But there is another common source of tension and unhappiness when a couple with children separate and it’s one that gets much less attention: when the parent who moved out neglects their children they left behind, no longer seeing them on a regular or consistent basis.
Perhaps they have developed a habit of cancelling scheduled visits at short notice, or they don’t always phone or FaceTime when they say they will. Perhaps they routinely miss sports days, school plays and similar meaningful events. Disappointed children who may be yearning for the attention and approval of the absent parent are left upset and confused, while the parent they live with is left to pick up the pieces.
This sad situation can be triggered by the absent parent rushing away into an exciting new relationship or demanding job which occupies their time and attention. If and when they do find time for the children of their first relationship, they may try and impose their own schedule regardless of whether it’s a convenient one for their ex or the children themselves.
Especially acrimonious splits can also result in parents who barely speak to each other, and the absent parent then drifting out of their children’s lives.
A relationship with both parents
Children should be able to enjoy a healthy relationship with both parents – unless there is a very good reason for one to be excluded. A happy relationship with Mum and Dad – even if they live apart – boosts social intelligence and emotional health: a legacy which lasts into adult life.
When parents divorce or separate, the mother or father the children continue to live with becomes the ‘resident parent’ in family law, while the one who moves out becomes the ‘non-resident’ parent.
So, what can you do if you are a resident parent and find yourself caught between a neglectful ex and unhappy children? How do you persuade your former partner to find more time for their children? This is a difficult situation and there are no easy solutions. At the end of the day, the goodwill and engagement required will have to come from that other parent. You cannot conjure it from nothing.
Communication is the key. Phone or email your ex and explain the reality of the situation as you see it. Make sure they understand the disruption and upset caused by their irregular schedule and failure to spend more time with their kids. Try to avoid the temptation to vent or shout at them. Instead, be as diplomatic as you can and listen to what they have to say. You won’t win them over if they feel attacked.
If your relationship with your former spouse is so strained that one-to-communication is challenging, then neutral, third-party mediation may help. Contact a trained mediator and ask them to help you find common ground. You may want to involve the children themselves in this process. Beyond a certain age, children will certainly have views on the situation and you can help to feel safe expressing those feelings. Hearing those thoughts from an outsider may achieve the breakthrough needed and finally persuade the absent parent to mend their ways.
A child arrangements order
In some cases, a trip to the family court for a child arrangements order may be appropriate. These orders set out the agreed arrangements for children following divorce or separation, including the time they will – or should – spend with each parent. This time is referred to as ‘contact’ in family law.
If the non-resident parent is repeatedly failing to live up to the agreed contact arrangements, a child arrangements order setting out a new contact schedule in black-and-white could bring some needed clarity and focus to the situation. The absent parent will need to commit to the new schedule. Of course, this is a two-way process and the new schedule which should also reflect any concerns or pressures that the non-resident parent brings to the attention of the judge. Talk to a family lawyer to find out more.