When marriages end...

Getting to the heart of divorce

New parenting programme may help some parents realise that in waging war against each other, no one wins - least of all the child

Growing up, I had friends whose parents had divorced, who felt torn and miserable, caught between warring parents.

They felt forced to take sides or to even cut contact with their father, because their mothers resented and blamed their dads for the marital breakdown.

Yet, they loved both parents, despite their flaws, failings and the failed marriage.

But their parents' feud left them with invisible scars - wounds that affect them in big and small ways, old hurts that flare up in the different seasons of life.

Hence, I was heartened to learn about the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) initiative to protect children from becoming the collateral damage in acrimonious divorces. Basically, couples with children who are divorcing will now have to attend a parenting programme, even before they can file for a divorce.

This is a bold move to tackle the fallout from a divorce early on, rather than after a couple has gone through legal proceedings, thrashing out contentious issues such as child custody, living arrangements and maintenance, which can cause conflicts to build up.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

But what can a two-hour individual session with a counsellor really do to change anything?

At the very least, couples are made aware of how their divorce could affect their children and what they can do to minimise the negative impact.

Sometimes, this reminder is all they need to make a world of difference when it comes to post-divorce parenting, counsellors say.

Each child - no matter how nonchalant he may appear - is affected by his parents' conflict, counsellors say. Some become angry and defiant, while others become depressed. Hurt children can grow up into hurting adults. They carry their childhood baggage into their marriages and parenting.

The counsellor would also discuss how both parents can work together, called co-parenting, for the good of their children.

In addition, these sessions give counsellors the chance to spot parents who are overwhelmed by the divorce, and who might be sinking into depression or have suicidal thoughts. They can then offer them more emotional or practical support before things get out of hand.

Divorces have become increasingly common in Singapore and each year, thousands of children find their parents going separate ways. In 2014, 4,728 children under 21 years of age had parents who filed for divorce.

Each child - no matter how nonchalant he may appear - is affected by his parents' conflict, counsellors say. Some become angry and defiant, while others become depressed.

Hurt children can grow up into hurting adults. They carry their childhood baggage into their marriages and parenting.

Hopefully, the parenting programme will help some hurting parents see that waging war against the ex to win custody is a zero-sum game. No one really wins, least of all the child.

My hope is that couples find it in themselves, or at least find help, to work through their grievances to focus on what their child needs after the divorce.

CONFLICT OVER CHILD ACCESS

The move to get parents to consider the impact of their divorce on their children will also, hopefully, go some way to reduce access issues, for example, when a parent blocks or makes it hard for the former spouse to spend time with their children after the divorce.

One spouse could have been unfaithful, or failed to pay maintenance, or is deemed to be a lousy parent. Hence, the other party feels he does not deserve to see the children, family lawyers said.

And where visits do happen, some kick up a fuss over the smallest matters, such as when a child is brought home late. In the most acrimonious cases, lawyers say the courts have ordered that such visits take place under social workers' supervision.

This supervised visitation means that the parent who has the child will drop him off at a social service agency specialising in handling divorce issues.

The other parent comes to the agency and spends time with the child there, supervised by counsellors.

Such arrangements minimise the potential for conflict between the feuding couple. Each parent is also counselled to help them see it is best for the child to have a relationship with both of them.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament last Monday that the appointed agencies providing supervised visitation services will be able to support more families who need such services soon. He did not give more details.

Such help for more families is good news. Lawyers say that without this supervised visitation arrangement, some parents are not able to see their children at all, eventually becoming estranged from their offspring.

The fight for access and custody has taken a tragic turn for some in the past.

In 2011, a woman killed herself and her three-year-old son. The mother was said to be fighting with her estranged husband over custody and had also been fined for not allowing him to see their son.

More recently, a Belgian expatriate was charged with murdering his five-year-old son last year. He is believed to have been fighting with his ex-wife over custody.

The initiatives to reach out to, and support, emotionally struggling parents even before they file for divorce may well prevent more tragedies from happening.

But the Government can only do so much. At the end of the day, it is up to couples to find it in themselves to bury the hatchet for their children's good.

As Mr Tan said in Parliament: "I know that co-parenting is not easy. But it is probably the best gift that divorced parents can give to their children - the certainty that they still have parents to love them despite it all. Then the children do not feel they have to take sides, they do not feel they are to blame and they do not feel guilty."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'When marriages end... Getting to the heart of divorce'. Print Edition | Subscribe