Is there a 'good' age for parents to divorce? Yes and no

Bradd Pitt and Angelina Jolie parted ways while the majority of their six children were young.
Bradd Pitt and Angelina Jolie parted ways while the majority of their six children were young. Photo: AAP

Yes, there is a 'good' age for children's parents to split if they must, writes Neil Fizzell.

The phrase "staying together for the children" has always struck me as nonsense. Ever since, as a nine-year-old standing by a blue sofa, I begged my parents to get divorced – knowing that I was yet again going to be ignored – I have seen the tissue of lies that sticks to those words. They are as stupid as the phrase "it's what they would have wanted" at a funeral.

What often holds an ill-matched set of parents together isn't familial duty but financial interdependence, fear of being alone, illness, religion, conditioning, complacency or cowardice. And the longer you, as a child, have to live in a house tarnished by disharmony, violence, discord or depression, the worse it will be for you; not just in that moment, but for your ongoing mental and relationship health.

So it came as no surprise to me to read new research, from University College London, which says that parental divorce is less harmful if it happens in early childhood. According to the analysis of 6000 children born in the UK, those who were aged seven to 14 when their parents split are 16 per cent more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural problems than those whose parents stay together.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin set the gentle divorce bar high.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin set the gentle divorce bar high. Photo: AFP

Big news, you might say. Children from discordant homes fare worse than those whose parents are in a loving relationship.

But what is really interesting is that children who were between three and seven when their parents separated showed no differences to those whose parents were still together. In short, if you're going to break up, better to do it sooner, rather than wait until your children are older and more likely to form harmful patterns of behaviour themselves.

My parents – a couple so spectacularly ill-suited that even their best man, in his wedding speech, made a joke about their throwing crockery at each other – spent my childhood on and off. They finally separated for good three weeks before my A-levels. The timing was spectacularly bad and I told them that if they ever dared get back together, I would never speak to either of them again: a promise I was fully prepared to keep.

The effect of all this instability and absence and uncertainty was to give me a hardline and total disbelief in long-term lasting love for all of my teens and most of my 20s, until finally (with much help from partners and professionals) I started to see that emotional interdependence can actually be healthy, as well as dangerous.

Of course, having your parents separate is painful, sad, destabilising, scary and a logistical nightmare. Anyone in the "broken home" gang will recall the nasty, slinking presence of a parent as they go around the house taking items from shelves and out of cupboards before leaving the family home. We will all remember the sobbing adults on the stairs; grim weekends of enforced "quality time" with an estranged parent; the terrible, silent dinners.

But all that is, I would argue, far better than spending your formative years under house arrest with two people who loathe each other. Better to have a disorientating break while you're young, than to suffer years in the company of two people enacting a corrosive war of insults, screaming, lying, gaslighting, sulking, infidelity or violence, centimetres from where you're trying to do your homework.

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The idea that you are somehow protecting your children by exposing them to the most poisonous elements of human behaviour is laughable.

It is also a heinous injustice for children to be made aware, either explicitly or unconsciously, that their parents are staying in a state of loveless misery "for their sake". As though the burden of responsibility is yours; that if you weren't around, these two people would have gone their merry ways years ago.

Luckily, my parents were so unmistakably incompatible that I never fell for this lie. I knew, for as long as I can remember, that they were caught in a web of fear, laziness and lust that had nothing to do with me. So when, during one of their separations, I was reassured by kindly adults - a teacher, a friend's parent - that this wasn't my fault, my answer was always: "I know. It's theirs."

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorced when their daughter, Suri was turning seven.
Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorced when their daughter, Suri was turning seven. Photo: AP

The UCL study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, also reported that, on average, mothers experienced more mental health problems if they separated when children were older. This is, in part, because the financial impact of divorce is more severe for a woman the later it happens in a marriage - ie once your income, investments and belongings are as intertwined as a hedge full of bindweed.

What this says to me is that if we really wanted what was best for our children then we would all, men and women, strive for an end to the gender pay gap, regulation of private landlords, free childcare – all the things that keep many couples stuck in loveless marriages and many children, like me, living in homes damaged by them.

NO,  there is no 'good time'. Jane Gordon says that, if she had her chance again, she'd have worked at it.

The seven adults, one child and a dog gathered around a table in a London pub last Sunday probably looked like the perfect multi-generational family. We were celebrating the birthday of my youngest daughter with a brunch that was, for me, as bitter as it was sweet.

Because, despite the illusion of unity we gave off to the people seated at neighbouring tables, we are in fact a broken family. Divided some 15 years ago by divorce.

The fact that we can all get together on special occasions and have fun is proof, I suppose, that we have achieved what some might call a "civilised" or "amicable" separation. But the truth is that divorce is rarely civilised and almost never amicable. The breaking-up of a family is always going to be painful and the idea that there is ever a "good" time to divorce is, I think, very misleading.

It isn't, of course, either possible or desirable to turn the clock back to change the events that caused my ex-husband and I to part. But I do believe that if I had known then what I know now, I might have worked harder at holding our marriage together. Our breakdown was not a sudden thing but a slow moving apart. In the last few years, I was more absorbed in my children – then aged 21, 19 and nine – and my career, than I was in my relationship with my husband. While he, feeling increasingly isolated, switched off.

At the time, our problems seemed insurmountable – a future apart seemed preferable to a future together. But had someone told me the truth about divorce – explained to me exactly how, in the years ahead, it would impact on our lives and the lives of our children – perhaps we might still be together.

Instead, we both bought into the idea that by divorcing we could achieve a "clean break" and a "fresh start". Neither of which, in the event, worked out. While we did move on to new relationships, they, too, broke down and today we are both single and, yes, sometimes lonely in a way that confirms my belief that divorce is never a good thing. And it doesn't mean you are going to be any happier than you would have been staying together.

I do worry that telling parents it's better to divorce when the children are under seven will discourage them from working through the humps of unhappiness that any marriage goes through.

Divorce, I now believe, can only ever be seen as a favourable option to marriage in the most desperate of circumstances. No marriage is ever perfect, but most are probably good enough.

But, at the time of my break-up, I didn't understand this great truth. It wasn't until my parents died, a few years later, that I realised the true impact my divorce would have. Their deaths – within six months of each other, after 60 years of strong, but far from perfect, marriage – made me realise what, in deciding to separate, I had denied my own three children.

They might not have lost their parents when we divorced, but they lost their family home and the continuity of life that makes the journey from child to adult so much more comforting and secure.

The fact that I have not given my own children the security and unity that I took for granted, will always be a source of shame and regret.

The Telegraph, London