All eyes worldwide are on London for the 2012 summer Olympic Games. I thought this might be an opportune time to examine divorce -- British style. London has been called the divorce capital of the world. What better time to call on noted "Agony Aunt" Suzie Hayman to discuss Divorce in the UK.
What is your role as an Agony Aunt?
I think you call agony aunts "Dear Abby's" in the states. We write columns and pages in magazines and newspapers answering readers' emotional, relationship and sexual queries -- offering soundly based information and support.
Readers come for three things: permission (they simply need an objective voice to say "Go ahead"), signposting (they need a range of support or help and simply don't know where to find it or how to ask for it) and advice (they know they have a problem but don't understand why and how to resolve it).
When it comes to separation and divorce, my role may be to support separating or separated couples and to help them see that the end of their relationship is one thing, but the continuance of their joint role as parents is another. A good motto might be, "Love your children more than you hate each other".
My impression is that England has been very good at offering services to sustain family relationships, but slower to embrace programs for separating parents. What is the history of divorce programs for families in England?
There are excellent programs run by various charities with extensive experience but it's a postcode lottery as to whether individual families can access them, and since they are not universal, they are not universally known. Also, UK culture still labors under the impression that asking for help shows incompetence and is a sign of failure. Even when a program may be available, parents may feel that the stigma of going for help outweighs the perceived benefits.
In the United States, we are continuously challenged to support parents who don't have the emotional skills to navigate the challenges caused by a family split. What do you see are the biggest challenges to separating families in your country?
First is a distressing tendency to see relationships as only having value when they're easy. This means that people who might have spent some time with each other and had children still feel that if it goes wrong, the first and best choice is to bail and look again. I'm not in favor of staying together for the sake of the child, but working on the relationships may well preclude some separations.
I'd also like both families and authorities to recognize that separation hurts and profoundly affects the emotions and thus the behavior of family members. Parents often ask me how they can separate without it hurting their children, and the answer is that you can't, but if you're prepared to do the work and utilize services there to help you, you can manage to minimize the harm.
Third, parents need to learn to co-parent, and they need support to do it. Separating partners need to recognize that their children need both parents. Often, each parent needs the support of the other to be effective co-parents.
In the US, we have very limited funding to support our divorce education services. How does the current economy impact services for families in England?
Appallingly! There seems to be this idiotic idea that family support is optional. We have seen services slashed. Statutory services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) that covers counseling, therapy and support, have suffered. Charities such as Family Lives and Relate, which rely on funding from government as well as other donors, have also suffered.
If a child suffers loss or hurt or neglect, they will make their needs known in behavior. If that need is not met, the behavior tends to get worse and the problems suffered by the child tend to deepen. Multiply that by hundreds and thousands and you can see a penny saved today is going to cost you not hundreds, but possibly billions of £s later down the line. It's cost ineffectiveness of staggering proportions and yet it seems to have gone right over the heads of everyone at the top.
Do you think social service providers could cost-effectively partner with other systems?
The school setting is a vital area for children who are experiencing family breakdown. It's where they spend a large part of their day, and where they should be able to look for objective support or at least sanctuary. Historically, some schools and teachers have seen their role as simply imparting knowledge with little pastoral responsibility. Charities could, and in some cases already are, show how partnerships would not only improve the emotional lives of their pupils, but their learning too.
I'm committed to the idea that people are naturally good and kind, and can change any unkind and bad behavior once they understand it. My job perhaps is to explain and to publicize the excellent programs offered by charities such as Kids Turn in the US, Family Lives, National Family Mediation and Relate here in the UK, and to hope that one day, they will be funded and accepted enough to be universal.