The desire to avoid conflict with an ex is the primary reason that separated parents do not get to see their children.
That’s an eye-opening finding from a survey of 1,105 separated or divorced people, published in late-January. Family law professionals might be surprised because it appears to dismiss conventional wisdom suggesting that delays waiting for court hearings would play a greater part in kids not seeing one of their parents.
It’s seen as much easier to deliberately steer clear of tensions with an ex, who happens to be a co-parent, than to face up to the need to work through differences in the interests of all family members.
The cost, of course, is that the children don’t have contact with one parent, often for months on end. The survey, which was carried out by DAD.info / Cint indicates that two out of five of the fathers won’t see their child for four months or more after a relationship breakdown, and for a significant number that gap extends beyond six months.
Meanwhile the underlying issues don’t evaporate. Far from it. The conflicts simply escalate, albeit often in a hidden way. Yet having bubbled under, they eventually burst into horrific reality, in one arena or another – very often a court room.
And as we all know, court hearings themselves have an unfortunate knack of accelerating the resentments that already exist between the separated parents. In the end, all the months of conflict avoidance boil down to a lasting unhealthy impact on children’s relationships with one or both of their parents, and usually the father.
The outcomes are not limited to a huge set of emotional issues. Single parents are more likely than any other type of household to experience severe problem debt, as highlighted by a recent Gingerbread report.
So if we accept there is a strong desire to avoid conflict, what is the most effective and productive way to do so? Very often it is simply using an expert third-party mediator: a professional who will handle the necessary and vital discussions about parenting, money and property with sensitivity to the wishes of both parents.
Using a mediator means the parents can not only address the conflict, avoiding court room turmoil, but can also carry on seeing their children. And at the same time they improve their communication with each other, which will only help in the longer-term. That’s because as the children grow, and their needs change, ongoing co-parenting discussions are going to be required.
Anxiety about - or fear of - conflict means people are escaping the fear by not facing their ex, and therefore their kids. Enormous damage is being nurtured as a result, stored up for decades to come, in each and every affected family. Government action to encourage separated parents to use mediation is often talked about. Ministers tell us they agree that mediation reduces conflict and the huge pressures on family courts, which have been exacerbated by Covid-19.
As communities begin to emerge from the worst effects of lockdowns, it is to be hoped that the government will be able to introduce practical measures to increase mediation take-up.
Doing so will improve parent-child relationships for years to come, and will help break the cycle of conflict for the next generation of parents who are currently learning avoidance strategies, rather than ways of resolving their differences.