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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

What About the Children When Divorce is on the Cards?

For most of human history, people didn’t stay in relationships for love. They stayed in them in order to protect their assets, ensure their status, pool their resources, synchronise farming implements – and guarantee the welfare of their children. It is only in the last few minutes of our evolution (250 years at most) that we have conducted our relationships under a very different ideology, that of a movement of ideas known as Romanticism. For Romanticism, the most important aspect of any relationship is not practical, it has to do with the emotional intensity that connects a couple; how good the sex is, how much one feels understood and to what degree a partner still feels like a soulmate.

This hugely ambitious and distinctive philosophy of love has created a very large puzzle around what was, traditionally, an obvious priority for any couple: keeping a child under one roof with his or her own parents. From the dawn of settled agricultural societies, a high degree of family unity was understood to take clear precedence over the inner satisfaction and emotional buoyancy of the parents. That a husband might quietly be weeping because of his wife’s emotional distance or that a wife might be stifling her yawns at her husband’s repetitive conversation topics would have been considered unfortunate no doubt, but these were certainly not matters over which one would have any desire or indeed opportunity to run away and begin life anew. One stayed together not because one thought highly of one’s partner, but because one was bound to them by forbidding practical, status and religious obligations. It didn’t matter a jot whether one happened to be lyrically happy or on the edge of terminal despair.

This was extremely brutal at points, but it did – arguably – have certain upsides, or at least a certain clarity, as far as children were concerned. Mummy and Daddy were definitely not going to split up merely because they couldn’t align their conversational tastes or rarely tried out any new sexual positions any more. And children weren’t going to shuttle from one household to another and have a bevy of stepbrothers and sisters just because – a few years back – Daddy had started to feel very rejected when Mummy became unresponsive to his night-time caresses.

Nowadays however, any partner wounded by the collapse of the emotional bond with their partner is automatically faced with a momentous choice: Should one leave for the sake of one’s own heart. Or should one stay for the sake of the children?

A dominant theory has often sought to extend the concerns of Romanticism into the realm of children. According to this interpretation, children too care a lot about the authenticity of their parents’ bond. They think a lot about, and are exercised by, the emotional honesty circulating between partners. Like their elders, they also want love to be ‘true’. And as a result, advice is often given that couples should separate, in order to demonstrate to their children the wisdom of an emotion-centric Romantic existence. Better for children to have (for example) two bedrooms, and four step siblings and for them to know that at least Mummy and Daddy are, in their new respective  unions, now properly fulfilled and in love.

It makes a lot of sense – and in many cases must surely be the right answer. But it is worth considering an alternative view that begins in a different place: with a contrasting analysis of what children might really want. In this philosophy, children are conceived of as essentially deeply practical creatures, comparable in many ways to guests who have decided to spend their holidays in a particular hotel under a certain management, of whom they’ve grown very used and usually very fond. What these guests want above all is to secure a set of deeply pragmatic and very understandable goals:

– they want a minimum of administrative hassle

– they want the adults around them to get on cheerfully

– they want as little alteration in routine as possible

– they don’t want to be made to hang out with new people

– they don’t want to meet a half-naked adult stranger at breakfast

– they don’t want rumours to circulate about their ‘hotel’ that make them look weird in front of their peers

That said, they arguably don’t particular care about a whole host of other things:

– they don’t care how often, or how pleasingly, their parents are having sex

– they don’t care whether their parents are the deepest sorts of soulmates

– they don’t care what their parents get up to in their spare time 

These comparative lists start to suggest a possible answer to the dilemma of whether one might stay or leave in so far as the welfare of children is the issue.

The question can be answered either way. Both staying and leaving could be made profoundly compatible with children’s concerns, because the emotional satisfaction of their parents isn’t the central issue for these young people. The central issue is how much disruption there might be in their lives. There are ways of staying that will cause massive disruptions: horrific fights between the hotel managers that won’t allow guests to enjoy very much of their time. And there are ways of leaving that create extreme disruption – or ways that stir up almost no disruption at all! The reason the stay-or-leave question is so tricky is – in essence – that children don’t really care whether you stay or leave; they want an undisturbed life, a pleasant atmosphere, and a good mood among the management, which could be compatible or incompatible with either choice. It just depends how it’s done. 

For those who might want to leave, one can imagine conceiving of a range of innovations: 

– Perhaps the children wouldn’t move between homes, the parents would.

– Perhaps the children wouldn’t hang out a lot with new partners, just the parents would

– Perhaps the children wouldn’t have to know about the depths of the disappointment between the parents, they’d just notice a sensible and kindly relationship between them.

A concern for more authentic and emotionally alive relationships has been, in many ways, an enormous advance for humanity. But it’s left us very confused as to what the priorities are for children. A non-Romantic world-view provides a clear answer: one doesn’t need to spend the rest of one’s life with someone with whom one no longer connects ‘for the sake of the children’. But at the same time, one must ensure that if one leaves, everything is done to keep the practical basis of a child’s life as stable as possible – as with a hotel that has come under new, divided ownership, but bends over backwards to make sure its guests suffer few inconveniences.

One’s own emotional maelstrom is deeply consuming; one day one’s offspring may have something similar going on in their lives but for now, as children, they are blessedly down to earth creatures: they want to know that no one is at anyone’s throat, that breakfast is going to be at the same time and place it’s always been and that they don’t have to become instant friends with a bunch of new guests they’re not in the mood for. Those should be our priorities as parents; all the other stuff is, in the nicest way, our business alone and should remain as much until the day, which might never come, when the now grown-up guest dares to take an interest in what the hotel management was really going through all those years ago.

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