Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia)

When divorce makes a grown man cry

By Jenny Wills
The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney)
5 August 2001, Page 93

The plight of men after a marriage breakdown is too often overlooked, sometimes at terrible cost. Jenny Wills reports.

Rob would come home from work at 3pm each day and there, waiting at the gate, would be his two children and the dog. He would make their dinner, feed them, bath them and put them to bed with a story. But that counted for nothing when Rob's wife left him.

Suddenly, he was removed from their lives, allocated one weekend a fortnight in which to see them and ordered to hand over child-support payments that left him with $12,000 a year to live on.

The final straw came when his wife moved 400km away, taking the children with her.In utter despair, Rob contemplated ending his life. But with support from his family he battled on, travelling the distance to see his children and managing to just cope. Rob lived - but, tragically, hundreds of dads in similar situations do not.

Separated men have the highest suicide rate in Australia. The figure is 18 times greater than that for separated women, yet this horrendous statistic receives scant attention. There's a scarcity of good research about the suicide rate of separated men because of the way in which the data is collected. When a separated man commits suicide, he is automatically classified as married, his death hidden within a group with the lowest rate of suicide.

Dr Chris Cantor, whose 1995 study identified the alarming suicide rate of separated men, tried without success to gain funding for further research. "Youth suicide became the focus, which was quite correct," Dr Cantor says. "But it's about time to start addressing some of the other priority areas."

Statistics also paint a sorry picture of the family of the future. Some 46 per cent of first marriages fail, 50 per cent of second and 60 per cent of third. And nobody denies that the 70,000 Australian marriages that crumble each year will probably have catastrophic consequences for all the parties involved.

Single mothers are one of the most disadvantaged groups in our society, and children caught between the warring factions inevitably suffer. But it's becoming increasingly obvious that men, often forgotten in the family equation, are also faring poorly after their marriages break up.

Dr Cantor's study found that suicides among divorced males and females follow a similar pattern. But the differences are dramatic among separated people.

"Suicide among divorced males and females is about three times higher than the married rate," he says. "Among separated people, the female rate is just under double, but the male rate goes up sixfold. You can't say for certain that issues associated with separation were the triggering factor, but it points that way.

"There are other things which are interesting to consider.

"One of them is how much of the high suicide rate during separation might be due to a male tendency to solve problems with violence, and how much they may relate to the fragility of the male emotional system."

What is clear is that the most at-risk time for men is the period immediately after separation.

One contributing factor is that in 70 per cent of cases, it's women who do the leaving - putting the lie to the myth of the happy divorced man swapping his wife for a younger model.

Geoff Price, one of the founders of the men's support group MENDS (Men Exploring New Directional Strategies), says women generally sign off on a relationship years before they leave.

"In that time, a lot of these women have time to plan their financial, logistical and parenting future and grieve their loss," says Price.

"For many men when the separation comes it is a surprise. They are starting from ground zero in terms of re-imagining what their roles are.

"At the same time they get separated from the closest person in the world to them, they [also] get separated from their children."

Peter Jordan, a Family Court counsellor for 20 years and now in private practice, says the issue of timing is critical particularly when children are involved.

"Men need space and time but it is important to try to help people within the first 12 months. They need to be heard, to learn from it and decide I can go on," he says.

"The danger is that they just blame everyone else and it is like a festering sore. They can stay angry, bitter or guilty. They get locked in revenge things against all women, the Child Support Agency, the Family Court."

And the Family Court continually emerges as the enemy among disaffected men.

The injustice for them is that having taken an equal share in parenting during the marriage, they are denied the right to do so after separation.

For a mother to receive full child support payment she must be the custodial parent - variations on the usual arrangement whereby the child spends every second weekend with the father lead to lower payments.

What may be in the best interests of the child become submerged in a battle for money.

Alan Grochulski, a clinical nurse consultant in mental health at Royal North Shore Hospital, says men who reach the point of hopelessness are overwhelmed by the loss of their children and the financial burden of keeping two households.

"The ones in the worst situation have one income, not usually substantial, some have mortgages and they're paying rent.

"But they're also dealing with issues of loss, sorrow and grief."

