Divorce is complicated, we know. As Mel B and ex Stephen Belafonte battle over kids and finances, we ask leading UK relationship therapist Andrew G Marshall for advice on how to break up when there are children involved
It’s always messy when a couple splits up, even more messy if there are kids involved and even more again when they’re famous. Mel B and ex Stephen Belafonte are hitting headlines again this week as their divorce embroils them in a bitter dispute over both their children and their finances. The pair have hurled shocking allegations at one another and Mel B stirred speculation when she posted a note on on Instagram saying, ‘The truth always comes out in the end, no matter how hard anyone tries to hide it or stop it… Lies are just a temporary delay to the inevitable.’
And while we don’t quite have to worry about the paparazzi getting involved in most of our relationship woes, with statistics in the UK showing that 42 percent of marriages end in divorce, we did get to thinking – what impact can a divorce really have on our children? And how can we break it off with our partners in a way that is least damaging to them?
Relationship expert and therapist, Andrew G. Marshall explained that a messy divorce can have a devastating impact on children and often acts as a defining moment in a child’s life. ‘You are giving your children a huge lesson about relationships… hopefully that message will be that it’s okay for adults to disagree with each other because they will find a solution for it that works.’ Unfortunately, though, Marshall explains that this isn’t always the case.
‘Often you end up giving the message that there are winners and losers from a divorce which is a difficult message for a child to take into adulthood. They don’t know how to compromise in a relationship because their parents have never done so. And if they’ve seen a parent left bitter or angry, they’re going to be terrified of relationships because they’ve seen what high stakes they can be… a lot of children grow up to be adults that are terrified of commitment because, to quote a client of mine, ‘If I don’t get married then I can’t get divorced and I won’t get hurt’ – what a terrible message to give to your children.’
So how can you get through a divorce without screwing up your kids? Marshall clues us in.
Keep your kids in the loop
‘Children have got ears and your house is not sound-proof. You want to try not to be shouting and screaming at each other as much as possible but it’s impossible for the children not to be aware of what’s going on.When you break the news, try and speak to your children together. You want them to feel that it’s an ongoing conversation and that they can ask questions at any point. Make sure you keep checking in with them.
Children generally do not want to talk in big meeting type situations. They’d much rather ask their questions when they’re doing something else with you, in what I call sideways conversations. Do something like baking with your children and they will talk to you and open up. When they ask questions, give them as much honesty as possible with as few details as possible. If you don’t know what will happen next it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you don’t know at the moment.
It’s also good to own your part of what is happening as well. It’s the adult thing to do and you’re teaching them a very useful lesson. It’s very easy to blame, it’s much harder to take responsibility for your half of whats going on.’
Tell them the truth
‘If someone has had an affair you’ve got to tell them because they will find out for themselves and its always much better to hear it from you than from somebody else. You just have to tell them the basic facts that daddy or mummy fell out of love and they’ve met someone else. Because the children will find out eventually – I promise you. It could be that they might even already know. We like to think that children are deaf and dumb and that they only know what we tell them but they don’t. I have lots of clients where the children find out the affair and they’ve been keeping it secret for ages.
There’s nothing wrong with anger as long as it’s in proportion to what is actually happening
Preferably the news should come from both parents together but particularly the parent that has had the affair. It’s going to be really difficult because the injured party is going to want to say an awful lot about it and the person who has had the affair is not going to want to say anything.’
Spare them the details
‘I’ve had clients that have been told by their parents about the sexually transmitted disease that they’ve been given by their other parent. That information stays forever, they don’t need to hear that stuff. You might tell a child, ‘unfortunately, your father is involved with another woman,’ the children don’t need to hear ‘Oh and she’s 20 years younger and he’s making a fool of himself.’ Stick to the facts, don’t editorialise.’
Don’t go storming out the house
‘This tells your children that some arguments are so terrible that they cannot be resolved and will make them frightened to have arguments themselves. If you don’t have arguments then nothing gets solved and everything gets pushed under the carpet until you end up hearing, ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you.’
There’s nothing wrong with anger as long as it’s in proportion to what is actually happening. Deal with any issues at the time, one topic at a time. Arguing is a skill and my advice is learn the skills because not only are you going to have much better arguments but you’re also going to be teaching your children to argue effectively (learn the skills of arguing here).
If there is going to be violence and you’re going to avoid violence by leaving then that’s a good thing to do but it’s also important that you come back in a reasonable amount of time and that you actually talk to your children and don’t leave them to make their own interpretations.’
Find out what divorce means to them
‘Children of different ages understand different things. Ask them what their experience of divorce has been. What has happened to their friends? What does it mean to them? What have they seen? Because then you can begin to understand where they’re coming from and understand the word divorce from their position… your child might tell you that their friend hasn’t seen their father since his parents divorced – that’s a very important thing to address.
This is the seminal moment in a child’s childhood and the potential for things going wrong are huge
Reassure the child that they will be seeing their father and that every Wednesday he’s going to have his tea with us and then you’re going to go and stay with him every other weekend. You have to have a few of the most basic things worked out. When you speak to them you want to have come to some kind of agreement about what you’re going to do in the short term. You don’t have to have the answer forever but they will want to know what the next steps are going to be.’
