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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 9

It could be you.... 

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.



What about the children  

Maggi Stamp, laterlife's counsellor on human relationships, considers the effect of marriage breakdown on children, young and older

Occasionally a couple come to counselling together for a few sessions and subsequently one of them drops out. Although there can be a variety for reasons for this, the most frequent one is that they are on the brink of breaking up.

James and Julia were such a couple. In their early fifties, they had been married for 18 increasingly difficult years and had two children aged 10 and 13. Julia was having an affair and had told James of her intention to leave him and set up home with the other man.

Their immediate worry was what to do about the children. Though they were both mature and caring parents they could not agree on how, what or when to tell the kids, nor about where they should live.

It was obvious that Julia had made up her mind to leave and no amount of counselling was going to change that, so my immediate task seemed to be working with them both on resolving this very important issue while I still had them both in the consulting room. After that I could help James work towards coming to terms with what had happened and with his new situation.

The needs and reactions of adults during a separation are very different to children so we looked at information on how different age groups deal with the situation and what their needs might be.

Although their children were older I included information on the 8-year-old group in our discussions as every child develops at a different pace. Also, when under stress children may temporarily regress to a younger pattern of behaviour. (NB adults can do this too!) 

8-year-olds are no longer small children but don't have adolescent coping mechanisms either. They may appear to be coping, sensible and composed, but underneath may be fearful confused or depressed.

9-11 year olds rely on the parents for stability, and are inclined to be 'black and white' thinkers. Siding with one parent is common, typically with the parent who is ‘left'. The child expresses pity, worry, fear of abandonment, and fear of punishment - alliances offer safety and security. They risk being pitched into premature adolescent behaviour without the adolescent's maturity of thought. In this age range, parent-child boundaries may be crossed (this can happen at earlier ages) and the child may try to become any of the following:

  • parent to the parent - nurturer, comforter

  • replacement spouse/partner

  • 'just good friends' - sibling with parent

An early adolescent (11-16 ) may intellectualise/rationalise when stressed, as well as resort to contempt or denigration - 'stupid, incompetent adults'.
Adolescents are troubled by parents' behaviour and concerned about moral issues - goodness, right and wrong. They may fear for their own futures and capacities to make relationships. They can also understand, accept and feel relieved at parental decisions.

Girls may plunge into various prematurely adult behaviours ­ housekeeping, organising, focussing solely on studies, promiscuity, and in some extremes running away from home.
Boys may have discipline problems at home and school and in extremes may be violent. They may have difficulty in separating from or leaving single mothers.

Once Julia and James had discussed how they thought their children might react we moved on to consider what their own needs might be and how they would differ from those of the children.

  • The adult needs to emotionally detach from their partner, but a child needs to maintain attachments to both parents.

  • The adult needs to accept ending and the reality of the loss, but a child will want to maintain the fantasy of parental reconciliation. This can persist unspoken for years, even after a remarriage. Disturbed behaviour when this occurs can be linked with the challenging of the fantasy.

  • Many adults believe the children will prefer the parents to separate rather than be in an unhappy home. Children tend to a clear preference for the parents to stay together whatever the degree of conflict or unhappiness, the exception being among more mature adolescents.

  • Parents may be tempted to retreat from telling the children as it feels too painful or difficult, but children need more information, clear, simple and unbiased.

James and Julia recognised that they had been less available to their children as they were being less mutually supportive and had neglected usual routines, but a child`s need is for more attention and stronger parenting.

They were also aware of blurring the boundary of parenting for their own need for love, comfort, and reassurance. It is important for parents to stay in role so that the child can stay as a child.

Separating adults need to be able to express feelings of anger, rejection and guilt and accept their feelings of distress, instability and low self-esteem. The child's need is for unconditional love and acceptance. It is hard to cope with disapproval.

Working together on the needs and the management of their children helped Julia and James to regain some of the skills of cooperation and negotiating. This meant they felt more confident about proceeding with the separation more amicably and better prepared to support their children through the difficult times ahead.

The solo counselling for James which followed was all the more useful to him as he had already identified some of his own needs and concerns in the joint sessions and could move on with greater awareness and focus.

Suggested reading

Moving On - Breaking up without breaking down, by Suzie Hayman, one of the Relate relationship series published by Vermillion, 2001, £9.99

After the affair - How to build trust and love again, by Julia Cole, Relate series published by Vermillion, 1999, £6.99

There is also a very helpful set of 5 free Government booklets and leaflets developed by childcare and family support practitioners for the Lord Chancellor's Dept. These are designed as guides for parents and for children and are full of very good information, telephone numbers of helpful contacts, booklists for children and activities for them to do alone or with parents.

These are available from many Relate Centres, local libraries, Citizen's Advice Bureaux and the Gov't website: They can be obtained by post from: FREEPOST, PO Box 2001, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH15 8BR. 

Please don't send any confidential information to

To view previous articles  - see the Relationship Counselling & Advice Index page  




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