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Two Homes, One Childhood

Protecting Children from the Fallout of Divorce

Robert Emery, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia, was invited by the Centre for Longitudinal & Life Course Studies of the University of Antwerp (CLLS) in the framework of the divorce conference of the European Network for the Sociological and Demograhic Study of Divorce, which held its 15th meeting at the University of Antwerp on October 5th-7th 2017 .

Following earlier successful initiatives in co-organisation (such as the international workshop on The family Kaleidoscope; Evolving Partnerships and Parenting of March 2014 and the conference on Family Transitions from the Perspective of Children of September 2015), UCSIA offered a platform for the broader audience to attend an opening public lecture with this eminent expert with over 30 years of experience in mediation and divorce research, of which his recent book ‘Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime’ testifies.

The session was attended by researchers from over the world attending the conference, as well as about 60 local practitioners in the field of social work and educational support, juridical mediation and psychological therapy, spiritual consultants and physicians.

Dimitri Mortelmans, Director of CLLS, introduced the keynote speaker, highlighting the interdisciplinary character of this exchange between the research fields of psychology and sociology. UCSIA encourages this kind of multidisciplinary approach to complex social matters as illustrated by the publication Changing Family Dynamics and Demographic Evolution: The Family Kaleidoscope (Edward Elgar 2016), edited by Dimitri Mortelmans, Koenraad Matthijs, Elisabeth Alofs and Barbara Segaert, with contributions from e.g. Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., Laurent Toulemon, Wendy Sigle and Jacqueline Scott.

Robert Emmery started from the conclusion that if you have children, you never divorce completely. Children should never have to worry about their parents. He refers to his own experience as a divorced parent confronted with key moments in the life of his children, such as marriage and giving birth. Children worry about these events where they need both parents to be present.

What do children need most? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, higher needs such as self-actualization and esteem, love and belonging are sacrificed for the most basic needs of safety and psychological well-being when necessary. Starting from the premise that kids should be allowed to be kids and not just children of divorce, Emery developed his own hierarchy. Children have a basic right to two good parents, protection from conflict, unconditional love, protection from danger, food and shelter. If the highest aim of unconditional love from two parents is not attainable, the other basic aspirations should be filled in as good as possible.

Childrens’ divorce experiences are finding their way to the cinema, as in the Disney production ‘Inside Out’ and research results are being tapped as a resource (Robert Emmery has been approached to this end).

Relationships do not end with divorce; they need to be renegotiated. To optimalise the situation for negotiating a parenting plan, insight in the conflict between the parents is a prerequisite. If parenting decisions are put off too long you risk parentising your children. Anger is a normal reaction to divorce. It temporarily salves underlying emotions. It helps to block out feelings of hurt, love, fear, grief and guilt. It may be a way to hang on. Sadness over the loss (of home, friends, one’s role in society, hopes and dreams) may be expressed by anger. This may turn into indifference, which is the opposite of love (instead of hate). The stages in grief have been modelled by Kübler-Ross. But in the case of divorce, as opposed to bereavement, grieving rather evolves in cycles, from love to anger and sadness and back, and lasts longer (3 years on average compared to 1 year for mourning a deceased, because the possibility to retrieve the loss remains alive).

A research project led by Robert Emery on grief processing when relationships end, based on diary annotations of college students, revealed very different patterns of coping. Deciding ‘not to let data get in the way of a good theory’, he rethought his experiment and when set out against a longer timeline the results did concur and matched his hypothesis of the cyclical process of dealing with loss. To make things more complicated, the partners involved in the separation are at different intervals of the cycle, the one opting out having gone through the psychological process and having completed the emotional work before the other falls into it. They respectively experience the separation as a loss after a long illness versus a loss after sudden collision. This does not simplify the mutual decision making in favour of the children.

A relationship is as a current which moves from the level of businesslike relationships over friendship into partnership. You cannot swim back against the current but you need to go back to the beginning and talk businesslike about parenting. You need the anger to grieve but you should never act upon the anger. You can only fix yourself (your ex cannot do that for you, neither can you do it for her/him).

During the ensuing exchange with the audience, specific cases were brought forward for advice.