Splitting over parenting

Common areas of parental conflict include discipline and children sleeping in the matrimonial bed, experts say.
Common areas of parental conflict include discipline and children sleeping in the matrimonial bed, experts say.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Different parenting styles can place a strain on marriage, say divorce lawyers

Co-sleeping, the practice of having infants and toddlers sleep with their parents, is said to impart a sense of security to the young ones.

Its disadvantages, say detractors, include an increased risk of suffocation for babies and, for adults, a dampener on spousal intimacy.

In some cases, unhappy spouses even take the matter to their lawyers.

Mr Lim Chong Boon, head of family law practice at PKWA Law, says co-sleeping is a major area of parental conflict in divorce cases he has handled.

One client, for example, told him that having his eight-year-old child in the matrimonial bed strained his relationship with his wife.

 

Mr Lim says one parent tends to push for co-sleeping, while the other prefers the child to learn to sleep alone.

  • Working through differences

  • Here are some tips on how to reconcile different parenting styles.

    Ms Theresa Bung, principal therapist at the non-profit Family Life Society, says:

    • If the couple have different parenting approaches, they need to improve their communication to work on their differences.

    • Set aside a time to talk, away from the children, and not when experiencing stress at work. Be mindful of the tone of voice and choice of words.

    • When deciding what is best for a child, listen to his views as well, once he is mature enough to express them.

    • Establish consistent parenting, for example, in terms of how much allowance a child gets. This is because if dad says one thing and mum another, he may be confused and anxious as he does not know which parent to please.

    Ms Sarah Chua, parenting specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore, says:

    • Gather different objective perspectives on parenting by joining a parent support group, attending parenting workshops together and befriending parents who have children of a similar age.

    • Do not be afraid to seek help from a family counsellor. Couples who learn to work through their differences will have a stronger relationship. The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.

    • Conflicts over parenting can be reduced when couples understand why they parent the way they do. For example, one spouse may insist on having dinner as a family because that was his experience growing up. The other spouse may not find it important as on-the-go meals were the norm as a child. Agree to disagree where necessary, though it is important to agree on the values you want to instil in your children.

    Venessa Lee

However, the lawyer, who has handled divorce cases for 27 years, says that "generally, different parenting styles per se don't result in divorce in Singapore".

"Something else was already wrong with the marriage."

The high-profile divorce of movie stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was announced on Tuesday amid allegations of clashing parenting styles, among other points of conflict.

The actress, 41, filed for divorce citing irreconcilable differences and is seeking physical custody of their six children.

News reports have claimed that Jolie, who is allegedly upset with Pitt over his parenting, has no fixed bedtimes and believes in freedom of expression for the children. Pitt, 52, is reportedly the disciplinarian.

Ms Gloria James, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta & Co, says parenting differences "might not look serious, but are important to the client".

She has worked on a divorce case where the father overrode instructions from the mother, allowing their child to go to the cinema without first doing homework.

She estimates that her firm sees an average of 30 new divorce cases each month, close to 60 per cent of which involve parenting differences.

One such case showed how pain from parenting clashes can run deep, even when the children have grown up.

Ms James, who has practised family and divorce law for 20 years, recounts a case in which a son returned home from work with Chinese New Year goodies, which he left on a table. His father assumed the goodies were meant to be eaten and took some. The son, who has a brother, said his father was "like a dog, sniffing for food", she recalls.

The mother did not reprimand the son and the father felt she had not disciplined and instilled respect in their son. The incident was mentioned in the divorce papers.

In the experience of Ms Hoon Shu Mei, of law firm WongPartnership, "children are often used as pawns in the proceedings" of acrimonious divorces.

"Most of the time, the reason for the marriage breaking down lies with the parents themselves. If they can't get along, it will affect their parenting," the lawyer says.

Adultery or "unreasonable behaviour" is usually cited in acrimonious divorces, rather than parenting issues, she adds.

Ms Hoon has come across parenting differences in divorce cases that "could be perceived as petty", such as parents disagreeing about what co-curricular activities their children should take part in, or which tuition centre they should go to.

Before a marriage breaks down, common areas of parental conflict include discipline, for example, when one parent wields the cane and the other prefers not to, as well as situations where one parent is more harsh and the other more permissive, says Ms Monica Christine Fernando, a marriage and family counsellor at Reach Counselling.

"If one parent strictly follows his or her parenting style and that is the only style allowed, with no space for compromise, that can cause friction and lead to marital breakdown," she adds.

Ms Hoon thinks parenting differences could become more prominent in divorce cases in the future.

She says: "Parents are now more aware of different parenting styles and have a view as to how they should parent."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Splitting over parenting'. Print Edition | Subscribe