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Divorce Referendum: Regime keeps couple in toxic situation

Custodial and financial issues can’t be put on hold for four years after a marriage break-up, says Karen Murray

This referendum was never going to have the passion or vitriol of the 80s and 90s campaigns, when ‘Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy’ became one of the memorable soundbites.

Twenty-four years on from it being legalised by the tiniest of margins, fears of a ‘divorce culture’ and a mass exodus of errant fathers did not bear fruit. 

According to a Euromonitor report, the number of divorced people in 2017 was 0.5 per 1,000 — far lower than the European average.

Today’s Ireland is a very different place, progressing towards being a more inclusive, secular, and tolerant society. Yes votes on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion have also been achieved.

As a nation, we are more compassionate and understanding about marital breakdown but, for people seeking a divorce — especially those who did not choose to end the marriage — the process is costly, protracted, and often traumatic, all of which can have a devastating impact on any children caught in the crossfire.

This referendum seeks to reduce the minimum living-apart period from four years to two for spouses seeking to divorce, taking it out of the Constitution and allowing the Oireachtas to legislate accordingly.

So far, so sensible? Why drag out the inevitable? Why leave a couple — whose marriage has irretrievably broken down — in limbo, unable to move forward? 

Whatever the reasons for the split, nobody wins by delaying proceedings, except perhaps solicitors. And the Law Society of Ireland is supporting a yes vote.

On a recent social media post about the referendum, someone described a yes vote as “speeding up the ruination of children’s lives in the name of progress”. Reading that, I felt as if we were back in 90s Ireland.

This referendum is not about ruining children’s lives or allowing a ‘quickie’ get-out clause for the sake of convenience. 

It’s about changing a punitive, restrictive, outdated regime which forces couples to stay trapped in an unhappy, often acrimonious union much longer than necessary. 

How does that benefit anyone, least of all the children involved?

Under the current regime, the Constitution only allows divorce where spouses have lived apart for four years out of the previous five. 

This can mean having to undergo a judicial separation first to sort out custodial or financial issues that simply cannot be put to one side for four years, which adds to the trauma and cost for both parties. It’s like getting divorced twice.

In other cases, some couples who are no longer together cannot afford to run two households as they await legal recourse, so are forced to live under the same roof, trying to shield the children from the tension and

acrimony of a no-win situation.

This vote is not about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ divorce, which already exists. It’s about dealing with the painful reality of marital break-up, helping to ease the pressure and pain — financial and otherwise — on families, many of whom did not choose to be part of the statistics and are simply dealing with the fallout.

Regardless of who initiated the split, children pay the price when the system forces couples to stay married long after love has gone, particularly if there is conflict and/or one has started another relationship.

Marital breakdown can destroy a family — but so can staying together in a toxic environment when love and respect have left the building. 

Parents want to protect children from the pain and grief of a break-up, but young people can be remarkably resilient and adaptable. They need to know their parents are OK too.

Jacqueline Jefferies, a counsellor at Mallow Therapy Centre, backs this up, saying: “Voting yes will not create further negative effects on children involved in the relationship breakdown. 

It is likely to help resolve the heightened emotional responses experienced in the process of divorce, assisting families to settle into their new family makeup in a more timely fashion, thereby reducing conflict over a prolonged period and helping all parties to heal and rebuild their lives.

“Children need emotional support in this process and if helped to understand their feelings are normal, they can become well-adjusted and comfortable with their new family dynamics. 

"Co-parenting or parallel parenting, if parents are unable to communicate respectfully, can be achieved more rapidly if the legal arrangements of divorce are settled sooner rather than later.”

As long as they are loved by both parents, any long-term effects of a divorce on the child can be contained, managed, dealt with. It’s not easy, but it can be done. 

A child’s life doesn’t have to fall apart. It’s not what happens at the time of the break-up, it’s how the process is managed after the event.

Few people walk down the aisle planning for it to be anything other than forever. Sometimes, for whatever reasons, it doesn’t work out that way. 

The road to divorce is a rocky one: By making it a shorter journey, the pain can be eased for everyone.

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