June 6, 2022 9:00 AM
I’ve said before in this column that the pandemic has had a huge impact on relationships of all kinds. It’s not totally bad news though. Plenty of families have drawn closer. Couples too. Many have discovered that incarceration with the person they love has breathed fresh life into their liaison.
Sadly, however, for many adults, lockdowns were the final nail in the coffin of their deteriorating romances, and as a consequence, solicitors throughout the country are seeing a significant increase in the volume of people wishing to part from each other.
This trend has been augmented by the introduction of ‘no-fault divorce’ legislation on April 6. According to a friend of mine who’s a marital lawyer, she and her colleagues have seen lots of couples since then who have waited for this development, in the hope of making their split less acrimonious.
So, this is an unsettling time, and of course when couples break up, there’s a knock-on effect of pain and unease that spreads throughout the extended family.
For a start, many of us older individuals genuinely love the partners of our offspring, and when a separation happens, we can feel very miserable about losing our child-in-law.
Also, for those of us who are grandparents, we cannot help but fear that the schism will mean we see the children much less.
Another source of real distress is if – despite this age of ‘no fault’ divorce – you are appalled at your own son or daughter’s behaviour, and you blame them for the breakdown. It’s a horrible feeling.
Say, for example, your son has gone off with a younger woman and your daughter-in-law is bereft, your sympathies may well be with her, which can cause big family problems.
But what we should remember is that we can’t know precisely what goes on behind closed doors and our best bet in these highly inflammatory situations is to try to stay calm, offer help to both parties and resist any impulse to tell them what they must do. We should acknowledge too, that it’s rare for one half of a warring couple to be all good and the other all bad.
Naturally though, this is a raw period, and for us older relatives caught up in it, we’re likely to feel very stressed and to lose sleep. However, when this happens, it’s wise not to disclose our upset to the splitting couple or our grandchildren. They’ve got enough to cope with. Instead, we should look for support from our partners and close friends – many of whom will have been through similar scenarios.
The really vital aspect of relationship breakdown though, is care for the children of the couple who are parting. They usually feel powerless and terrified and, although their home may be something of a warzone, they are unlikely to welcome the breakup.
What all the adults in the situation need to take on board is that kids often blame themselves, Often, one child in the family has been the focus of the parents’ disagreements and thinks that if only they had been ‘good’, mum and dad would have stayed together.
Children need to be constantly reassured that they are deeply loved by both parents and all grandparents, and that that will never change. They might be troublesome during the process, but the split isn’t of their making, and they need understanding, not criticism.
Basically, then, anything older relatives can do to make the kids’ lives more secure, more stable and more fun at this time would be good. Try to arrange sleepovers at your place, days out and so on. Often youngsters will open up on a car journey for example, and explain how they are feeling.
If they know they can trust you, and that you won’t tell their parents anything they want to keep private, then you may well become a huge asset and comfort for that child.
Also, and very importantly, try not to assume that children are fine if they are acting normally. I’ve seen many adults in my consulting room who felt ignored during a divorce when they were small. They had tried to behave well and not cause trouble at the time, but often feel deeply scarred by the relationship breakdown and the fact that no one paid attention to their sorrow. The truth is that the child with exemplary behavior is frequently just as distressed as any ‘difficult’ sibling.
Lastly, if you are caught up in close family members separating, and you feel in despair, do look around at all the second marriages and other newish relationships that you’re aware of among your friends and family. So often, they work out well, and everyone settles down happily to the ‘new normal’.
Often too, you realize that the relationship in question had genuinely run its course, and sometimes you come to understand that it was a mistake in the first place. But that’s a topic for another day.