This last week has brought about news of another celebrity divorce. You can’t have failed to notice the reports of what is probably Hollywood’s biggest separation since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor broke up. Angelina Jolie has apparently filed for divorce from Brad Pitt, and as a result the world seems to be staring open-mouthed in their direction wondering what will happen next.
Through all the gossip, scandal and conjecture, it’s easy to overlook that these megastars are just ordinary people like the rest of us, trying to do the best for themselves and their family. The end of any marriage is very sad, and never an easy decision or one taken lightly. When there are six children involved, the stakes are higher. Yes, these people are incredibly rich, but we all know that wealth doesn’t protect against emotional upset.
Divorce is, in emotional terms, a great leveller. The fact is that relationships are difficult for everyone, and when the time comes that either person feels there is no other option left than to end a marriage, the decision is life-changing. We often hear from our clients that they feel shame, and that everyone is judging them harshly when they admit that their marriage is over, even though they may have tried their absolute hardest to keep the relationship together. People going through the process of separation often feel the world is watching them – when you know that it actually is, it must be pretty tough.
What Pitt and Jolie are experiencing is what all couples find when a marriage ends: people speculate on the reason why it all went wrong. There is rarely a clear answer to the question, even where the divorce is precipitated by a catastrophic event like one person’s adultery (a theory that has been vehemently denied in this case). For this couple, there is speculation that a difference in parenting styles led to tension, which escalated until a specific incident acted as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. This is not an unusual narrative.
Differences between couples in their approaches to parenting often cause tension in relationships. For Jolie and Pitt, parenting six children all with individual characteristics and different needs must be a tall order. Combining this with hectic work schedules and frequent absences from each other and the family makes the job harder for any couple.
The problem is that divorce is not a solution to a difference in opinion about how best to parent children – it does not offer an answer to that. In order to do their best for the kids, in most cases couples with children have to – and will want to – carry on being parents and doing the job together to a degree after they split up. Parents come to understand that divorce simply changes the parameters: it means you are less likely to witness the other’s approach, rather than that it is likely to change.
What is the best way to approach differences in opinion about parenting? The question applies to all parents, not just those going through a divorce but also partners who are staying together, or those who have separated a while a go or never been together. The good news is that there are plenty of places to seek help. There are some great resources available to help: in the UK, Family Lives is a fantastic charity dedicated to providing help and support in all aspects of family life with lots of good resources. Relate offers support for parenting via its website, and family counselling, and the Parent Connection is a brilliant resource produced by relationship charity One Plus One for separated parents, to help with making the transition to parenting in a different way.
Unfortunately, sometimes parenting disagreements escalate and require help from professionals like us to sort out. Often, there are big differences in opinion about arrangements after separation, such as where the children will live or how much time they will spend with the other parent. In many cases these arise because there is a lack of trust between parents about how the other will deal with the children when they are not around. If you disagree fundamentally about how the other parent looks after your children, sometimes it seems like the right thing to try to restrict their contact with the children, when another option would be to explore ways of discussing and seeking consensus in parenting approaches so that the trust can be rebuilt and time spent with the other parent is easier to accept.
Indeed, seeking to build understanding about parenting goals and approaches is something that family mediators and collaborative lawyers try to do where there are differences between parents, in order to get to a solution that can last and works for the children and the parents. Unfortunately, the court system is not well-equipped to look at parents’ underlying trust issues in parenting – rather, when asked to make a judgment on children’s arrangements it will be guided by what it considers to promote the child’s welfare. Although this is not at all a bad way to make decisions, the differences in parenting approach that led to the question being asked of the court are likely to remain; this is unfortunate both for the parents and for the children.
Knowing that parenting can put a strain on the strongest of relationships, we hope that Jolie and Pitt are able to get to the bottom of their differences and work together in the future to protect and promote the happiness of their children. If you’d like to discuss anything you’ve read here, you can make an appointment to see Simon, Sue, Gail, Tricia or Adam by calling 01223 443333.