Subscriber OnlyYour Family

Parenting after parting: ‘When we made the quite painful decision to split, we vowed the kids wouldn’t suffer’

James says that while he doesn’t envisage that he and his ex-partner will ever be the best of friends, they are now able to be polite to each other in front of their son

The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show that there are almost 88,000 separated or divorced people living with children across the country. While there was a time when people stayed together “for the sake of the children”, these figures suggest thousands of couples believe the best option for everyone concerned is for the parents to live apart.

Although separate houses may put an end to uncomfortable or even unpleasant living arrangements, many still find it difficult to interact with their ex-partners, even when it’s just a case of making arrangements for their children.

James can attest to this, saying the relationship with his ex-partner is so strained he worries about the effect on their son. “We met five years ago at work and not long afterwards, we had an unplanned pregnancy and she moved in with me as I had a bigger place,” he says. “I asked her to marry me, but she said we should wait until after the baby was born and that seemed fair enough.

“But once he arrived, she had no interest in him as she had been hoping for a girl. This was upsetting as he was a beautiful, helpless baby. I suggested that she might have PND (postnatal depression) and got a lot of verbal abuse, but eventually, she came round and seemed happier for a while. The wedding idea was put on hold and faded into the background as we got used to being parents. I loved being with our son and would have spent every day with him if I could, while she was itching to get back to work.


“So we agreed that I would work from home for three days a week and her mother would babysit on the other two days, while my ex went back full-time. This worked perfectly for a while but, about 18 months after our son was born, she began staying late at work or going on “girls’ nights out” – and I soon discovered she was having an affair. When I confronted her, she said she wanted out of the relationship.

I thought this was very unfair and actually quite unkind to put our little boy in the middle of all this instability

“I was dumbstruck as I thought it was just a phase, but she moved back into her own place and we agreed to share custody of our son. But our relationship is very strained. Initially, she wanted us to swap apartments and when I refused, she lost it, calling me every name under the sun. It was ridiculous and I couldn’t believe she actually thought I would agree – but she has hardly said two words to me since. Her new relationship ended about six months after we split and she began seeing someone else, who she has since moved in with. I would love to be a full-time parent, but she would never agree to it and regularly passes negative messages to me, through him.

“I thought this was very unfair and actually quite unkind to put our little boy in the middle of all this instability. So I told her that for his sake, she should try to put whatever gripes she has aside and let him be a child without having to worry about his parents arguing.”

James says that while he doesn’t envisage that he and his ex-partner will ever be the best of friends, they are now able to be polite to each other in front of their son.

“I don’t really know where the animosity was coming from, but I told her that it was really going to do damage and the only person who would be affected by it was our child,” he says. “She is happy with her new partner so I think she has finally realised that there is no need to be so hostile all the time – I didn’t have an affair or leave the family home but could find it in myself to be polite and friendly, so she realised that she needed to do the same.”

While situations like this are not uncommon, many divorced or separated people have managed to find that often elusive middle ground where they are not only civil to their ex, but also get on well.

This could be said of Caroline and her ex-husband Jonathon, who share custody of their two children. The pair divorced five years ago and from the start made an agreement to ensure their children came first and that any disagreements would be had behind closed doors.

“We decided to split because we had grown apart and wanted different things from life,” says Caroline. “We were sad because we had been together a long time and still really cared for each other. So when we made the quite painful decision to split, we vowed that the kids wouldn’t suffer. Because we were in complete agreement on this front, we started out on the right footing and always made sure to be friendly on pickups and drop-offs.

“The kids divide their time between us and four years ago, I met a new man and got married again. My ex is now engaged and to be honest, the four of us actually get on quite well and a few times, when we’ve been collecting, they’ve invited us in for a cuppa or a glass of wine and vice versa. It makes such a difference to everyone and not only are the children happy and relaxed, but both our new partners are as well, as there is no bad feeling.

“I had another baby last year and was worried that it might make things difficult as I thought my ex might see her as taking the place of our kids, but we talked about it, with our respective partners and everyone was happy – and as it turns out, they are now expecting as well, so it’s quite funny. I know we’re very lucky and not everyone has this sort of relationship with their ex, but I think that if it’s at all possible, people should try to be at least civil as it will make all the difference in the end.”

Dr Joanna Fortune, Author of 15-Minute Parenting, agrees and says our children act out what they see in us. “They will respect us when they see us respect ourselves, them and, of course, each other,” she says. “So never agree to keep secrets from the other parent (regarding the children) and never speak badly of each other in earshot of your child. Smile when doing handovers, at your child and at each other – it makes the transition a happier experience for the children so they are not worried about theparent they are leaving for the day, night or weekend.

“As best we can, we have to find a way to co-parent in a calm, cohesive way so that our children see that we mean it when we say that while our feelings for each other has changed, our love for them has not. Loving your children is the one thing you will always have in common with your ex-partner. Having this as your shared starting point and your secure base to return to when other emotive things take over is a good way to ground ourselves and stay focused on our shared goal, on what matters most.

I have found that the children of separated parents who have the best outcomes are the ones where the parents are not sweating the small stuff

—  Dr Malie Coyne

“If I could give a little tip, I would say to ensure that there is a family photo or at least a photo of your child with each of you in the bedroom they sleep at in each of your homes. It is a symbolic way of acknowledging the role and presence of the other parent in all of your lives.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne, agrees and says she has encountered many children of separated parents over the course of her career and always encourages the adults to have a business-like relationship. “When people have chosen not to be together any more, it’s not their children’s issue,” she says. “So it’s important to separate them from whatever issues the parents have – of course that can be hard to do, particularly if the children are young and there lots of things to organise such as access, appointments, money, holidays, friends and the rest – so I encourage parents to behave as they would towards someone they work with, as most people would not have a big fight with a co-worker.

“I have found that the children of separated parents who have the best outcomes are the ones where the parents are not sweating the small stuff. Sure, there may be things they are not happy with, but if they are just small issues and not to do with the health and safety of the child, then it’s best to keep things civil.

“Also, my number one rule is not to get your children involved in your communication, no matter what their age – and do not badmouth the other parent in front of the child. It is damaging and it’s just not fair.”

If parents find it difficult to communicate without falling out, then Dr Coyne recommends using WhatsApp and trying to keep any negativity to themselves – and seek help if necessary. “Of course, not everyone wants to go down this road, but mediation or parenting and separation courses can be really good,” she says. “Also, it’s important [to] talk to your child about the separation to gauge their understanding of it – I remember seeing a five-year-old who actually thought it was their fault that their parents had separated because they had a tantrum the day before the parents separated.

“So keep talking to your kids and checking how they’re doing – keep the conversation open with them and make sure relations with your ex are businesslike and civil.”