Separation – Catalyst for Positive Change

Divorce & separation can be very stressful, particularly in high conflict situations.  In fact, the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale indicates that divorce is the second highest stressor for humans, second only to the death of a spouse.  Further, stress can be amplified when there is conflict over control over the marital assets, children (custody/access) or one party’s decision to leave the relationship. 

Some of the barriers of seeking support and change are:

1)     People want to keep their families together because they are worried about missing a considerable amount of time with children after separation.  There is a further concern about uprooting children from their home or selling their home.

2)    Cultural pressure or societal pressure to stay together. 

3)    Fear that their children will experience psychological trauma or fear that the other parent may not be able to meet the needs of the child when the spouse is no longer present.

4)  The financial cost of legal fees and managing finances independently to support the family.

5)  Emotional strength can be at an all time low when they’ve had their self-esteem shattered.

Despite the fear of not being able to cope with separation both emotionally and/or financially, there has been an emphasis to educate families on the impact of conflict on the home and subsequently the necessity of change.Although these barriers are very real, there is strong evidence that shows the impact of conflict long term on families.

From an early age, researchers suggest, children show distress when their parents fight. Their reactions can include fear, anger, anxiety, and sadness. They may “externalize” their distress in the form of aggression towards one parent or internalize it in the form of withdrawal and feel they are to blame. I often like to think of the example that a child’s face is made up of two halves.  One half his mom and one half is dad.  When disparaging remarks are made about one part of a child’s identity (his mom or dad), this impacts the child’s sense of self which can impact them long-term.

The impact of separation can be reduced when parents engage and listen to a multidisciplinary team of experts who have demonstrated success in conflict resolution: including lawyers, financial professionals, teachers, guidance counsellors and family professionals including psychologists and social workers.

While Courts place a large emphasis on the maximum contact with each parent, courts are also concerned with children’s emotional and physical safety.  Courts will consider joint parenting orders on case by case basis. As such, parents need to be mindful of their behavior regardless of the separation.  Parenting time and parenting orders look at the factors of s.24 of the Children’s Law Reform Act which focuses on the best interests of the child.  The child benefits from a positive relationship with both parents as long as safety of the child can be maintained. The relationship with each parent should feel safe and healthy.  Courts will look at which “parent is likely to encourage a positive relationship with the other parent.”

In particular, parents with children need to bear in mind that the ongoing co-parenting relationship with their former partner will exist (possibly much longer than the original relationship itself).  Parents will want to attend their children’s important life events (e.g. weddings and graduations) on an amicable basis.  While keeping the safety of the children paramount, it may be helpful for parents to take the necessary steps to minimize conflict in the co-parenting relationship. These may include:

  1.       Individual counselling;
  2.       Co-parenting counselling; and
  3.       Reunification counselling with children.

To elaborate on these creative solutions, I recently had a judge take a very interventionist approach when the child and his father, John* had not seen each other in almost two years as a result of long stemming conflict in the home.  The mother, Sandra* was concerned about the child’s emotional well-being as she felt that the newly imposed parenting time would cause the child anxiety.  The judge in this case asked to speak with a reunification counsellor and ordered that the counsellor be present during the first visit between the child and John*.  The judge also asked that the counsellor be present on a teleconference so that the judge could gain insight on what would be an appropriate parenting plan for the child and John to establish a positive parent child relationship.

The post-separation process can be an opportunity for families to undergo much needed healing once they are ready.  If we move away from the anger and hostility associated with separation, parents and children can obtain the resources they need to build better versions of themselves and create positive change for their new family. 

The secret of change is not to focus all of your energy on fighting the old, but on                                                                                   building the new.” Socrates

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