The ties still bind

September 5, 1997

The 1989 Children Act stressed that divorced couples could not dissolve their parental duties as easily as their wedding vows. But Carol Smart finds families are failing to make cooperative parenting work

After a divorce most people feel their world has, at least temporarily, caved in. All the fixed points of reference, all those reassuring rituals and markers, are swept away. What is left is a huge question mark. How to live now? And, if you have children, an even more vexed question: how to live a "proper" post-divorce family life?

Everyone thinks that divorce is bad for children. Divorcees agonise over the evidence. Nonetheless, until recently, post-divorce family life followed a fairly inevitable pattern. Mums got custody of the kids and although dads tried to maintain contact for a while, gradually they moved away, started new relationships, lost touch. Throughout the 1980s what followed divorce was either lone motherhood or remarriage and the reconstituted exclusive nuclear family.

Since the 1989 Children Act, however, which abolished concepts of custody and access to children on divorce, this rather dismal pattern has been changing. Divorced parents are forging different types of relationships - encouraged by the act, which emphasises parental responsibilities rather than rights, stressing a clear preference for joint parenting after divorce. Family policy now asserts that divorce sunders a marital relationship, but has no legal effect on relationships between parents and children. Couples are encouraged to sort out for themselves how to make this work in practice.

The consequences of the change in policy are seismic. No longer is it acceptable for fathers to "disappear" and start new families as if their first family never existed. Nor for mothers who live with the children to remarry and pretend that they have reconstituted the exclusive nuclear ideal. It is impossible for a new husband to become a traditional stepfather to the children if the biological father is still actively involved. It is inevitable that many children will find themselves living with their mother and her partner while spending a good deal of time with their father and his new partner. As divorced parents form new, permanent relationships, they will bring with them an ongoing parenting relationship with their children's other parent. The old myth of falling in love and starting afresh and unencumbered is falling by the way.

The interesting sociological question is: how are parents managing these transformations? How do parents know what they should do now that the rules are changing? How are they applying these new principles? And are the new principles workable?

To find out how parents negotiate over their children in the light of the new family policies, we interviewed 30 couples over the course of 15 months. Our first interview was as close as possible to the finalisation of legal proceedings (usually more than two years after the initial separation). Our second was 12-15 months later.

We found three types of arrangement for looking after children: custodial (the child lived with one parent who felt fully responsible for decision-making, even though the other parent might see a lot of the child); coparenting, where the parents shared responsibility and authority; and solo arrangements, where one parent had full responsibility and full care of the child. Later we had to modify the custodial model because we found that in some families a child decided to move in with their father, leaving brother or sister with their mother. We called this a split arrangement.

More than half (53 per cent) of our sample of parents completely rewrote the arrangements they made for their children within a few years of separation, driven by factors such as geographical mobility, children's preferences, remarriage, a breakdown (or an improvement) in the parental relationship.

But what leapt out of our research was the finding that it is extremely difficult for parents to form an ongoing post-divorce relationship with each other, no matter how aware they are of their children's needs. Fathers resented having to negotiate with their ex-wives at all, finding it emasculating to think that their former wives acted as gatekeepers to their children. Mothers faced the problem of trying to re-establish their sense of self after leaving a failed marriage, while simultaneously having to sustain a relationship with the very person they felt had denied them this for years. This difficulty was presumably heightened by our finding that as many as one in four of the women we interviewed had been hit or beaten by their husband during their marriage.

For a long time we could not understand how some women could form a new relationship with their husbands while others, in not dissimilar circumstances, could not. Tentatively we decided that it depends on whether women retain or regain a proper sense of self after their marriage has ended, and whether the ex-husband is willing to change enough to acknowledge this.

The trick of post-divorce parenting, therefore, seems to be not only a concern for the welfare of the children, but an ability to care for and respect the autonomy of the other parent. Many of the parents we interviewed managed to make these adjustments or, if they failed, gritted their teeth and endured - for the sake of the children.

The families featured above illustrate how difficult it is to make cooperative post-divorce parenting work - and, in Kate's case, just how damaging the new family policies can be.

Carol Smart, professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, will present a full version of this article to the British Association for the Advancement of Science on Thursday.

* Sally Burton is a middle-class professional woman in her early forties whose marriage ended because her husband started another relationship. They have two daughters. When they first separated both decided it would be best for the children if they coparented. Graham, her husband, came to the family home regularly to spend time with the girls and put them to bed in the middle of the week, but Sally began to find that she had not broken free of the marriage and was unable to move forward.

"I think he thought that he could leave, have this new lover and I would still be at home to come back to, and he could come, have meals, spend time with the children and it's only very recently he's begun to realise that that isn't going to happen," she said.

After two-and-a-half years Sally put a stop to him coming to the house. "I certainly don't think he should be coming to the house, not in the foreseeable future. He's never respected the home since it's been my home. He separated his life but still wanted to come into mine, and I felt quite strongly that we should keep separate. The more he respects that, the less I have to be rigid about it.

"I had to make a decision that was good for me even though, on the face of it, it looked as if it was bad for the children. I made a good decision for myself and actually it ended up being better all round. So that's the other rule of thumb: it has to be good for the parents, the parents have to feel good about it, being motivated to make it work, otherwise it doesn't work for the children and the children know."

Although Sally is talking about herself, it becomes clear that this "self" she is so concerned about is one she has worked on since her marriage ended. "I don't think I had the tools that I now have, having done the therapy work and all sorts of reading. I'm now much more able to stand on my own two feet and articulate things. My understanding is better and I'm a match for him in an argument now, whereas I wasn't before."

Unfortunately Graham did not like Sally's new self and their relationship became increasingly acrimonious. Her eldest daughter then decided to move in with her father. At the point of our second interview Sally had given up the idea of remarriage and was living in lodgings, unable to afford a mortgage. Because Graham had residence of one of their daughters, he had stopped paying any maintenance. The youngest daughter was trying to decide whether to stay with her mother in lodgings, or to join her sister, father and his new wife in their detached house.

* Kate Moore, in her twenties, started to endure systematic violence when she was on the verge of separating from her partner. At first she embraced the ideal of coparenting and her partner Brian had their three-year-old son Jack half the time. But Brian became more abusive and violent, disappearing for days with the child without telling Kate.

"Brian mentally and emotionally abused me for a long time. By the time we'd reached this point, I had absolutely no self-esteem. I had no way of knowing that there was help out there, or that I could stop the abuseI Some machinery in my brain was saying, 'He's going to be your abuser for ever and there's nothing you can do about it'.

"I fear him very much. I don't fear anything else after Brian. Sometimes he accosts me in the street, and as soon as it happens I always have a panic attack. I'll panic because I know exactly what's going to happen next, and I know I'm going to have to endure it. So I'm going to have to live through it without dying - which would be a release. It's that bad."

Kate was not allowed to escape her tormentor. The courts refused to stop contact between father and son. In an attempt to try to rebuild her life she moved to another city (40 miles away) to take a training course so that she could get a good job. She found a new partner, but Brian moved to the same city and harassed them so much that her new partner left. Brian still has Jack half of the time, but he is always outside the school gates even on days which are not "his". He follows them home, talking to the boy on the way. Kate has given up struggling against Brian and has given up on her project for herself. She would like to return to her parents but dare not because she knows that if she "steps out of line", Brian will go straight back to court. She knows that the situation is destructive for her son as well, but feels that there is nothing she can do about it.

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