Celebrity splits are never more bitter than when they involve struggles over children, played out in front of the world’s media. Peter Andre and Katie Price are the latest couple doing battle as their separation recently moved to divorce and they try to sort out parenting now that they are no longer together. For the couple who played out their marriage on the world stage, I suspect there is more to come in terms of how they manage their divorce and particularly their ongoing parenting responsibilities.
For Peter and Katie, the fact that their lives, never particularly private in the first place, are now open to public scrutiny may not be big problem although it appears that Price at least has been on the rough end of public opinion in recent weeks. For many separated parents however, the move from private to public means becoming open to other people’s opinion and views and that can be extremely difficult to cope with.
For children particularly, the pain of family separation is often exacerbated by the way in which their family life, once a safe place from the outside world, can suddenly feel broken wide open. When parents part, they also often fall apart, and children can find themselves struggling alone with some difficult feelings. When parents go their separate ways, family, friends and outside agencies are often the people who replace the unit that provided that security.
In a survey undertaken with a thousand children last year, the Centre for Separated Families found that 91% would want their parents to stay together even if they were not getting along. The survey found that regardless of what adults feel about family separation, for too many children, it is their worst nightmare.
The problem with family separation in the UK is that it is still largely seen as the private business of two adults who no longer love each other. The state, when it does intervene, does so only on the grounds that conflict is bad for children. The argument about individual rights versus interdependent responsibilities is played out by successive governments through arguments about marriage, the family and the right to autonomy. Once again it is not the experience of children that matters, but the rights of adults to choose when and how they make or break their relationship.
But children are not simply adornments in a relationship, or possessions to be divided up at the end of it. Children in a marriage or relationship are the living embodiment of the love that once existed between two people. When adults decide to go their separate ways, children can feel extreme confusion, hurt and pain as their internal world, once made safe by the knowledge that both parents loved them, is split in two.
Andre has recently said that he hopes that his relationship with Price can be improved for the sake of their children and that he is willing to do what it takes to make things better for them. I sincerely hope that Price has reached the same, settled place that her children’s dad appears to have got to, because if they can work together to improve their relationship, their children will benefit from their ability to co-operate as parents.
The paradox for separating parents is that just as one or both has arrived at a place where they know that the love has gone for good, the task ahead is to begin a process of rebuilding the relationship between them. Unfortunately there is very little support to parents to help them to do that, most support on offer is either aimed at supporting marriage or helping parents to divide up the assets in a civilised way. What parents really need is the kind of intensive support that enables them to keep parenting well whilst managing the separation process, a transitional support that enables the ending of the adult relationship and the re-negotiation of a new parenting partnership.
The truth is that children whose parents get on well together after separation, are the children who will survive and thrive over the longer term. All of the research evidence points to this. Those children whose parents can co-operate after separation, are also those who are more likely to go and form lasting adult relationships of their own. Unfortunately for our children in the UK, too much of our policy and practice around separated families acts to prevent parents from doing the necessary work to rebuild co-operation, focusing instead upon supporting parents to achieve their individual rights.
The UK has a high rate of family separation and a long standing problem around relationships between children and their non resident parent. Pressure groups like Fathers for Justice did much to highlight the lack of support for these parents and the difficulties that they face. Much has changed since F4J hung up its spider-man outfit, but so much more could be done for children, not least an investment in services that could really make a difference by supporting co-operation instead of widening the already painful gap between parents.
In other EU countries things are very different indeed. In Norway for example, Andre and Price would be expected to attend a number of parenting classes to learn about the impact of their conflict on their children. In Sweden and Denmark the expectation is that each parent will do what is necessary to stay involved with their children and support is offered by the State to enable that.
This autumn the government will launch a Green Paper on relationships and the Conservatives too will be consulting on family relationships. Ahead of an election, there appears to be an appetite for deepening an understanding of why the UK has such a problem with family separation and how to fix it. It’s long over due and perhaps in these days where celebs are getting involved in political life and the Sun’s own Deirdre Sanders is leading on Family Policy, Andre and Price might be able to teach us a thing or two.
Whilst the pair continue to demonstrate that marriage, the Conservatives preferred approach to solving the problems in our society isn’t always the answer, there is a window of opportunity to show each side of the political spectrum how an alternative to conflict ridden post separation parenting could improve outcomes for children.
Co-operative parenting is the most beneficial approach and the key to this is the ability to conduct a business like relationship with your ex. For the consummate business woman Price is often held up to be, building a business out of co-parenting with Andre should be a breeze. For a pair who have made an awful lot of money out of making their private lives public, this is just the chance they need to do something really useful. Successful, high profile post separation relationships between parents like Andre and Price could be just what we need to lever out the commitment from the next government for funding the kind of support that can help many more parents build strong and co-operative relationships.
Come on Peter and Katie, this is your chance to make life better not only for your own children but for so many more who are caught up in the middle of family separation, why not show us all how co-operative separated parenting can really be done.