It’s the children who suffer most

2 children at the windowWe perhaps all know that the traditional nuclear family – mother, father and children that they have produced together, although possibly the “norm” is by no means the only concept of “family” which society recognises.

With the increasing recognition of same sex relationships, other family arrangements are made and it follows too that when these new families break down, the court has to adapt some of the traditional concepts of “family” to meet these new challenges.

A recently reported case dealt with a family dispute between two same sex relationships who shared the care of two children.  So you had the child’s father with his male partner and the child’s mother living with her female partner.  The two girls lived mainly with their mother and her partner, but had contact with their father and his partner.

The adults then fell out and the judge introduced the concept of “principal parents” to describe the two women and “secondary parents” to describe the father and his partner.  The court dispute between the four adults was about what role the men should play in the girls’ upbringing moving forward.  The women felt that it should be limited, whereas the men considered that it should reflect what they felt had been the case so far – to be fully involved in the children’s lives.

Unfortunately the situation between the parents became very acrimonious and this had a devastating effect on the children.  A CAFCASS Officer (court welfare officer) was involved on the children’s behalf and she spoke in relation to one of the children of “the horrendous tangle of emotion and conflict that exists between these adults [which] has resulted in such misery for [the child].  The misery is not because of the way in which she was treated, it is because these adults and their failure to manage their own conflicting feelings, reactions and personal baggage, have handed over the responsibility for coping with this mess to the child.”

Interestingly the judge put it that the child needed “emotional permission” to continue her relationship with the men and that this permission lay “purely in the gift of the women” and they were not prepared to give it.

Although the family arrangement was in some ways far from normal, it does highlight even more clearly how disputes between adults can irrevocably damage children.  It was clear that both children were quite unable to deal with this conflict – and of course why should they have to.

Remember, in any family situation it is never separation that damages children, but conflict.  So whatever the family situation, the adults owe it to their children to keep conflict to a minimum and certainly to avoid involving the children at all in their disputes.

Taking the mediation route instead of going to court will help ensure that some sort of relationship is maintained between the adults as, going forward, although they are separated they will need to both have contact with the children and that needs to be managed well for all concerned.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email

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