John and Audrey, both in their late 30s, were successful in their respective careers. They were taking on managerial roles in their companies and were frequently away from home due to their work commitments. On top of their careers, they had to attend to their school-going children and look after their elderly parents who require medical support and attention.
With their heavy financial commitments, they knew the importance of having their jobs so that they could support their family and live the lifestyle they had always yearned for. John and Audrey had little time for themselves and over the years, they drifted further apart from each other. They constantly quarrelled over family issues and started to build resentment against each party. John started to stay away from home to avoid conflicts and Audrey was frustrated having to care for the family all by herself. Daily quarrels soon escalated to domestic violence and their children were traumatised by what was happening at home. By then, the couple knew that divorce would be imminent as they had lost hope in their marriage.
When marriage falls apart
The above is a common story that Singapore couples seeking divorce share. According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, the median age for divorce in 2017 for men was 43.2 and 39.8 for women. This is usually the life stage where both parties are busy juggling career, parenting and caring for elderly parents.
In my experience as a marital counsellor, many couples, in the midst of balancing multiple responsibilities and roles, tend to place their marriage in the backseat, putting greater priority on other aspects of life such as parenting and finances. When they come to realise that their marital relationship has fallen apart, it would take a tremendous amount of effort by both parties to reconcile or find resolution. Some couples may have the mindset that counselling will not change their situation as they perceive their marriage to be hopeless. Often, they also see counselling as a long and arduous process, and getting a divorce seems a quicker and “less painful” resolution.
Not all is lost. While the process can be long and challenging, couples who try to seek counselling to rebuild their marriage may find themselves in a stronger, healthier place.
Research shows that couples therapy is effective for treating marital distress, with an estimated 70% of couples showing improvement. Another study shows that about two-thirds of couples in therapy experience an enhanced marital relationship, which is better than 70% to 80% of couples who do not go through therapy. A meta-analysis also found that marital distress is an issue that usually does not improve without intervention, hence underscoring the significant role of counselling in improving marriages.
Research shows that couples therapy is effective for treating marital distress, with an estimated 70% of couples showing improvement.
Impact of divorce on children
An acrimonious divorce can have a negative impact on children; many children struggle to understand why their families are not able to stay intact. I have met children who put the blame on themselves; such feelings of guilt have led some children to develop depression and other behavioural issues. Others also experience a decline in their mental and emotional wellbeing. In addition, they may face challenges adapting to new routines such as travelling between two different homes after their parents’ separation.
Acrimonious divorce can have a negative impact on children; many children struggle to understand why their families are not able to stay intact
An 8-year-old boy I counselled previously used a pencil to inflict pain on his knuckles as a means to vent his anger over his parents’ separation. In another case, a 14-year-old boy was trying very hard to bring his parents together by creating intentional opportunities for family meals and celebrations. However, he fell into depression when he realised that his attempts were futile. This took a toll on his studies as well.
In cases where acrimonious disputes over custody are present, children often experience confusion when parents attempt to gain their allegiance through showing favoritism or making concessions to negative behaviour. As a result, parents may be more permissive or fail to set boundaries for their children in the areas of discipline. In the long run, such indulgence could result in more behavioural and socio-emotional issues in growing children.
Three A’s to recovery
For couples going through the recovery process, the following steps are recommended:
1. Avoid criticising and blaming each other
While both parties are likely to feel wounded, it is best to avoid further criticism and blame as these would further deepen the hurt.
The success of a marriage requires two parties to work together. If need be, create a support system and talk to a same-gender person whom you trust for support when you feel down. Continue to seek professional counselling in this journey of recovery with your spouse.
2. Appreciate the ‘NOW’
Many couples tend to look into the past and blame themselves or each other for the current situation. Others may keep focusing on the future and worry where their marriage would lead to. Take one day at a time and appreciate that you are making an effort to restore and rebuild the marriage.
3. Affirm your children
Assure your children that they are loved. Depending on the child’s age, you can explain to them that both of you are going through some challenges and working towards resolving them. There is no need to go into detail. However, continue to support them and appreciate them for who they are.
It is important for couples in crisis to seek help from a professional counsellor early. The longer the problem is left unchecked, the worse the strain on the relationship, and the longer it will take to heal and rebuild the marriage.
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About Theresa Pong:
Theresa Pong is currently the Head, Counselling & Principal Counsellor with Focus on the Family. With a decade of experience, She empowers individuals, couples, and families to deal constructively with challenges such as marital conflict, divorce, abuse, and depression. She also works extensively with children and youths, equipping them with skills to cope with stress and trauma. Drawing on various psychotherapy techniques, Theresa supports her clients in finding courage, resilience and inner strength to heal from their pain, and work towards growth and reconciliation in their personal lives and relationships.