“Peter, just to say, I’m thinking of you and I love you very much. It would be great to talk to you, Dad.”
The text messages between Chris Huhne and his then 18-year-old son, Peter, are painful for any father or son to read.
Over a period of 11 months to May 2011, they show a dad attempting to maintain a connection with his son as he goes through a messy and very public divorce. They also show a son who is absolutely furious with his father – for his “affairs”, for reducing their relationship “to lies and pleasantries”, for being “a pathetic loser and a joke”.
When I was 16 and my parents separated, I vowed that I would never forget what it was like to be a teenager in that painful situation, but reading Peter’s texts, 20 years on, I realised I had.
None of us can judge whether Peter’s anger is justifiable or not, but it is shocking. And it sheds light on an overlooked part of divorce: how deeply it can affect adult, or late-teenage, children.
I know so many people whose parents did something similar to mine: struggled on in a difficult marriage “for the sake of the children”, finally splitting up when the kids went to university or were considered old enough to handle it. This can be a selfless parental act, and is often what the children want: although my parents were visibly unhappy in my teenage years I was desperate for them to stay together.
The upside is that it can be better to maintain the familiar family structure, says Christine Northam, a relationships counsellor for Relate; the downside is that children may develop in “a sterile and not very loving” environment.
Unfortunately, parents who stay together for the children “don’t take into account the model they are presenting to their children”, thinks Northam, and these loveless examples can hamper children in their adult relationships. Parents staying together for the children may have another person in their lives and children learn to keep secrets, or protect mum or dad from the infidelity. Parents “are modelling something that perhaps is not very good for the kids”, says Northam.
My parents divorced in the pre-mobile phone era, although I don’t think I would have sent my dad messages like Peter’s. But I was angry with my father for several years, blamed him for the family breakdown, and sought to support my mum. As a teenager, I was deeply critical of my dad and what I regarded as his flaws. I think my feelings were complicated by my struggle to emerge as a man in my own right: somehow, my dad’s desires and relationships were embarrassing and eclipsed my own and, I felt, inhibited me from expressing desire or forming romances of my own.
“It’s loss, it’s grief, it’s bereavement,” says Northam of the anger felt by late teens whose parents divorce. “Kids of 18, 19 are quite judgmental; it’s all very black and white. They’ve lost what they had – they’ve lost mum and dad together. People just don’t understand that when they think: ‘I’ll have an affair and leave.’ Kids love stability and the family they grew up with, and that is the model we buy into as a society.”
It is easy for parents to assume their late-teenage children are more grownup than they are, says Angharad Rudkin, a clinical psychologist and chartered member of the British Psychological Society who works with adolescents struggling to come to terms with family breakdown. If they are 17 or 18, we may overestimate teenage maturity because they no longer have irrational strops. In fact, research shows that the brain continues to develop until the age of 25 or 26. “Assuming an older teenager will be able to understand why we’ve split up, and is sensible and fair, is still asking an awful lot,” says Rudkin. “Older teenagers can look back and feel like they were living a lie – that this family life they had grown up with and perhaps never questioned was something their parents were just waiting to break up when they went away to university.”
Splitting up when children are young adults may spare everyone awkward enforced access; the weekends with dad or the new life divided between two homes. But it creates a new difficulty: how can a parent who is shunned by a teenage child maintain contact? If they back off to give teenagers space to rage, that can be interpreted as uncaring. After my parents split, I remember feeling that the onus was on my dad to maintain contact with me; luckily for both of us, he did.
When you keep reassuring your teen that you love them, only to be faced by insults or silence, it must be hard not to lash out, or at least tell them it is tough for you too, and they are old enough to deal with it. It is absolutely essential, Rudkin and Northam agree, that divorcing parents of late teens remember to be the grownups. “You will have to swallow your pride and take the more grownup stance – they are still going to be furious little kids under it all,” she says. “It’s the adult’s responsibility to go out of their way to make contact with the teenager, and not expect a gracious response.”
Grownup children may become one parent’s confidante or “best friend” and children then feel responsible for their parent’s happiness (as they often take on an unnecessary responsibility for the disintegration of their parents’ marriage). “The parents need to stay in the role of parents,” says Northam. “Fathers need to remember that however grownup your child may look, you are still the father, and you need to be the parent who makes the effort to see your children – it’s not the kids’ responsibility. It sounds a bit banal, but one of the obvious things [for a departing father to do] is to say sorry.”
I have no idea whether Chris Huhne and Peter, who is 20 and at university, have repaired their relationship since those awful text exchanges. I hope they have. And if they haven’t, I hope that Chris is still trying, and Peter feels less fury.
Twenty years on from my parents’ divorce, the fact that I find it easier to empathise with Chris than with Peter’s teenage anger is one sign that my dad and I managed to repair our relationship. My own teenage rage seems a world away. I’m very grateful my dad never stopped trying with me, and I admire him for it now, even though I am not sure that a child ever forgets the pain their parents cause, no matter how grownup they are.