When couples argue about who should wash the dishes or take out the trash, it’s usually not about that. It’s all about attention and recognition, and failing that, bickering about give and take begins. The wisdom of the relationship has been recorded in many books about love. It was once put forward by the famous self-help philosopher Alain de Botton articles on love Not so gloomyly: “There is usually a Marxist moment in every relationship, the moment when it becomes clear that love is mutual.”
Last week, I chaired a seminar on arguing about couples who can’t stop, even if they’re divorced. An important topic, because 40% of relationships with children in the Netherlands break down. Divorce is not an end point, but the beginning of a process—sometimes lengthy—of negotiating the division of childcare, goods, and money. The number of complex divorce cases (the more neutral word for “fighting divorce”) in the Netherlands is alarming: sixteen thousand a year. It costs society on average about fifty thousand euros for each complex divorce, and many institutions are involved in it.
The main message of the symposium was simple but revolutionary: to get children out of conflict. It sounds a little rude, but in fact you should see the kids as dishes or trash. There is pain and resentment in the relationship between the two of you, and you express that through arguing over children.
An important indicator of the likelihood of a combative divorce is the degree to which previous partners are excited about the other parent being a “bad” parent. Anyone who confronts each other about his or her role as a “parent” is constantly stepping on sensitive toes. But in the country of divorce, almost everything revolves around the children. Many mediums always put a picture of the child on the table, to remind you who you want to get things right, that you should continue with the “father” or “mother” of your child.
Another suggestion was put on the table at the seminar: first grieve the loss you suffered as an ex-partner, and focus on your part in the breakdown of the relationship.
At least three of the five speakers showed the same image that day: the so-called iceberg of emotion. The tithe that protrudes above the water: this is “behaviour”. Much attention is paid to this when it comes to prevention (“what cues are there in a behavior…”). Under the water there are feelings of sadness, anger and shame. If you want to be able to carry on like previous partners, it has to do with that.
When a relationship falls apart, she often gets the advice to “give up.” In the new divorce approach, the motto is not to give up, but to approach the end of the relationship as a form of loss; And then grieving first, only then can you reconnect as parents.
Helen Kopijan, a “parental separation” specialist, spoke about the most distressing thing that could happen if parents continued to argue with a child as a symbolic “trash bag”: parental alienation. This is when one parent talks so badly about the other parent in front of the child that the child rejects the other parent.
Famke’s case shows how horrific the consequences can be. On December 28, 2020, her father Amsterdam Famke, 14, was murdered. In October 2021, a huge report was published about the mistakes made by the relevant authorities. It is good that these types of reconstructions are carried out, especially since the previous partner was left behind, in this case the mother who is no longer in contact with the child, can only turn to the authorities.
It is good, then, to see that the authorities concerned are doing all they can to learn the lessons. Soon there will be a free seminar (!) on parental separation with the support of the Amsterdam municipality.
The painful truth is that focusing on failures will not fully heal the wound. I once started with two parents who brought a child into the world out of love; They are initially responsible for the next quarrel.
I think it is a good thing that the focus on parents has changed in proposals for a new approach to divorce. This does not mean that there is no interest in children (fortunately there are many). It takes the child from the conflict between the parents with each other. This will eventually work out well for children.
Stein Jensen Philosopher and writer. She writes a column here every two weeks.
A version of this article also appeared in the June 17, 2022 newspaper