Frequently Asked Questions
The following are some of the questions our counsellors are frequently asked by callers. Please note that the responses to these questions are necessarily general and may not apply to your individual circumstances. If you need further information or support, speak to a professional MensLine Australia counsellor - give us a call or register for free online or video counselling.
Separation and divorce
Where can I get legal advice?
Community Legal Centres and legal help-lines offer free legal advice. Legal Aid in your state may also be able to offer free advice. Law associations can usually refer you to a solicitor in your area. Search our services directory for legal services close to where you live. The Family Relationships Advice Line (1800 050 321) also provides legal referrals Australia-wide.
My wife has said she is going to leave me. What do I need to know?
There are three important practical areas you need to consider if you are facing divorce: division of property, maintenance payments and residency of/contact with children. Hopefully you will be able to settle some or all of these matters without recourse to lawyers. This is clearly the preferred option as court proceedings may be lengthy and very expensive. They are also extremely stressful and can involve considerable hostility, which can have a very damaging effect on children caught in the cross-fire. However, even though court should be avoided if at all possible, it is wise to seek legal advice in order to get a clear understanding of your legal rights and responsibilities in the event that matters do have to go to formal proceedings. Note that from July 1st, 2007 it will be a legal requirement for separating couples to go through a mediation process prior to taking their case to court.
After separation, you may be required to pay child maintenance to your ex-wife to contribute to the cost of raising your children. The amount you will need to pay will depend on a range of factors including how many children you have and how old they are, your income, your wife's income, and the amount of time you spend looking after your children each week. The formula is set by legislation. The Child Support Agency (CSA) is the government body responsible for making assessments and helping separated parents manage their financial responsibilities towards their children. In the event of separation, you will need to make contact with CSA to arrange an assessment. Note that separated parents can also make a private maintenance arrangement without going through CSA, if both parties agree.
Residency and contact arrangements for children are often the area that is most difficult for separated parents. A good idea is to prepare a parenting plan, which is a written, signed and dated agreement outlining care arrangements for your children. The main purpose is to specify who cares for which children and when, but it may also cover such areas as who pays for what expenses, as well as other matters such as choice of school, house rules and so on. A parenting plan is not legally enforceable (unless made before 14th January, 2004), although it can be converted into an enforceable 'consent order' if both parties agree. Mediation can help this process if parents are having trouble agreeing or even discussing arrangements. Contact the Family Relationships Advice Line (1800 050 321), the Family Court of Australia or your local Family Relationships Centre to find out more about how to formalise a parenting plan.
Will I ever get over the pain of divorce?
Like any major loss, divorce brings with it a grieving process. How painful this experience is and how long it lasts can vary enormously. Even when a relationship has deteriorated to the point that both people feel quite certain of the need for a divorce, the pain of separation can still be very intense. There are many losses involved in a divorce, including children, identity, and emotional and financial security. Men can also grieve the loss of roles such as husband, partner or full-time dad.
In the throes of grief, it is easy to imagine that the pain will go on forever. However, with time the pain does diminish and eventually it becomes possible to move forward and put it in the past. Unfortunately it is not possible to say how long this will take. Grieving is a natural, human process for dealing with and coming to accept loss. Like the healing of the body, it occurs in its own time and cannot be hurried.
What is important is getting support to allow you to talk about what you are going through and to reduce the loneliness that many men feel during this time. This could be through seeing a face to face counsellor, attending a men's group, or participating in MensLine's callback counselling service. There are no short-cuts, but regular support can help you to reach the point sooner where you are able to say that your divorce is a part of your past, rather than your present.
Marriage and relationship issues
My wife/partner and I have recently been fighting a lot. She has suggested counselling, but I'm not so sure about it. What should I do?
There are a number of common misconceptions that can make people reluctant to seek counselling for relationship difficulties. Some men fear that the counsellor will 'take sides,' especially if they feel that their partner is more able to express their feelings or to talk about the problems in the relationship. Counsellors are trained to remain neutral in their dealings with couples. If one partner is finding it more difficult to talk than the other, the counsellor will try to assist them to find ways to communicate better, and will not assume that their point of view is not important, or that they don't have one.
Good couples counsellors will not have a fixed idea about the goal of counselling. Their goal is to assist you as a couple to clarify your goals and feelings; it is not necessarily to 'keep you together' at all costs. If you are clear that you wish to stay together, they will try to help you to improve your relationship. If you decide that you need to separate, they will respect this choice and support you.
Another fear some men express is the perception that counselling services are run 'by women, for women.' Couples counselling is not gender-biased. Couples counsellors recognise that men often have different perspectives and priorities than their female partner, and will work even-handedly with both. There are also many male counsellors working in this field, although the gender of the counsellor is less important than their ability to listen to and understand both of your points of view.
