When the story of parenthood turns into a tale of two cities, with children involved, there is plenty of potential for grief. When men or women leave relationships, they often also leave town.

The man may shift from Wellington, say, to a job in Auckland or Christchurch, because now he can. He may want a fresh start, hoping geography will help. A woman will often move (with the children) to the Bay of Plenty or Nelson or even the Gold Coast, where she has family or where living is cheaper and the climate attractive. Some 95% of applications for relocation through the Family Court are brought by women. 

When there are children from the relationship, an obvious problem arises for the absent man – how to maintain a relationship with them. After a divorce, genuine and equal sharing of children only happens in 5% of cases.

The man may be travelling for work as well, and less able to commit to regular visits, calls and skyping. Saying hello by text is a poor substitute for real-time communication.

In the UK, the Thomas Coram Research Unit and the University of East Anglia drew up a picture of dads living away from their kids. Mostly they have lower levels of educational attainment and they’re not in paid work. We expect that clichéd picture but it’s not the whole story.

There is also a significant cohort of better-off, responsible men who short-change their children through no real fault of their own. Their communication with them is inevitably more stilted, they aren’t there for school prize-givings, helping with hobbies or taking them to the doctor. The pain of this (on both sides) runs counter to the growing trend of dads having more time with their kids.

The need for thorough planning
This is not an argument for staying in a relationship that can no longer succeed but it emphasises the need for thorough planning when you leave it. If you are the one departing, you need to consider how to counter your reduced role, how to make sure your side of the family remains in contact with your kids, and how much of an ask it is for your children to travel long distances to see you.

Most important of all is finding out how your children feel about their new situation. When you are seven, or 12, or even 16, you may have little say in what your parents decide for you, to your detriment. It can produce life-long resentments.

The ideal approach, as mature adults, is to sit down and discuss everything with your children but break-ups are often not mature. There is anger, and a great temptation to score points by enlisting the kids onto your “team.” Sometimes the healthiest solution is to seek professional help. Mediation is easy to access, and good child psychologists can make a very useful – and impartial – contribution to making the way forward easier.  

If there is one thing you can succeed at when a relationship fails, it’s putting your children first. This isn’t something you can afford to pay lip service to. Neglecting their paramount needs will come back to bite you as they grow, and when they are adults. We’re familiar with the literary trope of the rich old woman or man, lonely in an empty mansion. It has a basis in reality.

There is a workbook you can download from the Family Justice website to help plan a structured separation. You can attend a Parenting Through Separation course, there is Family Disputes Resolution. All of them are useful but nothing can beat good-hearted commitment to the right outcome.

I think most men know this or try to find out how they should proceed because this is the most-viewed article I have ever had on my own website. Divorce can never be perfect, it’s a time when you want to walk away and lick your wounds. My advice is yes, walk away, but don’t run. Responsibilities follow and catch up with you, in all manner of ways.