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E19: Men and divorce

On the Show Today You’ll Learn

In this episode Ben and Heather talk with special guest Jean Clayton, CEO of Bridging the Gap Community Services which runs the Men’s Resource Centre, about how men experience divorce and separation. The program explores how men may differ from women in their experience of divorce, the trauma of family separation and the impact on self-identity.

Topics covered include:

  1. The stress of divorce, how to manage it and how stress can impact legal outcomes.
  2. Do men experience more health problems after divorce?
  3. How does divorce impact on a man’s sense of self identify.
  4. How can men maintain strong relationships with their children after divorce.
  5. Re-partnering too quickly after divorce.
  6. Is family law inherently gender biased?

Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Bridging the Gap is a safe space for the men, women and youth of the Coffs Coast who are doing it tough.

Men’s Resource Centre, operated by Bridging the Gap Community Services, is a safe space where men can gather and talk, receive counselling, and attend programs.

Triple P Parenting Program NSW

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Family Matters Show

Benjamin Bryant: Hello everyone and welcome back to The Family Matters Show podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Bryant from Bryant McKinnon Lawyers, and today we are recording our final show for 2020. As usual, I’m joined by my business partner and family law specialist, Heather McKinnon. I don’t know about you Heather, but I’m pretty relieved to see the end of this very strange year.

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, what a challenging year Ben. We certainly didn’t think this time last year we’d have bushfires, Covid and everything else that comes with it.

Benjamin Bryant: Yeah, I certainly second that. Before I get into today’s topic, I’d just like to remind listeners that we welcome all feedback and questions in confidence. We try very hard to make sure we cover any questions that come in on the following show. So you and the whole community get the benefit of our thoughts on your concerns. If you do have questions, you can e-mail us in confidence at familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au or message us on Facebook.  Also, please do feel free to share the show with friends and family who might be just starting on their journey of separation. The earlier we can be there to provide answers the better.

Benjamin Bryant: Now back to today’s show. To end this year we are going to tackle a somewhat sensitive subject: the gender differences, real and imagined, between how men and women experience divorce and separation. For this episode, we’re going to focus on the experience of men. Before going any further, I want to emphasise that we recognise that everyone experiences life and trauma differently. So while we will try and tackle this topic as best we can, we are likely to speak in generalities. Sometimes this may feel over simplified or inconsistent with your personal experience. For that, we apologise in advance. If you feel strongly about anything you hear on today’s show, we welcome your comments and feedback.

Benjamin Bryant: That said, I’m delighted to welcome our special guest who will be helping us to discuss men and divorce. Jean Clayton is the CEO of Bridging the Gap Community Services, which runs the Men’s Resource Center here in Coffs Harbour. The Men’s Resource Center has been running since 2005 and it’s helped over 8000 local men and families. They provide individualised support, including counselling, self-help programs, financial and legal guidance, food and emergency accommodation. As CEO, Jane has helped so many men recover from traumas, including the trauma of divorce and separation. Thank you, Jane, for being a voice for these men on our little podcast program.

Jean Clayton: Thank you, Ben.

Benjamin Bryant: You will be fantastic Jean and Heather, of course, will also be here to help answer questions about the legal system and its implications for men. So let’s get started.

The Men’s Resource Centre

Benjamin Bryant: So Jean, to kick us off, could you give us a bit of a background about your work at the Men’s Resource Centre?

Jean Clayton:  My work at Men’s Resource Center started when I left uni back in 2005. I was working for the Department of Community Services, and it was working with volunteers to help families in need a couple of hours a week. And as I went round to them families, I noticed that the gentlemen were feeling that they were separate from the situation and they was asking me how do I get involved to build my relationship back And there was one particular day where a gentleman said to me that if he hadn’t spoke to someone, he was thinking of suiciding that day. So hence why I left my paid job and decided to open up in the community to help prevent suicide in men, which is mostly attached to separation or divorce.

Benjamin Bryant: And since 2005, Jean, what’s happening with the Men’s Resource Center has an increased in size. Is it just you on your own? What’s happening?

