29 October 2004

Unhappily ever after?

And they didn't live happily ever after. Could this happen to you? Not a cheerful thought when you're walking down the aisle.

And they didn't live happily ever after. Could this happen to you? Not a cheerful thought when you're walking down the aisle.

It is impossible for two people to be in a relationship and never have differences. Couples who boast about not having had a fight in decades are either lying, or one of them has long since decided that it is simply easier to just give in to the demands of the other – whether reasonable or not, according to Ilse Pauw, Cape Town psychologist.

But in many relationships there comes a time when people stand back and wonder whether they should shape up or ship out. In some cases, when there is abuse, or the situation has become intolerable for some other reason, it could be time to leave.

What are the things you should consider when making this far-reaching decision?

Abuse. Whether this is emotional, verbal, physical or sexual, abuse has devastating effects on your sense of self and your ability to relate to others, including your children. Some people stay in abusive relationships, because of the children – don't forget that your children are taking their cues on how to conduct a relationship from the example they are seeing. Sometimes getting out is the best thing you can do for them. And it may also save your life. Never underestimate threats to your life or those of your children – many women who are murdered, are killed by partners or spouses. And all those women thought they could control the situation in some way.

Kids. In many divorces, bitter custody battles end in acrimonious mudslinging matches, in which the children are ultimately the victims. Unless there is evidence of abuse by one of the parents or one of them has addiction problems, or is homeless and unemployed, courts usually award custody to the mother, with visitation rights to the father. Sole custody, where one parent loses all custodial and access rights to the child, is very seldom given. Joint custody, in practice, usually means that the child spends every second weekend with the one parent, usually the father, and the rest of the time with the other parent, usually the mother. If your spouse stops you from leaving by threatening to take the children away from you, chances are high it'll be impossible.

Kids' schools. Kids and their schools are also worth considering. They are about to experience an upheaval in their lives if their parents separate. If at all possible, they should be kept in the same schools as they currently are, if just for some semblance of normality. But if a change of school is inevitable, don't beat yourself up about it – children are by nature quite adaptable.

Affairs. Being subjected to the devastating effects of constant affairs on the part of your spouse, is not healthy for your general sense of well being. If it's a once-off, it may be just a wake-up call for your marriage, but if he/she is a serial philanderer, it's time to look after yourself and get out. Who knows, you might be lucky and meet someone who can appreciate you for what you are and no longer be at the mercy of someone else's flirtatious addictions. And it's bad for your children too.

Addiction problems. By all means, stand by someone who is having a crisis with drink or drugs, but if it becomes a lifelong merry-go-round of getting clean and going on a drinking or drugs binge, get out. Ultimately you cannot take responsibility for someone else's drinking or drugging problem – don't feel you can't leave, because they need you to look after them. Ever thought of the fact that your presence and care might be the very thing enabling them to continue with their addiction?

Employment prospects. If you've been working all along, you shouldn't have a problem, but if you haven't, you might need to take a look at your qualifications and employment possibilities. If you're a geneticist and you've been living in Kamieskroon on a farm for the past ten years, you might have to consider moving.

Health. Are you on your spouse's medical aid or hospital plan? Which provisions will be made for medical insurance should you separate? This is an important consideration, especially if either of you are not particularly healthy and may need medical care.

Accommodation. If you were to leave, where would you live? Do you have relatives or friends who could accommodate you (and possibly your children) for a few weeks, until you get a place of your own? Or maybe a granny flat you can rent for a while? You need a roof over your head, while you're making long-term plans. If your situation is not life-threatening, it is best to stay in a relationship until you have saved enough money to be able to afford your own place. You can hardly say, "I'm leaving you – can you give me a couple of thousand?"

Finances. Before leaving a spouse, you need to make sure that you are financially looked after (that is, unless your life is in danger, in which case the clothes on your back are enough for the moment). See a lawyer and check out legalities regarding issues like maintenance, joint assets, pension provisions and joint policies. Many people do not realise how divorce can change their financial situation – mostly for the worse. Courts tend to go for single settlements these days, rather than ongoing maintenance, unless there are kids involved. But if you are really unhappy, financial stability is not really an excuse to stay. It is better to be poor and happy, than well-off and desperate.

Family considerations. One or both of your parents might be living with you, or there are other family commitments that could play a role in your decision. If any of your kids need special attention, for whatever reason, this must be taken into account when planning the separation or divorce.

Your support structure. Galvanise that support structure before you up and leave. You will need the ongoing support of family and friends to get you through this difficult time. If your support structure is wanting, as it often is if you've been in an abusive relationship for many years, make a concerted effort to reconnect with old friends. A dinner invitation when you're felling really low might be real lifesaver.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24)


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