Ours is an every-day run-of-the-mill suburban story: we got married, had children, and created a family. Then the marriage faltered and we faced the usual choice: a) split up the relationship, the assets and the children’s time or b) stay together for the sake of the children.
I suspect most couples try option b) first. I’m glad we did. But come the end of the last three or four dreadful years of our marriage there was no uncertainty: we should not be together. My former wife, Jan, and I blew the whistle after 17 years, by which time the children were aged 10, 13, and 15.
Plan a) split everything up loomed as inevitable.
But hang on. Jan and I saw there was more at stake than appeared to be the case, even if only through a glass darkly. In addition to our self-interest, and the interests of each of the three children, there was another stakeholder at the table: the family itself.
Kids don’t care about the quality of their parent’s marriage, and anyway it’s none of their business. What they do care about, is their family - Mum and Dad, their siblings and themselves, all engaged together in the wonderful and onerous task of surviving together in the big wide world.
And we - Jan and I - wanted exactly the same thing. We didn’t want each other, but we still wanted a family. Everyone does. And we didn’t want any family - we wanted our family, the one we had made. Our family had been our project, our creation, our responsibility, and was our fulfillment in so many ways. Splitting up destroyed our precious family, we both saw, which all five of us still wanted, and wanted very much.
Was it possible to keep the family intact, even though the marriage could not survive? Using standard conflict management practices, where all parties identify shared interests, Jan and I decided to make the family our common ground. This enabled us to put aside our stuff, and develop a shared approach to the future, which took the form of some “policies”:
One family, one set of parents
We immediately agreed - down in the soul, where it counts, as well as on paper - that the children deserved and wanted and needed their folks, the oldies, the parents rather than Mum one day, Dad the next. They wanted to keep - and we wanted to retain - our role as parents who shared, fully and collaboratively, in their care. The phrase we wrote in a document attached to the divorce papers was: “We fully acknowledge, respect and actively encourage each other to be the best parents we can be for our three children, respectively and collaboratively.”
This meant that when there was a school concert, we would go together, in one car, and walk in as a family, and sit together, and share in the pride of their achievement as a family. If there was a new movie that everyone wants to see, we would see it as a family. All decisions about the children - which schools, which subjects, which activities, when to get a mobile phone, whether they can go and stay overnight at a friend’s place - were decisions we would make together, as we always had. And birthday and Christmas gifts would come from us, rather than presents from Mum and presents from Dad.
Keep the home
We decided we would not require our children to engage in shuttle diplomacy between respective houses - Mum’s place; Dad’s place - neither of which would earn the title of home, for them. We were the ones who had stuffed-up, so the children shouldn’t be made to suffer from having two bedrooms, two neighborhoods, two computers, two toothbrushes, with all the respective complications. Kids need routine as much as, and as an expression of, parental love, and we would not massively disrupt their lives.
Rather, we would move around them. We agreed that either of us could stay at home, or establish our own, separate, places and come home to the children, at our discretion.
Maintain family money
When we divorced, we were both working full time, and our respective incomes had all gone straight into “general revenue”. New arrangements were required. We developed a “family budget”, which dealt with the full costs of the children and the home. We agreed that we would contribute in proportion to our respective salaries. Since I was earning 60 per cent of gross income, I was responsible for 60 per cent of the family budget. This later changed, when our salaries changed.