Jean Clayton: No, no, no. We have grown in size. We’re still unfunded, unpaid, but we have a wonderful, educated team.  Some have retired and come bring in their expertise to the service. We have been given a beautiful home to work out of. We’ve made it into our office and it’s just amazing. It lifts the profile of men when they walk through the door. It gives them a belonging.

Are there common features to how men experience the stress of divorce?

Benjamin Bryant: That’s incredibly inspirational, Jean. And going back to your experience with that gentleman that started your journey Of course, there’s a lot of stresses in everyone’s lives and in men’s lives. And one of those biggest stresses would be the time of separation. Arguably one of the most stressful times of someone’s life. And from your experience, what are some of the common features of how men experience stress?

Jean Clayton:  It’s really all over the shop because everyone sees stress and manages stress so differently. And it’s not really about men and women because we’ve known women to go through a lot of stress as well.

Benjamin Bryant:  One of the differences I think it’s fair to say, between men and women is that women are more open to support.

Jean Clayton: Definitely.

Benjamin Bryant:  Have a little support network already in place, whereas men don’t tend to. It’s very difficult sometimes for men to share their stories or their experiences, even with other men or with other with other people.

How does stress contribute to navigating the legal side of divorce?

Benjamin Bryant:  Heather, how does stress contribute to navigating the legal side of the divorce process?

Heather McKinnon: So I think when I have an initial consultation with a bloke, often it’s the first time they may have cried in front of another human as an adult. They’re very isolated. And often the shock of the divorce puts them into a state where they can’t think clearly.

Heather McKinnon: So what we know from studies is that well over half of the initiators of separation are women, so often the men are blindsided. They just had no idea it was going to happen. And as you and Jean were talking about, they don’t have that history of knowing where to go and get help or who to open up to. So often, as is the way with men in Australia since settlement, they turn to grog. I think alcohol abuse with blokes is much more pronounced than women. Women will use things like tranquiliser drugs, but men will hit the grog and that really impacts on their ability to make decisions.

Heather McKinnon: So when you and I see a man for the first time, if we pick up that he’s got that sort of isolation, then giving them permission to seek help through their GP or another mental health provider is really critical because, as Jean said, the biggest trigger for suicide in adult men will be the breakdown of the relationship. So often they are very vulnerable in those first few months, and it’s critical that they get a safe ear, but that we get them out of that trauma sort of decision making down to a more logical way. Have a look at what do they have to do financially. How did they get housing? How do they start seeing their kids? So you coalm them down and give them some sort of positive future rather than everything crowding in on them and feeling like it’s hopeless.

Benjamin Bryant: And do you agree with that Jean?

Jean Clayton: I think that was an outstanding… I agree 100 percent. I’m very surprised

The Men’s Resource Centre is a One Stop Shop

Benjamin Bryant: And what’s the referrals that you have at your centre in terms of the counselling and the self-help? Do you do that in-house or do you have counsellors that you refer to?

Jean Clayton:  We are a one stop shop for gentleman and their families. We’ve found in the past or in my professional past that you could send gentlemen out to go and see someone and they would get lost in between. So I decided to open up a shop where literally they only have to walk from one room to another. So it’s all in one spot so they don’t get lost.

Are men more susceptible to health problems during and after divorce?

Benjamin Bryant: There is a suggestion that men experience more health problems during and after divorce than women. This could be driven by anything from poor eating habits to self-medication with alcohol or drugs. Jean, is that a fair suggestion, do you find that the lack of self-care plays a part in outcomes for men that you work with?

Jean Clayton: Definitely, I think they just lose hope. They need balance. Everyone needs a balance to life and, you know, a partner to work with. So, yeah, they don’t look after themselves and they’ll go down because they feel unworthy.

Does the loss of self identity experienced in divorce differ based on gender?

Benjamin Bryant: And that notion of unworthy is a great segue into my next question. There’s no doubt that marriage is a key part of one’s identity and separation can mean a loss of identity in much the same way that losing a job might affect one’s sense of self. Heather, you deal with both male and female clients. Do you find that this loss of self identity is the same regardless of gender?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, I think it’s definitely one of the biggest issues at the time of separation. So if you’ve defined yourself… You know many people I see have been in a relationship for 20, 30, 40 years. It’s like pulling a rug out from under people and they have to navigate a really stormy sea to get to the other side.

