Think about the children

Balancing act: Children can find themselves torn between divorced parents with different parenting styles.

FOR many of the liberal Hollywood types, Nov 8, was a dark day. But for Brad Pitt, it might have been one of the brightest days he has had in a while – well, since his estranged wife Angelina Jolie filed for divorce in September after two years of marriage and some 10 years of being together.

The Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services cleared the acclaimed actor of wrongdoing after the agency’s investigation into an alleged incident of physical and verbal abuse involving Pitt and his oldest child Maddox, 15.

The decision has opened the way for Pitt to fight for joint custody of the couple’s six children – after Maddox there are Pax, 12; Zahara, 11; Shiloh, 10; and twins Knox and Vivienne, 8.

In a custody battle that is getting dirtier than the recent US presidential elections, Jolie is reportedly seeking sole physical custody of their children due to the differences in their parenting styles.

While it is difficult to discern between what is real and what is rumour in the media frenzy, according to an American daily, while Maddox had refused to see his father on Pitt’s first supervised visit with the children, his younger siblings wanted to stay with their father.

It only goes to show that no matter how privileged they are, children are affected emotionally when their parents split up.

It is definitely true here in Malaysia, according to the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN).

Dr Mohanraj: Divorce may be the better solution for couples that don’t get along.
Dr Mohanraj: Divorce may be the better solution for couples that don’t get along.

Based on the findings of its most recent Malaysian Population and Family Survey (conducted in 2014), 90% of divorced couples have children who have suffered and may suffer emotional complications from their parents’ break up.

This is supported by Malaysian Mental Health Association deputy president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj, who in his book Battling Adversity describes divorce as one of the most devastating life events in the development of a child.

As he puts it, divorce usually inflicts depression and anxiety on young children, which are sometimes manifested as bed –wetting, temper tantrums and refusing to go to school.

Older children and adolescents usually react to divorce by “acting out” – many become more independent, aggressive or rebellious.

He adds, the older child may also start breaking “rules” as they hold on to the notion that if their parents cannot follow the society’s rule of staying married, why should they be rule-abiding.

The pain and deep psychological distress of divorce can leave permanent scars that can manifest in their characters as adults, he notes.

Still, Dr Mohanraj believes divorce sometimes is the better solution for couples who feel they can no longer live together.

“If parting ways is truly the only solution, then it is better to get divorced than living together in misery especially when children can suffer more as a result of living in an environment of perpetual unhappiness, conflict or insecurity,” he writes.

Toh: Couples should talk about what they would do for their children’s welfare.
Toh: Couples should talk about what they would do for their children’s welfare.

What is important, he stresses, is the welfare of the children.

“When divorce is inevitable, the welfare of children must never be neglected.”

Psychological distress and permanent scars can be minimised by “establishing orderly visitation schedule, being lovingly attached to the children as before and a strong commitment to making the post-divorce arrangement work,” Dr Mohanraj advises.

One question that has been playing on the minds of many since news of the “Brangelina break-up” broke out is, can you have a prenuptial arrangement on custody of children?

Why didn’t Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sign a pre-nup on their children’s welfare should they divorce? They can definitely afford it after all, and many of the rich and famous in the US have pre-nups on their dogs, car collection and record collection!

Unfortunately, pre-nups are mainly for material possessions, says Toh Lee Khim, a family law expert from Low and Partners.

“But I believe it is important for marrying couples to sit down before their wedding, or as early as when they are dating, and talk about the scenario of how they would arrange for their children’s welfare should they get divorced.

“They should discuss custody, financial plan and child maintenance ... It will help you see how you want to proceed together in life. It will also ensure that you and your partner are on the same page and heading to the right place,” says Toh, adding that at the very least, it will give you a good picture of your future spouse and how he or she will handle children in the future.

Concurring, fellow family lawyer Datuk Andy Low Hann Yong shares that he has handled quite a number of cases of couples splitting up because they couldn’t agree on how to raise their children.

“For example, some cited ‘irreconcilable differences’ or general incompatibility for their divorce, but what it really meant was that they could not agree on which type of school their children should attend – Chinese school or national school.”

This is why he always encourages his clients to have that “children talk” when they see him to get a pre-nup, he says.

“Some might say it is premature, but our experience shows it really helps the couple understand each other better.”

According to Low, the number of people getting pre-nups is going up in Malaysia, “I suppose what terrifies people now is the divorce rate which is going up every year.”

He adds, although pre-nups are not legally binding in Malaysia, they can be used in divorce proceedings to safeguard their rights and welfare when the marriage breaks down.

“Marriage is still a contract, so you need an exit clause for the worst case scenario,” Low opines.

For Toh, who says she is getting married soon, the choice of pre-nups has given her more confidence in the marriage institution.

“While I believe effective communication is important when you decide to take that big step of exchanging vows with someone, with a pre-nup you can plan things to the smallest detail and make arrangements for the future, just in case, from financial plan to children’s tuition.”

Conceding that you cannot value a relationship by contract, a pre-nup can be a mutual agreement to handle the bad times in a mature and responsible way, she says.

“You can word it as a mutual agreement on how you will try your best in the marriage. And if your best is not good enough or anything bad happens in the marriage, you will leave in good terms and raise the kids together in a way that will not jeopardise their future.”

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