Family Therapy UK

How to Cope with Divorce and Separation


Conciliation services

Divorce is a complicated matter.  There are psychological considerations, legal and financial implications and sometimes physical safety issues.  Although you can arrange a divorce for yourself, you may save a lot of time and heartache by visiting a solicitor to establish your rights.  If you are considering divorce and feel there may be some scope in getting help with your relationship, then there are a number of agencies that can help.  You could ask to see a marriage counsellor at RELATE, seek private counselling from a family therapist or marriage counsellor.  If the children are distressed because of long-standing upset, you may receive some help from child mental health services through your GP.  If there is violence, the police may offer help. There are many voluntary services for victims of domestic violence, for instance Women's Aid. If you feel the children are at risk contact social services.  

Legal matters and practical considerations

If you are getting divorced seek legal advice from a solicitor specialising in matrimonial matters.  Although initially you may have an amicable separation, as time goes on relationships sometimes deteriorate, or the arrival of a new partner can complicate feelings to the extent that previous agreements fail.  If there are children involved, a formal legal agreement often helps to keep things on track.  Getting a legal agreement about issues at the beginning can avoid years of legal wrangling later.  It is expensive, but if both parties work together, the expense can be kept to a minimum.

Contact arrangements for children

If you have children or are expecting them when you decide to divorce, try to discuss what is best for them with the other parent.  Try to be flexible with your partner, considering their needs and the needs of children.  These needs will vary depending on the age of the children and what has preceded the divorce.  Talk to the children if they are old enough to understand and see what they think, but do not leave it to them to choose who they want to live with, or how much contact there should be.  This is always very difficult for children.  Remember, even when you are divorced, you are still the parents and the children will expect you to be fair and sensible over their needs.

Remember there are two parents.  No parent has a right to keep the children from having contact with the other.  Unless there are unusual circumstances, children benefit from seeing both parents.  If you cannot decide on contact arrangements seek help from bodies such as the court welfare services, RELATE or child mental health services.  Unless there are exceptional circumstances, there will be an expectation that both parents have a right to contact.  If the parents were married, the father will automatically have parental responsibility.  If you were not married, the father can apply for this.  Parental responsibility is a legal term meaning that a parent with parental responsibility has a right to be involved in their child's life.

Contact arrangements vary according to circumstances.  For instance, the age of the children, proximity of parents to children, parents working circumstances etc. all make a difference  A normal arrangement for children where their parents live within reasonable distance of each other, is one night a week and every second weekend with up to half the school holidays with the parent who does not have main residence of the children.  In practice, arrangements vary widely.  It is important to make contact arrangements.  Be clear with the children about the contact arrangements and try, as parents, to be consistent in their application.

It is important to keep to contact arrangements, but some flexibility will help both parents and the children manage.  Flexibility means making arrangements for exceptional events - such as the children wanting to go to a friends party on the night that the other parent is expecting them etc. Holidays, Christmas, birthdays and weddings all present challenges to arranging contact.  Make agreements about these special events well before they happen and try to appreciate the difficulty your ex-partner will face in not having the children with them on special occasions.

If changes to normal contact arrangements are to be made, give lots of notice and be open to returning the flexibility.  Try to appreciate that as children get older they may want to decide about contact arrangements for themselves.  As children get older, they will want more flexibility anyway - in a divorced family or not.

What about the children's needs?

These are some of the needs the children will have:

Clear information about what is going on during a divorce, without making them take sides or distressing them too much with your own adult concerns.  If you can, talk to the children together as parents, before you separate.  If your children are different ages, explain everything simply, so that the youngest can understand.  Give the children time to ask questions at the time and later on.  It is important that children express their feelings.  Make time for this even if you don’t feel like it.  In the long-run you will all benefit.

Most children want to see both parents.  Try not to let them feel you will be betrayed if they want to see their other parent.  Don't impose impossible conditions around contact by being too rigid about times of return etc.  It is normally more beneficial to encourage children to keep to contact arrangements.  If they are resistant, discuss this with their other parent and with the child.