Don’t let your child be the parent
‘There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘Mummy is very upset and angry about this’ because they can see that for themselves. It’s okay to report your emotions to your child but I don’t think you really want to act it out – they don’t want to see you throwing all the stuff out of the window. Conversely, if you’re trying to say that you’re thrilled with it or that you don’t mind at all, it’s pointless because they can read you. But be mindful because unfortunately, children tend to take all of your emotions onto themselves so it’s important to say ‘I’ve got help from my friends, you don’t need to worry about me’ or ‘I’m seeing a professional. I’m just telling you this so you understand if I’m down sometimes but it’s not up to you to sort it out.’ You have to actually say those words ‘It’s not up to you to sort it out.’
Otherwise, they’ll take on the burden of caring for you and you’ll get what I call the parentified child. These are children who are having to parent their parents and that is not good for them because they then go on to parent partners in the future and they don’t end up having equal relationships. Half my clients are parentified children. And don’t ask them for dating advice. Girls are sometimes suddenly giving their fathers dating advice – it’s just a bit creepy.’
Prepare to support them
‘This is the seminal moment in a child’s childhood and the potential for things going wrong are huge. For example, a father is the first man in a woman’s life and what they provide is a safe way to experiment with being a woman. Lots of little girls can twist their father around their little finger – they’re trying out their feminine power in a safe environment. It can be quite difficult when suddenly their father goes from a safe, non-sexual being into somebody who is dating and obviously having sex with other women. It’s like he’s supposed to be the spring board for you into your adult sexuality and then suddenly they’ve taken away the spring board. What happens is either the girls start competing and are the nastiest person in the world to the new woman or sometimes they start trying to get their fathers attention by throwing themselves into sexual adventures younger than they might have wanted to, looking for emotional support in their 14-year-old boyfriend. So you do really need to be there to support your child.
When they find out about your split, be aware that they’ll be in shock and they’ll probably take in virtually nothing at the time. People spend a huge amount of time worrying about how they’re going to tell their children and then no time thinking about how they’re going to support them in the long term. It’s just like writing the first page of a book. Sure, it’s important but what’s in the rest of the book is equally important.
You need to give them the message that it’s okay to disagree with somebody, to make mistakes and to resolve the issues between the two of you, which in this case is by separating. Decide that you’re going to be great co-parents, you’re going to support each other and not going to run each other down – that’s the message you’ve got to be giving over and over again both in words and in deeds.’
Understand your new relationship
‘The best way you can support your children is by forming a good alliance with your partner to minimise the damage and to make it as simple and straight forward as possible for the kids. It involves both of you being grown up about it, being flexible and trying to do things as best as possible for the children even though that will be painful for you sometimes.
You are effectively co-partners in the business of bringing up your children as well as possible
You have to realise what the relationship between you and your partner now is. It’s a business relationship and the business is bringing up the children as well as possible. Remember this is a business that is going to run for ever more because hopefully, you’re going to be both standing around the christening font when your grand children are christened so you need to be able to get on for ever more.’
Stay on good terms with your partner
‘You have to be the bigger person and sometimes that means being nicer to your partner than you feel like he or she deserves. Your children need two co-parents that can co-operate together because when you can’t cooperate together, you not only hurt your children but you send them messages that will stay with them forever.
You are effectively co-partners in the business of bringing up your children as well as possible. You’ve got to have a good partnership or what I call a good business arrangement. You can be friends for the sake of the children, you need to be able to be civil. You don’t want to fall into the category that some of my clients have where their parents cannot be in the same room even though they got divorced 20 years beforehand. Otherwise, they still fight about whose fault it was. I have clients who can’t get married because both of their parents can’t come to the wedding as they can’t be civil to each other, that’s really not a position you want to put your children into.’
Communicate with your partner
‘People get divorced because they can’t communicate very well. But you actually need to communicate even better after you get divorced. People stop talking because it’s too painful then they get divorced and think that will solve everything but it doesn’t. So keep talking to each other and keep listening. If you think divorce is a simple solution, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed.
You’ve got to remember that you’re divorcing your partner, your children aren’t divorcing either of you
It is the start of coming to a solution but you still need to communicate effectively with your partner to reach it. You need to be able to work together on the project of bringing up your children so that your children learn the message that it’s okay to have disagreements and it’s okay to make mistakes. You made a mistake by getting married but you’ve resolved it because you’ve found a way that the two of you can still cooperate as parents and still bring up your children in a loving environment.’
Don’t bad mouth your partner
‘The most important thing is that you do not run down your partner to them, no criticism of your partner, please… after a divorce, women quite often put on a brave face and say something like, ‘he’s a bastard and I’m better off without him’. But that’s not a message that is going to help the children because they’re not going to be better off without their father. Your children don’t want to hear you run down their mother or father, however, justified you might feel. You’ve got to remember that you’re divorcing your partner, your children aren’t divorcing either of you. They’re still going to be with you and it’s an entirely different experience for them. Unfortunately, when we’re in a crisis we tend to hunker down and see the world and entirely our position.
Remember they love them, they love you both. Every time you run your partner down you’re asking them to take sides which is unfair. They need their father and they need their mother.’
Andrew Marshall is the UK’s best-known marital therapist and has thirty years experience helping couples fall back in love. His self-help books include the international best-seller I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You.
He leads a team of therapists in London offering tailor-made practical solutions for couples looking to repair the marriage or improve their love life by getting back the spark.