Last week the charity Relate published findings of a study into the state of family relationships in the UK.
Headline grabbing statistics such as one in five couples being on the brink of break up and a further 10% either regretting marriage or considering separation paint a bleak picture of family life. The report also highlighted concerns about the impact on children who are living in fraught family environments, often caught in the middle of unhappy, stressed and warring parents.
There is no doubt that children are affected in a variety of ways by family breakdown. However it is the conflict surrounding separation rather than separation itself which is most damaging to children, and so the way that conflict is managed (or in many cases not managed) can have a huge bearing on how children cope both in the immediate aftermath of a family breakdown and in their own lives going forward into adulthood.
Children who are exposed to acrimonious or hostile parental relationships or placed in high conflict situations are more likely to experience social and economic problems, physical and mental ill health, lower academic achievement, addiction issues and criminality. As family lawyers we all too often encounter clients who have become so entrenched in their resentment, anger and bitterness towards their spouse or partner that they are simply unable to comprehend the impact their behaviour is having on their children.
The Family Court in England and Wales recently heard an extreme example of one parent going to alarming lengths to gain the upper hand in a dispute with his former spouse over residence of their daughter. In an attempt to find out what was being said by and about the child to others, the father and his current partner covertly recorded the child over a period of almost 18 months at various locations including at her school and during contact visits with the mother.
These recordings were made on a number of devices including a microphone sewn into the child’s school blazer which was then periodically removed to enable recordings to be downloaded and transcribed. The child was oblivious to the subterfuge, as were the numerous other children and adults whose conversations with the child were secretly recorded.
The court took the view that the actions of the father were indicative of his inability to meet the child’s emotional needs and shifted residence to the mother. He had failed to understand the impact of what he had done and the potential consequences for his daughter and the others who had been recorded. The father’s behaviour was not the sole reason for residence being changed from father to mother, but it was a significant factor in the court’s decision. Although perhaps an extreme example of parental misconduct, this case highlights how the acrimony and distrust between parents can result in them entirely losing sight of the needs and wellbeing of their child.
As family lawyers we must be acutely aware of how parental conflict can impact negatively on children and strive to support and encourage our clients to navigate their separation in a way which gives their children – and indeed the parents themselves – the best possible chance of moving forward positively. Although examples of good divorces rarely make the headlines, there are many ways to limit the emotional fall out from a family separation. Charging to court with hopes of victory, and perhaps even revenge or vindication rarely provides the desired outcome.