Heather McKinnon: I think the difference with women is that they often identify primarily as a mother before they identify as a partner to a marriage. And so often what keeps them going is that they’ve got to make decisions for children. Whereas at the time of separation, many men feel like they’ve been cast out of the house and that they’ve lost their role as a parent as well as father. So one of the important things is to realise that under our family law system, all children are entitled to have a proper relationship with both mom and dad and to get men to understand that it’s not a gendered system.

Heather McKinnon: We keep having these myth in the community that for some reason, mums are up on a pedestal and dad has no role. Well, that’s as far from the truth as you can get. But certainly to navigate how to connect with kids takes attention to detail. And at the time that you lose a sense of where your place is, it’s often hard to navigate that, and that’s where things go wrong. So you’ll see large gaps where, at separation men just don’t see their kids for months at a time. And, it’s really important that we all understand that we need to keep telling the politicians to resource this area properly so that men don’t have that gap, because that gap is where the risks are for really tragic circumstances.

How can men regain their sense of self?

Benjamin Bryant: And Jean, how do you assist men who’ve lost their sense of self? How do you get their identity back?

Jean Clayton: Well, we have a number of programs but we do a lot of one on one. The good part about our service is we have a backyard where the gentlemen can sit. And gentlemen get to talk about their circumstances, as us women do when we go and have our coffee.

Jean Clayton:  We also give them a safe place to, you know, to be themselves out there. And, you know, gather from the other gentlemen that have gone through the same thing and they can say, “Oh mate you just sit on a bend.  Just keep it going, you know, just be calm just be cool. Just do what the girls say. In a sense, you know …

Jean Clayton: You know, sometimes people need direction and sometimes they haven’t been raised in a good direction. Children are born into a situation that they have no direction and these are the gentlemen that are growing up now that think that this was the right way or that way is the right way. They haven’t got a mentor in the sense.

Helping men to reconnect with their children

Benjamin Bryant: And Jean, we’ve heard from Heather about that sense of loss of identity and being disconnected from children. How do you help men reconnect with their children? Is that more than the one on one session that you’re talking about with the conversation?

Jean Clayton:  We run a program known as Triple P. It’s a positive parenting program. And the successfulness is we see the gentleman next year and the year after and the year after because some court cases can take up to seven years.

Benjamin Bryant: You don’t have to tell us. Just to clarify for our listeners, there’s different parenting programs out there, some where it’s for the primary carer or for the carer of children. Some it’s just open whether you have children or not. The course that you run, the Triple P Program is whether you have the children or not.

Jean Clayton:  The Triple P Program was originally available just for the custodial parent. So it was a closed program until we got access and asked permission for us to beef up the program to help the non-custodial parents, whether that be male or female.

A word of caution about re-partnering after divorce

Benjamin Bryant: There is an old saying when it comes to grief and loss. Women mourn and men replace. We had a good look for some statistics to test this theory. And the ABS studies show that men are more likely to remarry and remarry more quickly than women. Heather, I know you quite often end up handling second or third divorces. How might you caution anyone re-partnering after a divorce or separation?

Heather McKinnon: Well it’s important to look at history whenever we’re looking to move forward. And certainly the advice that I give most blokes that I see is be very careful that you have a gap and you start to understand why your last relationship failed. And I tell them, look, I can tell you, if you don’t do that work, you’ll be back here. And invariably five or six years later, they come back with their tail between their legs saying it happened again. What social scientists know is that if you don’t understand the reason that a relationship failed, you’re likely to just repeat that pattern until there’s some change. So it’s very hard to get somebody to stop, think and have a gap. And as you’ve said Ben, the ABS statistics speak for themselves, men are much more likely to remarry within a year or two of the breakdown of a long relationship. Same happens in situations where men are widowed, they will often remarry within a year of losing a spouse. Now, what the psychiatrists and psychologists train us is that that’s because rather than dealing with the grief, they postpone the grief by concentrating on moving forward in a new relationship. The honeymoon period ends and the same patterns re-occur that happened in the early relationship.

