Saturday, 16 August 2008

Divorce and kids

Some feminist or other once wrote that divorce is the logical extension of marriage. When a married woman gets divorced, she goes from one situation of being financially dependent and caring for kids alone to a new situation of being financially dependent and caring for kids alone. Probably, that argument made sense in the context of second wave feminism, when there was little state provision for women raising kids alone, and women's access to the job market was limited.

Custodial parents (usually mums) still tend to end up far worse off financially following divorce than non-custodial parents, but there's no point denying that divorce can be incredibly tough on men and women alike. It's not like marriages only end when men cast aside their wives for newer, younger models, as I think the anonymous feminist mentioned above thinks. Divorces can be instigated by either party, and incredibly painful for both.

Given that divorces can be shattering for both spouses, and can bring out the worst behaviour in both men and women, how can the interests of kids be protected? Despite my lack of patience with the father's rights lobby, my heart goes out to any parent who loves his or her children but can't be with them.

I was an adult when my own parents split, but three of my siblings still lived at home. They chose to live with my mum, and my father didn't see a great deal of them. This was very hard on him, but he chose to accept it because it was far less disruptive to the kids than starting some of territorial conflict with my mother, within or outside the Family Court. I greatly respected my father's for this, and I understand how very unhappy it made him at times. He had to decide between what he wanted and what was best for his kids, and he made the right decision. Sometime life isn't fair, and you've got to put someone else's welfare ahead of your own.

In an ideal world, though, divorce wouldn't make people go so crazy (about kids, property and so on) that compromises have to be made. I don't have a magical solution to this; but I think that society's attitudes to divorce - and, for that matter, the whole institution of marriage - need to be more flexible. I think we should accept that, for some people at least, divorce will be the logical conclusion of marriage, and we should not only focus on supporting families post-divorce but start thinking about marriage as something which may be less than a lifelong proposition.

When you get married, you make a pledge to reserve all your affection and sexual love for one person for your entire life, and you expect the same from that person in return. The more you buy into these ideas, the more committed you are to them, the more it must feel that your world has fallen apart when your marriage fails. Little wonder that people go crazy when something that was supposed to last a lifetime falls short of the mark. I don't want to trivialise the experiences of women or men who feel shattered when their marriages end.

But what if our expectations of marriage were a bit lower? My partner of twelve years and I have always taken a pragmatic approach to our relationship. We've got no plans to split up, but it's something we talk about from time to time. This seems to us like a responsible thing to do, like planning ahead for your kids or taking out insurance. We try make sure each of us has opportunities in our paid work, so that if we did split both of us would be able to support ourselves. We've agreed that if we were to split, the kids would be paramount, and there would absolutely not be any tug of war over them. We're not married, so we never pledged to love, honour or cherish one another for life - but we have pledged that, if we split, we'll have enough respect for each other that we'll never use the kids to hurt one another.

Of course, this might be one of those things that works very well in theory but turns to crap in practice. And you might think it's incredibly cynical or even a bit bizarre to plan for the possibility of relationship breakdown. I haven't been through the experience of divorce myself, but I've seen it happen in a dignified way, and I've also seen it go horribly wrong. There's a place for policies which support couples to try to stay together, but I think there's also a place for policies which help people split in the most painless and non-adversarial way possible, with minimum damage to themselves and their kids. Some would see this as advocating a flippant approach to marriage, and they're probably right. As usual, I'd love to hear other people's thoughts!


Anonymous said...

The current climate around single women supporting their kids is so horrifying to some that they remain in terrible situtations. By climate I mean solo parent "bashing", the lack of support from society (or family in some instances), the financial hardship. Makes you semi-understand why a woman in a nice financially stable household might put up with a bash (or threat of) every now and again in the interests of providing for her kids.

dad4justice said...

How can the kids get a better deal after separation or divorce?
I believe the solution to the problem is the eradication of the no fault divorce system and the hideous terms of custodial and non-custodial parents. We need an early intervention service that provides practical solutions to avoid conflict and the onset by either parent or party, so we can avoid most conflicts that might seriously impact on any innocent children. Caring men and women helping in the community, which may enable any children involved continuing in a settled routine.

