By Simone Frizell Reiter
According to Statistics Norway, around 10,000 children under the age of 18 in Norway experience divorce every year. These numbers do not take into account non-married couples that split up. Therefore, in reality far more children experience parental separation.
Status of knowledge
Focus has been on the adversity of parental divorce, emphasising the support and safety an intact family gives. The child may experience conflict, neglect or parental alienation, and insecurity about who belongs to the family. Not only the separation itself but also the period preceding and following the divorce may disturb the child’s well-being. Several studies show that parental conflict, that may be harmful to the child, is perpetuated even after the divorce. However, other studies show that when the parents are able to reduce the level of conflict after the divorce, the divorce is not exclusively negative if the child is moved from a family situation with conflicts to a more harmonious one. Society’s attitude toward divorce has changed as divorce has become more common. Prejudice and stigma are less pronounced. A natural assumption is therefore that mental problems related to divorce are also reduced. However, more recent studies conclude that adults, who experienced divorce in childhood, have more mental health problems than adults from intact families.
Divorce and reduced parental contact are closely linked. Children with loss of parental contact after divorce report more mental health complaints compared to children with preserved contact. Lack of attention, support, and economic insecurity may explain some of the negative effects of a parent’s absence. However, even when provided with at step-parent after divorce, these children report a lower level of well-being than children with preserved parental contact. Biological parents therefore seem to be of particular importance. Regular and frequent contact with both parents after divorce may also reduce the potential harmful effects of parental absence as seen in sole-custody households. Parental support is an important, independent risk factor to children’s sense of achievement and well-being. It is shown that as children’s relationship with their fathers weakens after divorce, they also lose contact with paternal grandparents and stepfamily.
Studies show that when divorce is followed by strong conflict, children may be used as a weapon between the parents. In such conflicts contact with one of the parents may be limited or brought to an end. The child is forced to ally with one of the parents, and suffers from the psychological stress this causes.
Family law in Western societies generally aims at preserving dual parental contact for the child after divorce. This is also the aim of the Norwegian legislation. The Norwegian Child Act states that the parents may come to an agreement on where the child should primarily reside. However, if the parents cannot agree on this, the court has to decide which one of the parents the child should stay with. In practical life this has, in most cases, been the mother, while the father has been reduced to a weekend parent. Due to this, the experience in Norway is that when it comes to loss of parental contact, children of divorce primarily lose contact with the father. This effect is in some cases strengthened by the primary caregiver intentionally sabotaging the other parent’s visitation rights. To prevent this, the Norwegian legislation has sanctions, but these are very rarely used. A suggestion has been to introduce shared residence as a preferred solution after parental divorce, and that parents who sabotage this agreement may get restrictions on their contact with the child.
Most parents choose to take an active role in their child’s upbringing, and only a small group is absent, either by choice or circumstances. Therefore, social benefit systems have built in mechanisms to compensate the lacking of the absent parent by high financial contributions to sole providers left alone in charge. The downside of these benefits is that one of the parents can gain financially on monopolising the contact with the child and in some cases the sole provider actively sabotages or reduces the other parent’s contact, only to gain financially. This mechanism is strengthened by the Norwegian child maintenance system, where the level of economic support is linked to the amount of time spent with the child. Parents who share the custody in equal parts do not pay any child maintenance to each other. The combination of the systems has turned many fathers in to “child maintenance machines” because the mother would lose so much financially, sharing the custody of the child with the father. The benefits therefore undermine the aim to gain shared custody, and deprive the father of the possibility to have a close relationship with his child.
The concept of “parental alienation syndrome” is used to describe the condition where the child is alienated against one of the parents. If the government wants the children’s voice to be heard in custody conflicts, they must take into account that the child is already involved in a process of demonization and slander of one of the parents. From the literature, we know the term folie à deux. The government should be careful not to act in a game that can be characterized as folie à troi (madness shared by three).
In practice, it is difficult to have an equal amount of contact with both parents unless the child lives in two places equally. What is important to consider is whether advantages of maintaining a close relationship with both parents outweigh the disadvantages of having to change residence, for instance every week or every second week. Equally shared legal custody is not the same as having the child living in two residences fifty-fifty.
The experience is that the Child Act’s intention of parental agreement on a solution of custody between equal parties does not work. This is because the court, when presented the case, is legally bound to choose a single residence and almost exclusively chooses the mother.
On the basis of this knowledge it is important that the government puts effort in protecting the child’s right to have contact with both parents. This work must be as unprejudiced as possible. It is not acceptable that we continue with a practice in which the legislation allows the systematic favoring of one part in conflicted divorces.
Simone Frizell Reiter is a PhD candidate in the Department of Clinical Medicine at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the author of the paper ‘Impact of divorce and loss of parental contact on health complaints among adolescents’, which appears in The Journal of Public Health.
The Journal of Public Health aims to promote the highest standards of public health practice internationally through the timely communication of current, best scientific evidence.