The Supporting Parents Referral Service, a Federal government-funded pilot program has been set up to help parents find the right support and advice in the early stage following marital breakdown. Run by a partnership of Unifam, Uniting Care Burnside and Wesley Dalmar, its focus is on the non-resident parent, which in 95 per cent of cases is the father.

Unifam executive director Clive Price says the aim is to assist fathers one-to-one so their lives and children's lives are better post-separation.

"What parents most need is clear information, advice and support at that time,'' says Price. "Part of the intention of this is to connect really early and try to assess with the man what their needs are."

While the program is funded by the Child Support Agency and will take referrals during the pilot stage from Penrith CSA, it operates independently.

"This pilot is very much a program where experienced staff can work closely with non-resident fathers - not with an emphasis on their payments," says Price. "It is important we are independent. Even though we are funded by CSA, we are not part of it."

Price, like others involved in providing services for men, is concerned that this program not be viewed as in some way taking sides in the marital conflict.

"It is not that we now have a focus on men but we are better at including men in our broader perspective of families. Even though we work with men we are probably even more interested in the benefits that flow to kids," he says.

However, the disenchantment of non-resident fathers with their lot after separation can be seen in the growing number of men's support and lobby groups, angry over being virtually sidelined in the parenting process.

Says Geoff Price: "If you calculate that there are 53,000 divorces a year, 70,000 when you take into account de facto, over five years that is 350,000 marriages.

"If they have two kids that's 700,000 children affected by marriage break-up in that time. Eighty per cent of those kids go to bed most nights without a father in the house.

"I think the rate of marriage breakdown and disaffection of men from their children is building a potentially miserable consequence for our children.

"We are going to have a generation of thousands of children who suffer from the effect of not really knowing their father."

'Suddenly, I have no rights'

"Geoff" tells of the turmoil of being shunted from primary carer to weekend dad.

The marriage was dead long before I ended it. The kids were being brought into the conflict.

I never anticipated not having the children. I thought, 'How could a court not see they're close to me?'

Emotionally, I was shocked at what happened. Suddenly, the mother has the children and I have no rights. There's a feeling the children are owned by one parent, and the one who doesn't have the children is in the back seat.

It's like you don't exist - but in reality, you exist to pay money. In the past financial year, 70 per cent of what I've earned has gone in child support, mortgage payments and outgoings for the house.

On $200 to $300 a week, I have to maintain this unit and care for the kids 40 per cent of the time. And to do that, I have to borrow money.

It's hard to get on with your life when you're in litigation. The first hearing ended with an order that I could see the children one day a week. No holidays, no overnights.

A month later, we went back to court and I was allowed the children once every two weeks. Last year, they changed it further, and this year it shifted to every weekend, including Sunday nights, and one afternoon after school.

It's hard to get on with your life when you're in litigation, because everything is about the past. You're continually having to relive your past.

Time heals, but how can it heal if all the time you're having to dig it all up again?

At the beginning, I was too tearful. If anyone mentioned the court case or the children, I would cry.

Your reserves are all gone, and you realise that you're emotionally empty.

I had heard about the bitterness of divorce, the negatives, but I thought that even in this horrible situation I would get better as a person.

It sounds corny, I know, but I had to for myself and the children. If you're not capable within yourself and coping, how can you be any good for your children?

I had counselling once a week, beginning in February last year, because I was a mess. Now I go once a month. The first issue was the children, because they weren't coping with the separation. I was angry, so upset. I would say to my counsellor: 'I'm sick of crying, my emotions are up and down and I'm broke.'

I went to a course at Relationships Australia. I was the only guy in a group of eight people. These women were talking about having the children and working and being tired, and I thought: 'How lucky you are.' I didn't go again.

Then I read a newspaper article about MENDS. I remember going to the 12-week course thinking, 'I am the victim of injustice. I am financially crippled, heavily in debt.' But if you feel you're a victim, you can get stuck in it. The last thing I wanted was a group where they'd be sledging their partners. I wanted a group that was about self-development.

I've met guys who can tell me they love their children and are actively involved in their care, but feel helpless because of a system that constantly makes you feel like a criminal. If you try to make contact with your children, you will be arrested.

I was a mess then, but now I'm more confident. My dream of a happy marriage is not over. I'm not afraid to fail.

The Family Law Act prevents publication of Geoff's real name.

© 2001 Mirror Australian Telegraph Publications