Do not criticise the other parent to the children, even if you feel you have grounds to do so.  Remember children feel a loyalty to both parents and if you attack one they may feel personally responsible or become defensive on their behalf.  Don't pass messages on through the children - particularly over contentious issues.  This will only cause them pain and often makes the situation more difficult between parents.  It is far better to communicate directly with the other parent yourself - though  in some cases this will be difficult.  This goes for other family relatives too - such as grandparents or aunt's and uncles. If it is too difficult to talk directly, write a letter and post it. Be polite and brief. Don't give it to the children to hand on.

Parents mental health/before after divorce

Divorce is a major and traumatic event in anyone's life.  It is often accompanied by depression and economic hardship.  The children may misbehave or be very upset.  Relationships between parents may be very strained.  Friendship networks often change and there may be a house move and change of area.  If you feel depressed seek some help from your GP or a counsellor.  For men, who are most frequently the non-resident parent, they often mourn the loss of not having their children around.

Often there are feelings of loneliness.  For others there is a rush to find a new partner.  This can be emotionally tiring and upsetting.  The children can find new partners difficult to cope with and older children will find overt displays of sexual behaviour in their parents embarrassing and upsetting.

Be aware of changes in alcohol consumption or drug dependency.  At times of stress these can go up and get out of control.

At a time of such great change, take time to adjust. Don't expect everything to go smoothly and remember that however your partner may appear to be, that they are probably experiencing similar feelings.  If you start a new relationship, take it slowly and introduce the children to your new partner in a gradual way.

Remember that children can feel depressed too.  Talk to them often and reassure them.  Let them know that you love them.  Let them know if you are upset, but try to keep more overt displays of distress away from them.  If you feel you cannot cope emotionally, you need to seek help from friends, relatives or a counsellor.  Children are not equipped to cope with the breakdown of their parents relationship and the subsequent breakdown of a parent.  They will feel safer knowing that you are seeking more appropriate help. Make sure to get appropriate help from your GP or a properly qualified counsellor approved by a professional body.

Children can sacrifice their own needs to help their parents during times of difficulty. This can be demonstrated through missing school or giving up their social life when they are overly worried about their parents. Older children often find their biggest support is from their peer group - encourage them to go out by helping them feel safe about you.

What to do if one parent is unreasonable/violent/upsetting the children

Make sure you have your facts right before deciding the other parent is unsuitable to have the children.  It is very easy to make decisions that will cause years of resentment when you are feeling upset and angry with a previous partner.  It is important, where possible, that children maintain their relationship with both parents. Try not to confuse their relationship with the other parent with the relationship you had with them. Where you have worries, try to talk to the other parent about your concerns.  If it is too difficult to talk, you could write.  Try to be polite and calm in your talk or writing.  You may get help through a mediation service such as RELATE, a family therapist or your solicitor.

If you or the children are being hurt, subjected to emotional or other abuse, you have a range of options.  You can contact a solicitor and have the matter brought up in court. If the matter is serious or dangerous, you can contact the police and or social services.

If you have general concerns which the other parent will not discuss and the children are not at risk, you may be able to discuss them with a social worker or a specialist in family welfare in the police to get some advice.  If any professional has reason to believe that children are at risk of emotional or physical harm or that they are being neglected, they have to report such matters to social services.  In such circumstances, a child protection conference may be called.  This will happen whether you want it to or not.

Remember that you and the children do not deserve to be emotionally or physically abused in any way.  This goes for both parents.

Getting support for yourself as a single parent

There are many organisation that offer help to divorced families.  The health and education services have a number of professionals who can offer advice and help with the children should they find things difficult after divorce or separation.

There are organisations such as Gingerbread for single parent families and others for newly formed families - step-families.  Social services offer parenting groups in many areas where you can meet and discuss how to deal with children as well as getting some support for yourself.

Single parents can find it difficult to get out and have a life of their own.  There are baby-sitting circles in some areas - enquire at your local social services.  If you live near relatives use the support they offer.  Try not to be shy about asking.  Use the time children have contact with the other parent to socialise and develop your new life.

Divorce does not need to end up with the children suffering long-term harm.  They will certainly find things difficult at first, but with understanding and good handling and co-operation between the adults involved, they can do as well as other children.

Check out the Finding Help article to find out how to get additional support and information.



Gingerbread (For single parent families)


Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

1st May 2008

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