Starting a debate about a better way to separate

04 Dec 2014

Jo Edwards

Resolution chair Jo Edwards reflects on Family Dispute Resolution Week.

Our third annual Family Dispute Resolution Week, held in the final week of November, could be judged a great success by most standards. We released the results of a survey asking children and young people about how they felt their parents’ divorce had affected them. The results were striking, with one in five young people saying that they “didn’t get the exam results” they were hoping for with the majority (65%) saying it was their GCSE exam results that suffered. A significant minority of young people also reported that they drank more alcohol, experimented with drugs and started smoking cigarettes as a coping strategy to deal with their parents’ breakup.

These statistics, perhaps unsurprisingly, made headlines across the country, with a great many column inches devoted to debating the very serious issues raised in the survey and their ramifications for separating families. This, in itself, is a very positive thing. These issues are important and need to be talked about. But what the Family Dispute Resolution Week media activity also revealed is the amount of prejudice and blinkered thinking in this country around separation, divorce and the impact that it has on families.

Over the course of the week we had many opportunities to talk to well-informed, interested journalists and audiences about minimising conflict during divorce and mitigating “collateral damage” to children. Resolution members reported a spike in enquiries about mediation, while others told us about conversations initiated by head teachers, clients and others who were keen to hear more about the benefits of dispute resolution. These conversations represent, I feel, the start of a broader awareness amongst the public that there are steps parents can take to protect their children during separation and that divorce doesn't have to be devastating.

What was interesting about the week was that, far from the traditional news cycle that accompanies press releases like this (story gets covered; those responsible for the story comment on it; others with a different perspective asked to respond), we actually started a debate across the printed press and across the airwaves.

Inevitably, as often happens when you start a debate, some groups sought to use the story to their own advantage, peddling a pro-marriage message and suggesting that these findings prove beyond doubt that parents need to stay together for the sake of the kids.

This misses the point. One of the risks associated with promoting a non-confrontational approach to divorce is that, sadly, the initial words get lost and people see you as promoting divorce. Nothing could be further from the truth. Resolution is not, never has been, and certainly for as long as I am Chair, never will be a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ marriage organisation. As I put it to one radio station: “While Resolution supports getting marriage right and advocates marriage counselling where there are marital difficulties, we encourage getting divorce right where the marriage is unsalvageable”.

Whether we like it or not, sometimes parents break up, and regrettably sometimes this can negatively impact on their children. Isn’t it in all of our interests to try and do something about that? Simply saying ‘parents should stay together’ is too simplistic and a na├»ve answer. Yes, for some people that will be possible, but for many, staying together guarantees one thing – that their children will be raised in an environment ridden with conflict and devoid of love – and that can be far more damaging than maturely calling time on the relationship and managing the break-up in an appropriate way.

I am glad that, from TV, to radio, to social media and even in the House of Lords, people are talking about the wider implications of divorce as a result of DR Week. Resolution members see the ripple effect of trauma that can emanate from a high-conflict separation. It's something that too many children go through in this country and it's time it came to an end. Parents have it in their power to choose a better way for their family. My hope is that, going forward, we can have a nuanced public conversation about divorce, free from ideological taint. The cuts to family legal aid and resulting drop in mediation numbers have set this country back - it's time to get family justice back on the agenda. Our children's futures are too important to risk.