If you are concerned about couples counselling, individual counselling may be an option, either as a first step or as an alternative to couples counselling. Individual counselling, although focussing on one person, can still help to improve a relationship if it helps you to learn better communication skills or to manage your own emotions better.
Sometimes people are put off counselling by stories they hear about other peoples' bad experiences. Although the great majority of counsellors are highly skilled, professional and well-trained, there is always the possibility of a particular counsellor not suiting you. It is important that you 'click' with your counsellor. If for whatever reason you feel that the counselling process is not working for you, and you have fed that back to the counsellor and nothing has changed, then you are entitled to look for another counsellor. By comparison, if a repairman did a bad job on your house, you would seek another tradesman. You wouldn't assume that the house can't be fixed.
Remember that relationship counselling is very unlikely to cause any harm to your relationship, and is far more likely to improve it. Most men who are initially anxious about the idea of counselling find it to be a positive and helpful experience once they give it a go. As an initial step, you may like to consider calling MensLine to get an idea about what counselling is like. For counselling services in your area, see our services directory.
My wife and I have recently had a baby. I work full time and I feel overwhelmed when my wife expects me to look after the baby after I get home from work. What should I do?
The key issue here is communication of expectations. When a couple have their first baby, they frequently don't know what to expect and may underestimate how demanding the care of an infant can be. It is important therefore to negotiate some ground rules that are acceptable to both parties. There are no 'right answers.' Each couple must work out their own rules. Looking after a baby is very tiring and it is understandable that your wife would feel the need for a break at the end of the day, just as you may after a long day at work. The fact that both of you are tired at the same time can lead to a conflict between your needs. The solution might involve setting aside some time for both of you to take a break (say, an hour for you and an hour for her), or alternating the days when each of you takes responsibility for caring for the baby after work. You might also discuss how paid, casual child care could help to lighten the burden.
Arguing about who works harder and is more deserving of a break is a 'blame game' that usually only leads to both of you feeling under-appreciated and misunderstood. Listen to each other's needs and try to approach the issue as cooperative partners rather than adversaries.
I suspect I may not be the father of my child. How can I find out?
The answer to this depends on whether or not the mother of your child agrees to provide a sample for DNA-testing. In most cases, the DNA of the mother, the child and the man is taken, although in exceptional circumstances a (less reliable) test can be done without the mother's DNA. In the event that the mother agrees to provide a sample, and gives permission for a sample to be taken from the child, there are a number of private companies that provide paternity-testing services (see our services directory)
You can choose to have a test that will be accepted as evidence of paternity in court, or an 'informal' test. Legally admissible tests cost more because the DNA samples must be collected by an independent agent and there are more rigorous procedures.
If the mother of your child is not willing to provide a sample, you may be able to obtain a court order through the Family Court. You will need to seek legal advice about the correct procedure to obtain this order. You may have to establish a case for why you believe you may not be the father.
I want to get more time with my children. What can I do?
Any move towards renegotiating the amount of contact you have with your children should begin with an informal approach to your ex-partner to discuss the issue and request the changed arrangements. In the event that she refuses your request, you can seek professional mediation. A mediator is a neutral third party who can sit with you both to try to help you to arrive at a mutually acceptable arrangement. You can find mediation services in your area by looking up our services directory. The final option if mediation fails is to seek an amendment of your contact/residency arrangements through the Family Court. Be aware that from July 31st, 2007 it will be a legal requirement that all parties go through a mediation process before bringing their case to the Family Court.
I am concerned that my ex-wife/partner is not looking after my children properly. What can I do?
The first step if you are concerned about the way your ex-wife or partner is looking after your children is to discuss the issue with her and tell her your concerns. Obviously this requires sensitivity. You are much more likely to get a satisfactory result if you approach her in a spirit of concern rather than blame. The following are some tips:
- State your observations factually rather than emotively. Don't exaggerate, but just state what you have noticed that concerns you.
- Avoid blaming language and generalisations ("You never…" "You're a bad mother/ a slob etc.")
- Focus on solutions rather than problems.
- Rather than looking for your ex-wife's or partner's faults, focus on what support she might need to care for the children better. Can you help in any way? Are there any community services that could assist?
- Try to reach a plan together.
- Agree to meet again to see how things are going and whether the plan is working.
Obviously, in many situations, such ideal communication will not be possible due to many factors, including all the 'baggage' of your past relationship together. If you are unable to make any progress on the issue together, you could suggest seeking the services of a mediator to help you reach an agreement on a way forward.
If you have serious concerns which you are unable to resolve, you might wish to approach a child abuse prevention organisation. These agencies are in most areas (look up 'Child Protection' in our services directory), and can look at developing a plan to support your ex-partner to provide better care for your children.
