing up trouble for the future?

Draw your own conclusions. But are the children better off? Daily rows and unreasonable behaviour – is that really any life for a child? Equally, finding the courage to make a fresh start could be interpreted as a positive example for a child’s future. You may think so – equally you may completely disagree. It could equally be argued that even if a marriage is troubled, giving a child the safety and security of two parents who remain committed to them even if they loathe each other is an equally valid example and appropriate role model too. Who can say? I don’t personally think anyone can.

This is a complex and difficult issue. In an ideal world every child would grow up in a stable and happy home, with Mum and Dad living contentedly under the same roof. But of course we do not live in such a world.

As I noted in my book Divorce and Splitting Up first published in December 2012: “Children are sharp and sensitive to their surroundings. Even if Mum and Dad save the crockery-throwing and accusations of intolerable behaviour for those times when the kids are out of the house, a child is soon going to realise that all is not well.”

Rare is the parent who does not feel they are doing the right thing for their children, even if others do not see the situation in quite same way. But it is so easy to lose perspective.

Sometimes couples rush precipitously into divorce, abandoning marriages which could have been salvaged with a little work. And sometimes divorce is the best choice for all concerned. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Every family is different, happy and unhappy in different ways, living in a unique set of circumstances . At the end of the day, only they can decide what is best for them.

That was my opinion then, based on years of listening to clients, and it remains my opinion now. No-one, neither a member of Resolution nor Sir Paul himself, can declare definitively what is best for every child caught up in every family breakdown. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer for every child. Some children will do better with two parents who can still, somehow, make things work, while others will do better when warring parents decide they will be better off divorced and living apart, with the children moving easily between Mum and Dad.

Perhaps the real problems are those children with a parent or parents who sadly put themselves and their own needs first, leaving the children to trail along in their wake. It’s those children I think who have the greatest need for a perfect answer and for whom there is the greatest sadness. That figure may be dropping however, given these stats. It looks as if more and more parents are indeed putting the children first, so overall there is no need for too much doom and gloom.

For a family in turmoil, isn’t making such decisions simply treating the best interests of the child as paramount, which coincidentally happens to be the law?

Marilyn Stowe is Senior Partner of Harrogate-based Stowe Family Law.