We must change the language of divorce

It’s time to change the language of divorce, says mediator Helen Adam, in an important article published in the UK’s Family Law journal. Unless we think carefully about the language we use, then familiar stock words and phrases “will think your thoughts for you”, she says, quoting George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. The subject of family breakdown is dominated by “the language of aggression and conflict”. It’s time that changed.

As a long-time mediator and Chair of the Family Solutions Group, commissioned and championed by the UK’s top family law judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, Helen has seen the impacts of this use of language first-hand. Terms like “custody battle” are deeply engrained in the UK’s national understanding of family breakdown, she says. They are commonly used throughout our society by politicians, journalists and others. But, it’s “confusing for parents, and the young people whose lives are affected, to be thrust into a vocabulary of justice and conflict.”

“A national presumption that family breakdown is managed by adversarial litigation is unhelpful; it exacerbates conflict and too many children are harmed by it. Equally, language that unequivocally promotes a continuing parenting relationship will put some families at risk of ongoing abuse. An automatic expectation of cooperative parenting may be actively dangerous for a minority of families.”

A parent 100% of the time!

“What about the concept of 50:50 shared care? I’m very happy to share my cake with you 50:50 so we each get to eat half, but I wouldn’t do that with a child; it speaks more of asserting my rights as a parent, than meeting a child’s needs. The law says parents remain responsible for their child 100% of the time, regardless of where their child might be at any time. The starting point is therefore 100:100 and, within that, to find practical arrangements that work well so the child can enjoy a close and nurturing relationship with both parents. Those arrangements may end up being something broadly equivalent to 50:50, but they must fit the child’s needs. This is all about reframing language away from a parental assertion of rights to an understanding of child welfare.”