Finally, if you have grounds to believe that your children are at serious risk or are being harmed or neglected by their mother, you can formally notify Child Protective Services about the situation. This does not always mean that the children will be removed from their mother's care. This would only occur as a last resort, after other attempts to resolve the issue (through, for example, linking the mother with community support agencies) have failed.
Whenever I see my ex-wife/partner to pick up my kids, we end up having a fight, and I am concerned how this is affecting our children. How can I stop this?
Due to the ongoing anger and bitterness of some separations, picking up and dropping off children can sometimes be the point at which tensions flare up. Research shows that witnessing such disputes between parents can have a harmful effect on children. The first step if you wish to prevent this harm from occurring is to attempt to reach an agreement with your ex-wife/partner not to argue in front of your children. If there are issues that need to be discussed, agree to talk about them at some other time when the children are not present, for example on the telephone when the children are in their beds asleep. If this does not work, you could consider using a drop-off centre in your area. These centres allow parents to drop off their children for collection by the other parent at a safe place, so that the parents do not have to come into direct contact. These can be found under "Contact Centres" in our service directory.
My step-children won't accept discipline from me. What can I do?
Parenting in step-families is complex, far more complex than in non-step families. Step-children frequently resent the fact that a stranger they have not chosen is entering their lives and presuming (in their minds) to assume the role of parent. They may – unfairly – blame the step-father for the loss of their relationship with their biological father. Furthermore there is no particular reason why step-parents and step-children should or will like, let alone love, one another. The absence of an affectionate or at least respectful relationship between step-parents and children can make discipline very difficult.
For you as a step-father, there are other issues. Many step-fathers are fearful of permanently losing their relationship with their step-child if they are too strict. This is rarely an issue between parents and their biological or adopted children, where the underlying strength of the bond is usually taken for granted. This anxiety can make them unsure about how strict to be. Children can sometimes pick up on this and exploit it.
All these factors can make you uncertain of your role in relation to step-children. Usually a heavy-handed approach backfires. Young children may submit to discipline from an authoritarian step-parent, but they will resent it and the control is likely to break down as they grow older. It is generally a mistake to try to discipline step-children too early. Discipline cannot truly be enforced without some foundation of trust and mutual respect.
Here are a few tips for helping to be more effective in disciplining your step-children:
- Negotiate rules with your partner in advance so you aren't sending mixed messages. Different ideas about the step-father's role in disciplining children are a frequent cause of relationship friction in step-families.
- Avoid loud, blaming or abusive words (e.g. 'Are you stupid?' 'You are very bad!' etc.). Talk in a firm, clear manner without using put-downs.
- Have clear rules and try to get your step-children to agree on these before you try to enforce them.
- Explain the reason for rules, don't just say, 'Because I say so!'
- Fit the consequence to the offence. Over-the-top punishments only create resentment.
- Avoid getting into power struggles. Pick your battles carefully.
- Explain that you can never replace your step-children's biological father and will never try to.
- Accept that you will make mistakes and sometimes be unfair. Just do your best!
See the step-families links on our links page for more information about how to manage the complexities of step-parenting.
My teenage child is out of control. What should I do?
Parenting teenagers is a big challenge. The teenage years are a time in which young people experiment with their identities and challenge parental authority in preparation for establishing themselves as independent adults. Although uncomfortable for parents, the rebellion of adolescence is an absolutely necessary and important developmental stage.
However, this does not mean that teenagers do not need limits. Although they may complain about the boundaries placed around their behaviour, adolescents feel more secure if they know what the rules are. It is important to have firm guidelines about what your teenage child is and is not allowed to do, what time they should be home by, and so on.
On the other hand, research has shown that an authoritarian approach – the iron fist – usually backfires. If a young person feels that their parent is unreasonably harsh and does not respect their judgement or trust them, then they can react by rejecting the parent's control altogether.
Here are some simple tips for effective parenting of teenage children:
- Be aware of the fact that your child is growing and changing and adapt rules to suit their level of maturity and judgment. Loosening controls may feel scary at times, and their may be times when your child makes a mistake, but in doing so they will learn.
- Try 'active listening' with your child. Active listening means listening without judgements, reactions or attempts to 'fix'. Listen and try to understand the world your child lives in, and their experience and perspective.
- Admit your mistakes and be prepared to compromise.
- Don't expect hard and fast rules about things like sex, alcohol and drugs to deal with these complex challenges. Talk honestly about these subjects and help your child to understand the risks so that they can make mature decisions when confronted by situations.
- Remember what you got up to when you were an adolescent. It may help you to keep perspective!
- Admitting to your child that you have never parented a teenager before and therefore may need some help from them could establish a collaborative relationship with your teenager and demonstrate that you trust and value their input.