Column | Divorce: focus on loss and grief

When couples quarrel about who should do the dishes or take out the trash, it’s usually not about that. It’s about attention and recognition, and failing that, the quarrel begins about giving and taking. Relationship wisdom is written down in many books about love. The popular self-help philosopher Alain de Botton once put it in place Essays in love not gloomy as this: “There is usually a Marxist moment in any relationship, the moment when it becomes clear that love is mutual.”

Last week, I chaired a symposium on abusive couples who can not stop even if they are divorced. An important topic, because in the Netherlands, 40 percent of the relationship with children breaks down. The divorce does not mark an end, but the beginning of a – sometimes long – process of negotiating the division of care for children, the goods and the money. The number of complex divorces (the more neutral word for ‘fighting divorce’) in the Netherlands is alarming: sixteen thousand a year. It costs society on average around fifty thousand euros per complex divorce and many institutions are involved.

The main message of the symposium was simple but revolutionary: Take the children out of the conflict. It sounds a little rough, but you should actually see the kids as the dishes or the trash. There is pain and anger over the relationship you had and you express it by arguing about the kids.

An important indicator of the likelihood of a fight divorce is the extent to which ex-partners become excited that the other parent is a ‘bad’ parent. Anyone who confronts each other about his role as a ‘parent’ is constantly stepping on sensitive toes. But in a divorce country, almost everything is about the children. Many brokers inevitably put a picture of the child on the table, to remind you who you want to resolve the issues properly so that you can continue with your child’s’ or ‘mother’.

Another suggestion was put on the table at the symposium: First, make up for the loss you have suffered as previous partners, and focus on your own part in the breakdown of the relationship.

No fewer than three of the five speakers showed the same picture that day: the so-called emotion iceberg. The tenth that protrudes beyond the water: it is ‘behavior’. There is a lot of attention to this when it comes to prevention (‘what signals are there in the behavior of …’). Under the water, there are emotions, including sadness, anger and shame. If you want to be able to continue well as partners, it has to be about that.

When a relationship breaks down, you are often advised to ‘let go’. In the new divorce approach, the motto is not to let go, but to approach the end of a relationship as a form of loss; therefore make sure first, only then can you reconnect as a parent.

Heleen Koppejan, a specialist in ‘orphanhood’, spoke of the most disturbing thing that can happen if parents continue to quarrel with the child as a symbolic ‘garbage bag’: parental alienation. It is when one parent talks so badly about the other parent in front of the child that the child rejects the other parent.

The Famke case shows how terrible the consequences can be. On December 28, 2020, 14-year-old Amsterdam Famke was shot and killed by his father. In October 2021, a comprehensive report on the mistakes of the authorities involved was published. It is good that such reconstructions are being made, all the more so as the surviving ex-partner, in this case the mother, who no longer had contact with the child, could only turn to the authorities.

Good to see that the authorities involved are doing everything they can to learn. Soon there will be a free (!) Seminar on orphanhood supported by the municipality of Amsterdam.

The painful truth is that focusing on failing cases will never completely heal the wound. It once started with two parents bringing a child into the world of love; it is they who are primarily responsible for the quarrel that follows.

I think it’s a good thing that the focus on parenting in proposing a new approach to divorce is shifting. That does not mean there is no attention to children (thankfully there is plenty). It takes the child out of the conflict parents have with each other. And it will ultimately work well for children.

Stine Jensen is a philosopher and author. She writes a column here every other week.

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