This is the first line of the well-known poem by Philip Larkin, a poem which Sir Andrew MacFarlane, President of the Family Division, gave to Paddy O’Connell before his interview broadcast on Sunday, 24 July, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House (BH) programme.
The words of that poem I imagine resonate with many of us, if not always, from time to time however there is a real risk of this if children are brought into a dispute upon the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
Relationships break down for very many reasons and so all manner of emotions are likely to be heightened. Negative emotions might include grief, anger, despair, anxiety and fear about the future and not feeling ‘good enough’.
However whatever the reason for the breakdown and separation it is likely to be a difficult time emotionally which is why I frequently suggest taking time, and giving time to a partner, to come to terms with the breakdown before embarking upon the formal process, and making decisions which will have a long term effect upon your family and always to put children first.
Whatever the feelings about a former partner, in almost every circumstance (save where there are real safety concerns) children thrive and are better adjusted if they have an ongoing relationship with both parents, and where both parents have compatible parenting styles (it’s far from good for a child to think they can play one parent off against the other), and are unaware of any conflict between their parents.
As Sir Andrew MacFarlane made clear during the radio interview children “just know” if their parents are unhappy or disagree. It is always sad when children feel that they have to take sides which can occur, for instance, so as not to upset a parent they perceive to be more unhappy or to avoid being told off. Teenage children in particular will often say things simply to please a parent, rather than say what they genuinely think/ want.
It is not uncommon in the early days of a breakdown for one or both parents to feel scared that they might lose their place in their child’s / children’s life – this is why it is good to remember that agreeing the arrangements isn’t about you and that how you behave around your children and the example you set will determine the long term relationship with your children.
Friends whose parents separated acrimoniously when they were young often comment that they still feel conflict – a recurring thing they mention is how hard it was knowing that their parents were arguing about them. And counsellors have told me that this can often be a subject which comes up years later to include with clients in their 50’s, 60’s or older.
Children should be put first and if possible talked to by both parents about the future arrangements – it’s important that children see a united front. If parents remember how they felt at the time of their children’s birth – how they would both do anything to protect them and put their lives and happiness above all else – then it should be possible to talk openly and honestly about what is and will be best for them and not to seek to impose their values/ wishes and demands upon a former partner.
If parents find it hard to communicate, then family therapists can help to facilitate discussions and assist a separating couple to adjust and see the issues from the other’s perspective and thereby help to negotiate and enable an agreement to be reached no matter how much a former couple may be at loggerheads with each other and might blame or resent the other for the end of their combined family life.
Being able to agree the arrangements as to how much time children spend with each parent – perhaps even spending time all together on special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, and graduations – promoting and being positive about that time is probably the single most important gift a parent can give a child, no matter how old they are, in these circumstances.
I can remember bristling when, during his resignation speech, Boris Johnson name checked and thanked his present family, and was pleased to read an article by India Knight in the Sunday Times on the Sunday after that speech in which she referenced the impact upon children of a previous relationship of feeling unwanted and unloved following the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, which can occur especially where one parent lives in a new family. She refers to how divorce can ‘ deform a child’s entire sense of self-worth and to cause them to question their own lovability’.
So separating parents must do all they can to support their children and encourage a relationship with both. Resolving such matters through the courts should be a last resort.- Sir Andrew Macfarlane referred to the courts being the ‘ last port of call ‘ and to such issues not being legal ones but rather ‘relationship problems’, something I have repeatedly said for years, which is why I try to encourage family therapy and counselling whenever needed. A judge, and even the court welfare officer who will have spoken with parents before preparing a report, do not know the parents or children about whom they are being asked to make a decision, and so can be no substitute to parents making such decisions, thinking at all times about their children, their vulnerabilities and needs. A dispute will cause harm and is unhealthy and as Sir Andrew Macfarlane candidly put it ‘ will do their head in’ which is why his reference to Philp Larkins’s poem was so apt.