My latest ‘holiday’ read was the Sunday Times bestseller by Lisa Jewell ‘the third wife.’ This was supposed to be a book to enjoy and switch off from my work as a mediator assisting couples who are separating or divorcing. It tells the story of Adrian Wolfe, a successful, well liked man who had just got married for the third time. He thinks everyone is happy, including his children from his first two marriages and his new wife because he is. However, his new wife tragically dies after a night out and as the book unfolds Adrian realises that although he thought he had the perfect life, the consequences of moving from family to family to strive for something new and exciting, creating more children in each relationship along the way has consequences.
This book is described by the Daily Mail as ‘emotionally intelligent, brilliantly plotted and beautifully written examination of a very modern family that will keep you gripped to the end.’ It is that and more. It makes you think about how complex the dynamics of separated families can be, even those that appear on the outside to be amicable with parents working hard to protect their children from the inevitable effects of separation.
I won’t spoil the plot as I would recommend this book but it really makes you think about the impact a family separation can have and how individually children and adults suffer. As a mediator, I encourage my clients to consider the short, medium and long term effects of separation on them and their children. I think this book highlighted to me more than ever my belief that we should, as a legal and mediation community, be seeking to find out the wishes and feelings of children, as well as their hopes and concerns more often than we do. We hear from our clients what they think their children are feeling or want but we rarely see those children and give them the space in an appropriate environment to express their views.
I think children, in the right circumstances, should be more involved not in the adult decisions their parents face but in expressing their views. Not only does this provide an outlet to children so they are not burdened emotionally, it can also be enormously powerful for parents and can bring an end to parental conflict.
The most hard hitting part of the book was when Adrian began to realise the impact of his behaviour upon his children and he asks his children to write him a letter about what they would like from him. The youngest, humorously but poignantly writes ‘Dear Daddy, I want you to come home. And tickle my feet. Please. Love from, Beau.’ This of course highlighted the simplest of things that children want and the longstanding hopes that the parent who has left will come home.
The eldest whose behaviour and motivation to study and enjoy life has been impacted writes ‘Dear Dad, First of all I want to say that I’m not perfect either. I’ve spent a lot of my life blaming you for my shortcomings….it was shit what you did: leaving me and Cat and Mum down in Hove when we all needed you so much. But if Mum can forgive you, then I can be a bigger person and try to forgive you, too. I’ve been waiting for fourteen years for you to say sorry and you finally did.’ Often, an acknowledgment is enough.
Another writes ‘I’m trying to think of things I want you to do, but I can’t. I guess I just want you to be you. Because you’re nice. And you’re generous. And everyone likes you. I’d like to be like you when I grow up. Except I would just choose one woman to marry and I’d stick with her. I don’t really like change. I like things to stay the same. It took a lot of getting used to when you left, but I got used to it eventually.’
Children are often resilient and able to cope with change but this does not make it easy for them. They need to be supported in the process of family separation which is never an event. It is a process which takes time for adults and children to recover from. This book and these extracts show the ‘unexpected’ effects of divorce which Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist and researcher who created a 25 year study on the effects of divorce on the children involved, in her book ‘The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce’ refers to which is that divorce often produces ‘sleeper effects.’ These are deep and long term emotional problems that arise only when the children enter early adulthood and begin to confront issues of romance and marriage.’
As I mentioned at the outset, this book was supposed to be light reading away from the day job but I couldn’t help but learn from this fictional novel which serves as another reminder of the importance of understanding the effect of separation on children individually. As a mediator, I hope to see more young people in my mediation practice where I consult directly with children to explore their wishes and feelings and feedback what the children want to their parents to hopefully help them in the emotionally difficult decisions they face on separation. This is never easy for parents and must always be with the consent of both parents, but it can be enormously useful for the family to find the best way forward. If you would like to find out more about direct child consultation in mediation please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Clare Madeline Mediation