Children all too often bear the worst of their parents’ divorce. Parents need to think less about guilty gifts and more about communicating, says Zak Smith
IN DIVORCE, THERE is often a third party. Mistresses, tennis coaches, masseuses, rent boys? They are not really the third parties. While this assortment of potential home-wreckers may facilitate divorce, their role is often negated by the proceedings that follow the dissolution of a marriage.
Then there are lawyers, therapists, mediators and friends who jostle for influence, offering advice, lending support, tending to and being there for one or both of the couple. They are, however, just facets of divorce.
The real third party, pawns in a game they want no part of, are the children, of whom nearly 50 per cent in the UK will have to live through the upheaval of divorce before the age of sixteen. All day, every day, ears alert, sides to pick, opinions to form, children are the real casualties of divorce. While some parents may try to do their best to shield their offspring from the emotional stress involved with the dissolution of family life, the ramifications of divorce on children are not only immediately palpable but can also have long-term consequences. One in four children feels suicidal as a result of divorce, a recent study showed, and worrying numbers turn to other forms of self-harm, including substance abuse.
Alexander was eleven when his parents divorced, after a youthful wedding and a descent into years of unhappy hell, culminating in his father’s affair. As with many high-net-worth families, without a prenuptial agreement, money became central to the dispute. Frequently, and as a direct consequence, children become collateral damage in a battle for assets and wealth. The upheaval associated with the breakdown of family life can isolate fathers from the family unit. Men who vacate the family home generally struggle to maintain meaningful connections with their children and resort to showing affection through gifts.
For Alexander, this put him in an impossible situation. ‘Dad was buying me amazing gifts on a regular basis to compensate for his indiscretion and the divorce, and as a result mum felt inadequate and therefore tried to “buy” me back through even more presents.’ Alexander initially appreciated the gifts. However, as time wore on and his single mother descended into financial dependency and emotional dislocation, at age eleven he became her rock.
The was too much for him. The family home became a pressure cooker and, as with many teenagers, he turned to casual substance abuse. This was made even easier due to the relaxed relationship he had with his father and money, which led inevitably to the breakdown of boundaries.
While divorce often leaves children unsure about the institution of marriage and wary of commitment, plugging these holes with money only exacerbates the issue. Sandra Davis, head of family law at Mishcon de Reya (and for full disclosure, my mother), comments: ‘Children can become spoilt, empowered to make decisions for which they are not old enough, and fail to understand the value of money and its distinction from real, familial relationships.’
Children’s needs are not always put first. Gifts are a temporary anaesthetic. Genuine relationships built on time and effort and based on love and trust need to be prioritised. According to Jez Cartwright, adviser to HNWs and family offices on issues including divorce, ‘Any couple going through divorce regularly needs to sit down and listen to the feelings of their children and make sure they are validated. Ignoring or dumbing them down can have disastrous implications.’
New legislation has recently been introduced that ensures compulsory mediation sessions within the divorce process. An attempt is being made to move couples out of the court system and into dispute resolution — this new legislation is aimed at ensuring a ‘quicker, cheaper, more amicable alternative’ to the status quo.
‘Had compulsory mediation been a part of my parents’ divorce, I would like to think that their settlement would have been fairer and not left my parents so bitter and resentful,’ says Alexander. ‘Maybe my dad would have realised the litany of gifts I received wasn’t even close to being worth one afternoon of his time and a proper conversation.’
Illustration by George Leigh