Heather McKinnon: So for me, after 40 years in practice, what I’d advise everybody to do is, if a relationship fails, get yourself into therapy. Get to do the hard work to understand what it was as Jean said about your family of origin that set up this pattern for failed relationships.What model did you get from your family about how to parent and how to live in relationships? If your childhood was flawed, if you did experience trauma, if you did have a pattern of parenting that’s dysfunctional, you need to get to understand what that meant you brought to the table in your adult relationships. There is no magic answer. You have to do the hard work.

Heather McKinnon: And as we’ve said, what many men do is mask that with substance abuse, with drinking, with drugs, with high-risk behaviour or new relationships. The adrenaline stops them dealing with the grief. It’s a message that’s time immemorial, when you enter through a dark period, you have to understand how to come out stronger and programs that are offered by Jean’s organisation, such as Triple P are exactly for that purpose. This is how you were disciplined by your parents. But have a look at what that made you feel Now, look at it a different way. How might you discipline different to the way your dad did with the belt, or withdrawing affection. Triple P gives really practical skills on best practice parenting. How can you change for this generation the way things are done so we don’t have constant resurfacing of the same old patterns?

Benjamin Bryant: That’s some sage advice Heather.

Benjamin Bryant: Jean, what about you? What about the men that you see? Are they people that have come through the ring before or as are a lot of first timers? So what do you what do you think?

Jean Clayton: Well, um, yes, we get both. We get both. And I agree with Heather. There’s a lot of work that everyone has to do. We look at the source and the way we deliver our findings actually gets heard. So I don’t know why we’re different to others, but we kind of get away with telling them, this is definitely wrong mate, you can’t do that. We can obviously see that this is a pattern. You need to be the one to break it.

Benjamin Bryant:  I think the key word is insight, because you can do a lot of programs and get a lot of certificates, a lot of completion awards and all sorts of things. But if you don’t have insight and that’s really what Heather was going to, it’s not worth anything. so I think what you’re saying is your centre has the tools to help really reach out of hand and help men understand what’s going on, the context and what it all means.

Jean Clayton: We do get some narcissists come through the door. That’s why we do a direct line. We don’t pussyfoot around.

Men and the family law system

Benjamin Bryant:  The Family Law Act never mentions mom, dad, male or female. That is, the legislation is not gendered at all. But I’m guessing some of the men at your centre don’t see it that way. And I think that the family law system is not fair to men at all. What is your experience on this? Is the family law system gendered? And if it is, where does it come from?

Jean Clayton: Well, it’s kind of like a trick question on the grounds I might be incriminated.

Jean Clayton: I have seen a lot of trickiness going on. I don’t see sometimes it’s fair, not at all. Not at all. I have seen outcomes that I’ve looked at and thought shocking. It’s breathtaking sometimes. And what’s the hardest part about that is telling the gentleman, don’t worry, we’ll go back because sometimes these men are telling the truth and it needs to be a mirror mirror. If you’re expecting the gentleman to do A, B and C, well, why shouldn’t the woman, if you’re expecting the woman to do A, B and C, why shouldn’t the man?

Benjamin Bryant: That’s right. And I think that’s a common experience for all litigants. I guess the system is that can be very inconsistent and unpredictable, discretionary, whereas with crime, you have guideline judgments, you have maximum/minimum penalties and that doesn’t exist in family law.

Benjamin Bryant: Heather, what is your experience of gender in the system.

