Parents worry that their decision to separate will harm children emotionally, socially, and academically. However, the potential harm of separating depends on the reasons for the separation, as well as the ages and vulnerability of the children.
Essentially, the reasons for separation can be classified as high, medium, and low risk. Those in the high-risk group include separations based on abuse, addiction to alcohol or drugs, and serious mental illness. Any potential harm caused by separating is likely to be balanced by the benefits of being removed from a harmful and chaotic environment.
Those in the medium-risk group include breach of trust, such as an affair, financial mismanagement, or control over decision-making. If parties can accept that an affair is usually a symptom of other problems in the relationship, and that financial issues often reflect different comfort levels with risk taking, then counseling may help to bridge the differences. With respect to power and control issues, unless the controlling partner understands that his or her behavior is inappropriate and seeks assistance, the marriage will not likely be repaired.
Finally, low risk separations include couples drifting apart, no longer sharing similar interests, or having poor communication. In these cases, there is little risk and possible benefits if couples are motivated to re-engage in their marriage.
Regardless of the reason for separating, the impact will depend on how it is handled and on thoughtful planning. The planning should focus on the children’s needs as determined by their ages, temperament, and attachment to each parent. If parents can model respectful communication, reassure children that their relationship with both parents will continue, and minimize serious disruptions in the children’s lives, the negative effects can be considerably reduced.
For parents in the high-risk group, separation is likely to trigger an escalation in violence. Delay can be dangerous. It is important to consider safety measures to protect the children and the target of violence (usually the woman).
For the medium or low-risk groups, parents may decide either to attempt reconciliation or to continue living together separately under one roof while they make a more permanent plan. Often it is helpful for the parents to arrive at an interim parenting plan that offers clear structure and predictability as to who will be acting as the caretaker on which days so as to minimize the effects of parental conflict.
Another option that may be feasible for low-conflict couples for a fairly short period of time is called “nesting.” That is, the children continue to live in the matrimonial home while the parent’s alternate residences. For older children, the parents could move in and out on alternate weeks, for younger children the parents could shift more frequently, and for infants the primary caretaker (usually the mother) could reside in the home while the father spent time in the home on a frequent basis to carry out care-taking routines such as feeding, bathing, putting the child to sleep, or taking the child out to play.
The suggestions mentioned above serve as transitions and help to prepare children for separation. It is a good idea to explain the care-taking plan and prepare the children in advance for significant changes, such as a move by one parent. The key factors to keep in mind are to minimize the children’s exposure to conflict and to reassure the children that their relationship with both parents will continue, even if the parents choose to live in separate homes.
Dr. Barbara Landau, president of Cooperative Solutions, is a Toronto psychologist, lawyer, and mediator who assists separating families in creating parenting plans, improving their communication in the best interests of their children, and arriving at fair financial settlements. She is this year’s recipient of the prestigious John M. Haynes Distinguished Mediator Award for her contributions to the field of mediation.