Ari said...

I'm sorry- you want to eliminate no-fault divorce? So you think the kids will be better off with miserable parents that can't get along legally bound to each other until one of them does something so out-of-line that it's a written into the law that it can't be done during marriage?

Yeah, I can really see that helping kids whose parents are falling out of love.

Speaking as someone whose parents had a relatively painless separation and now remain on good terms, I think that you underestimate the problems that staying together would pose for some couples.

While I'd love to see a less adversarial way of dealing with child custody, I don't see much practical room for improvement without dramatically changing people's attitudes to marriage and children.

Anna McM said...

What would be your rationale for getting rid of no fault divorce, D4J?

I've heard it argued (by someone with very conservative Christian beliefs) that the current divorce laws are bad because they encourage people to throw away marriages flippantly rather than work at them. I think it's important that those who want to work at their marriages have the encouragement and support to do so, but I also think marriages should be very easy to escape.

I've also never met a person who just chucked in their marriage on a whim (although I certainly know of people who've left marriages for less than admirable reasons). For most people, leaving a marriage is a life-wrenching decision, even if the marriage is an unhappy one - and if you're a woman, there's a good chance you'll face poverty on the DPB as a result. And when people do leave marriages for dumb reasons, you've got to ask yourself, is it such a bad thing? If my partner left me because I've got a fat arse, then I really feel I'd be better off without someone like that in my life.

The ex-expat said...

My current squeeze is going through a heinous divorce right now. And one thing people forget is how incredibly lenghty the whole process can be if it is an acrimonous split.

This one has been going on for over a year and still looks to have several more rounds before it gets 100% settled. But both parties involved have significant funds to fight it out in court whereas for average wage earners the story would likely to be very different.

Watching silently from the sidelines I've come to the conclusion I never want to go through something like that.I can't even imgaine how difficult it is for the 5 year old stuck in the middle of this mess.

My only answer is that some people just should not be allowed to breed. But that's not an easy policy to enforce.

dad4justice said...

We agree the children suffer after their parents separate, so why don't we put CHILDREN on a pedestal and make divorce a decision based on parental responsibilities. Fathers for example,should understand the huge affect it will have on their children. No way do I advocate a relationship that is violent and the no fault system is here to stay, however more emphasis on the Children and nurturing would improve the situation for many kiwi children.
Just my two cents worth.

Hugh said...

D4J, children don't necessarily suffer if their children separate. There are many divorces where the effect on the children is minimal, and where the children don't lack the care or support that either parent provided before the marriage. These aren't even necessarily the divorces where parents separate amicably, as long as the parents both want the best for their children.

Unfortunately, there's a tendency in divorce for parents to identify their own interests with those of the child - eg, 'my wife cheated on me, therefore she is untrustworthy and deceitful, and why would I want somebody untrustworthy and deceitful to raise my children'?

Basically, I think everybody agrees that the interests of the children in a divorce should be foremost. The question is, how can those interests be promoted? (And how does this effect no-child divorces?)

Ari said...

D4J- Not all marriages result in children. Marriage as a concept is now separated from child-raising, and that's even ignoring the infertile or those who marry at ages when childbirth would be very risky. (And completely discounting the possibility of gay marriage sometime in the future)

I think any responsible parent is already trying to put the emphasis on their children. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always possible to do so in divorces where there are very hurt feelings involved and things are likely to be very adversarial. Again- the solution to me seems to be to avoid "universalising" marriage and child-raising so that everyone feels like they have to do it, even if they're not very well prepared.

Hendo said...

D4J, you can't just get divorced in a place with no-fault divorce, and fault-based divorce is no guarantee of saving a marriage. Usually no-fault divorce requires a lengthy separation period, during which there is ample time for both parties to consider the decision, and fault-based divorces can happen very quickly indeed.

The problem is not actual divorces but people's unrealistic expectations heading into marriage / divorce and then how they handle the divorce.