Heather McKinnon: So when decisions are being made about children, we’re not looking at what a mom or dad brings to the table. What we’re looking at is what’s best for children. And it is important to understand that the Institute of Family Studies has just completed a longitudinal study on the impact of shared care, which in this community we’d know as week-on, week-off. It has proved disastrous for small children, infants and up to primary school age. Overwhelmingly, kids need security. They need to be in the one place and have a sense of home. So that’s different to what the system was looking at over the last 20 or 30 years. So what that means is that we have to look carefully at where home is provided. Is it provided by mom or dad. And as Jean said, most of the cases that we’re dealing with are ones where there is a level of dysfunction. So families that are high functioning don’t need access to our services. The cases that we see have as many dysfunctional moms as dysfunctional dads. Sage advice from one of my main mentors is that zebras breed with zebras. It’s likely that in every case where there’s family violence, substance abuse, mental illness that that’s there with both parents and that’s what Jean’s saying, that often we concentrate on one side of the equation more than the other. And so in my role as an independent children’s lawyer, where I’m sitting in the middle of the parents, I’m very careful to look at mutual obligations for things like hair testing, investigating mental illness, family violence, because these families it is a very, very complex dynamic. So for me, gender is not one of the top three items, if you like. I’m looking at parental capacity. How damaged is mum, how damaged is dad and what does that mean we have to look at in terms of changing the outcomes for the kids?

Benjamin Bryant: That’s right. The impact on the children.

Jean Clayton: Can I just say, in respect to what Heather was just saying. With Triple P there has also been research done with children and we see a lot of children as resilient. I haven’t seen the findings that was written, so I can’t comment on, but we see a different point of view. We see, we have two birthdays. We see, we have two Christmases. We see instead of having one big family holiday, we see two family holidays. We’ve had conversations with counsellors from the schools. We want to know how the children are going in the schools. They’re perfect. Yeah. So, yes, I can agree with some, but that wouldn’t be on the whole –  no way. Because the evidence from Triple P says that a lot of the children in the most messiest situations are very resilient.

Benjamin Bryant: And I think it’s fair to say that there’s common research, well known research, that children are absolutely resilient. They can handle new homes, new schools, two birthdays, two Christmases, like you said. But what they can’t handle is conflict, conflict that has an absolute detrimental impact on children. If it’s not immediately apparent to the school counsellor at the school at that time and might be later in their adolescence or something like that. And that is true regardless of whether it’s 50/50, alternate weekends or whatever the case may be. That’s a great point.

Final words of advice

Benjamin Bryant: Jean, just before you go, I just want to ask you, what are some of the common pitfalls or traps that, your clients fall into that you find yourself advising on?  What are some of the things that you can help our listeners with?

Jean Clayton: Do your research. Don’t take what some say as law, because it might not be. Work on yourselves. Look inside yourself. Understand the situation: wherever you go, you’re there.  Stop pitting against each other. Become amicable, try and see someone else’s point of view in this situation. Yes, a lot of things that we teach the gentlemen that come to us to look outside ourselves and not stay within, you know, it’s all about them and poor them.  Because it’s about the children, like Heather said, it’s all about the children. And be the person that you were created to be, which is have integrity and love.

Benjamin Bryant: Wow, amazing. Well, thank you so much, Jean. That was amazing to talk to you today.

Jean Clayton: Thank you.

Benjamin Bryant: And, of course, thank you, Heather, how did you feel we went with this topic? Should we expect angry emails or do you think we’ve got the balance about right?

Heather McKinnon: Look, there’s always people that are feeling wounded and hurt, but most parents that I’ve acted for over the years absolutely want the best for their kids and they want to improve the outcomes for their children better than the generation before. And that’s what good parenting is. And all we can do is help them to make that sort of step.

Benjamin Bryant: Well said. And what a show to end the year on. Of course, we will be back again in 2021. Our first show for the New Year is going to be a wrap up. We’ve got local girl made good, Judy Small joining us. Originally from Coffs Harbour, Judy became a successful singer songwriter in the 70s before becoming a family lawyer. She was appointed a judge with the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in 2013 and only retired in April 2020. There’s so much to talk to Judy about: growing up in Coffs Harbour, her perspective as a former family lawyer and judge. And maybe we can even get her to sing us song, it’s exciting.

Benjamin Bryant: A final reminder that you can send any questions or feedback to familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au or message us on Facebook. If you go to our website and find Episode 19, you can access a full transcript of today’s show and links to the Men’s Resource Centre. And, of course, please help us to get a word out there and help as many people as possible in the community by sharing this show with friends and family who were going through separation. So that’s a wrap for 2020. We wish all our listeners and their families a very happy Christmas and of course, a new year with a little less drama than this one. Stay safe and well, goodbye for now.

© 2021 Bryant McKinnon Lawyers