“It seems the traditional model of marriage is breaking down everywhere,” says Australian Greek Welfare Society case worker Dimitri Bouras. “It seems to be a sign of the times.”
That is exactly the fate of the Greek Australian community and the matter of divorce.
There has been a shift in the way Greek Australians view divorce. Gone are the days of the proxy, gone are the days of marrying your ‘kind’ and gone are the days of social exclusion.
We’re seeing old migrant couples of the ’60s and ’70s filing for divorce after decades of marriage. We’re seeing marriage breakdowns in newlyweds. We’re seeing children split from their parents and grandparents.
Divorce has a new face and it’s changing the archetypal model of the average family.
“The model is starting to break down,” Mr Bouras says. “We’re living in a society where the model of the family is going to take a new form.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), there were 24,144 divorces involving children under 18 years of age in 2011. This represented 48.4 per cent of all divorces granted.
The ABS also found that the number of children affected by divorce has increased from 43,867 in 2011 to 48,288 in 2012.
This is creating a new norm on how a family functions, with parents having to learn to adapt to split custody, and children having to adapt to living harmoniously between two houses.
Divorce in the Greek Australian community is rising as couples find no easy solution to their marriage problems. Attitudes to separation are also improving, with the stigma associated with a split family diminishing. New attitudes mean many have become empowered to separate after years of abuse or loveless marriages.
Greek Australian couples might agree to divorce for the same reasons as their Australian counterparts, but the pressures are in many ways different.
Culture and tradition have a big part to play here, and can negatively affect a marriage even before it begins.
“There are all these rules and regulations that people can’t adhere to anymore,” caseworker Dimitri Bouras says.
“There’s an ideal of the perfect family, there’s pressure from the in-laws. There’s pressure on the child to marry well, which may entail investment properties, or a glamorous career, or coming from a good family. It creates a toxic environment.”
The problem for many Greek Australian couples suffering from marriage problems is that they seek help too late.
Psychologist Jenny Makros says she sees this on a daily basis and more often than not has to help the couple to backtrack or agree to let go of what has happened to really be able to provide any assistance.
“More often than not, people are already considering divorce when they come to counselling,” she tells Neos Kosmos. “The conflict has already escalated.”
Often she sees the partners agreeing to enter counselling as a way to prove their point.
“Some clients might be looking for support for their argument as opposed to a resolution,” Ms Makros says.
“That’s a trap that a psychologist needs to look out for. That happens no matter what kind of counselling.”
Currently, the Australian government is giving couples incentives to seek relationship education and counselling for those going through marital problems.
They are now offering couples $200 to use towards counselling, with the government able to cater to 100,000 by June 2015.
According to the government, divorce and relationship breakdowns cost the Australian economy at least $3 billion every year.
Giving couples more incentive to seek help and understand how important early intervention is can be one way of decreasing that figure.
Ms Makros says parents need to have the tools to deal with conflict, as unresolved or high conflict incidents can affect the development of their children.
New research conducted by the Department of Social Services has found that children can have more behavioural problems and difficulties socialising with peers if raised in families with high levels of parental conflict or with low levels of parental warmth.
Parental conflict tends to be more problematic for children if it remains unresolved, indicating how important it is for parents to seek help early.
“Where there is high conflict and open conflict – like arguing, yelling, screaming, throwing things around – then the children are better off in some ways if their parents do go through with a divorce,” Ms Makros says. “They suffer on all levels, so socially, emotionally, psychologically.”
Case worker Dimitri Bouras has dealt with very extreme cases that include abuse and sexual assault, and says children can live with the scars of their parents’ marriage breakdown for life.
In one case, Mr Bouras saw the effects conflict and abuse had on a couple’s nine-year-old child.
“The son really looked combat damaged,” he said.
Children can also suffer during custody battles. Studies have shown that children fare better having one home as their primary residence, indicating that complete shared custody isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the child.
When filing for divorce, more often than not one parent will have to deal with having limited visitation to their child.
“What will often happen is that the husband ends up worse off with access to the children and therefore their relationship shifts on that front,” Ms Makros says.
“More often than not, females tend to be more worse off financially.”
Mr Bouras finds that men also suffer in dealing with a marriage breakdown emotionally.
“The male might be able to pick himself up financially, but doesn’t deal with things emotionally as well,” he says. “With women it’s the other way around.”
For the children, having to deal with a different daily routine can be tough. Parents must be conscious of not forcing their children to pick sides, nor use them for their own agendas.
“A lot of parents might treat their children as a confidant and that places a huge level of responsibility on the child,” Ms Makros says.
“Then they feel like they need to take sides, which is very damaging for kids. It’s really quite critical that parents use direct communication and don’t use the children as go-betweens.”
Parents must place their children’s needs above their own and make sure their extended family becomes a supportive and caring force, not one that interferes or incites warmongering.
“It’s not about the blame game,” Mr Bouras says. “It’s the ego that gets in the middle and gets people to move forward.”
Seeking help when needed, keeping conflict to a minimum and putting the needs of the children ahead will give those contemplating divorce the best possible outcome.
“Get help early, try and work through things,” Ms Makros says.
“If you’re in a relationship that’s high conflict, and it’s open conflict, then finding the most amicable way of separating would be the next best thing.”
For couples seeking marriage assistance who would like to apply for the $200 government grant, visit www.dss.gov.au/strongerrelationships