Deborah Orr: So, would you hang around if your husband had a six-month affair with a rent boy?

Belinda Oaten and others who do the same deserve society's support and respect for their courage
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The Independent Online

It is unfair to speculate on what the personal motivations of either party in this drama may be. But it is far from unfair to suggest more generally that there is too much clear blue water between the reactionary "stand by your man" approach and the liberal "don't sacrifice your own happiness" attitude. Whatever else happens between these two adults, the important detail is that they have two daughters, aged six and nine. Their own relationship with each other can change in all kinds of ways. But nothing changes the relationships they have with their children.

Most people say, when they find themselves in a similar situation to the Oatens, that they are putting the children first, however badly they are behaving. This is made easy, because handily, whether you're an adherent to either the till-death-us-do-part or the if-it-feels-good-do-it school, you can argue that this is what you're doing.

Traditionalists say that children need two married parents - as if Fred and Rose West were the blueprint for domestic bliss. Liberals suggest that bringing up children in a landscape of domestic warfare is far more cruel than separating - as if ending cohabitation is in itself a signal for peace to break out.

Somehow, though, neither side actually manages to pinpoint the obvious - which is that, whether together or apart, parents remain parents, and do have to come up with some way of carrying out their responsibilities in concord. It is the widespread failure to do this (sometimes while remaining together, married, in the same house and in the same bed), rather than the breakdown of marriage itself, that most damages the future of children.

The family courts, the CSA - those hated, blighted bureaucratic systems - only exist because parents, for whatever reason, are unable to behave like grown-ups, sort out their responsibilities in a fashion that satisfies both of them, and stick to it.

Yet, the continuing theme seems always to be divisiveness. The awful organisation Fathers For (sic - I refuse to do that thing where you confuse letters and numbers any more) Justice encapsulated all that is wrong with our present attitudes, emphasising for one thing the idea of a gender war in parenting, and for another the idea that it is the rights of parents, rather than what's right for children, that is of prime importance.

I've no doubt whatsoever that fathers are sometimes unfairly kept away from their children, and that mothers are sometimes nasty and ruthless in pursuing the explicit aim of doing that. But the antics of this short-lived organisation did more to persuade people that such mothers might have a point than any amount of fish-and-bicycle sloganeering has ever done.

Which is only right. Sometimes, the battles over custody that radical men's groups like to portray as being discriminatory, are no such thing. Sometimes, in a time of emotional flux, children simply want to cling to their mothers. They might not want to see Dad in his new flat, or anywhere else, and that can be hard for fathers to accept.

Sometimes, especially when one parent has not been much of a day-to-day carer, the primary carer may have real concerns about poor diet, unobserved bedtimes or re-enactments of scenes from The Sopranos. Time-keeping is often a flashpoint in these situations, with the estranged parent seemingly unable to grasp why it is a big deal that he or she is an hour late.

Sometimes, indeed, these concerns may be exaggerated, and the primary carer may have to learn to go with the flow a little. But whatever the issue, without the will to trust the other parent even a tiny bit, these problems can only get worse instead of better.

The move towards mediation - recently explored in the television series How To Divorce Without Screwing Up Your Children - has been slow and cautious in this country, and so far has not been quite as crowned with success as one would have hoped. Part of the trouble, as the TV series showed again and again, is that people go to mediation expecting to be vindicated, rather than seeking a practical modus operandi.

So while the temptation is to stand on the sidelines, judging whether Belinda Oaten is "right" according to one's personal ideological guidelines, the reality is that the move most likely to result in good shared parenting is always the correct one.

There is every reason to imagine that Mark Oaten is not in great shape at the moment. His behaviour all through this affair has been odd. First, he failed to anticipate that his attempt to stand for the LibDem leadership might have prompted an airing of his extra-marital activities. Then he claimed that an affair with a gay rent boy kindled via a visit to a gay website was not an indication that he might be confused about his sexuality. Now, it appears, even though he previously had time for affairs as well as a demanding frontbench job as home affairs spokesman, that he wants nothing more than to be with his family. In short, the guy is a mess.

So what is Belinda Oaten to do? Hand the children over to him, even though she doesn't know for sure what state he's in, and cross her fingers that he miraculously manages to compose himself appropriately around his daughters? Certainly not. Refuse to let him see them until he's sorted himself out? Not good, unless she wants to ensure his sorting out is all the less likely.

Instead, however, they work things out in the long term, she had gone for containment, allowing the family to readjust to their new and horrible situation and see what they can salvage. It may be that the Oatens can put their troubles behind them and live happily ever after. But statistically, in cases when spouses take partners back after gay affairs, that's not the most likely outcome.

But this does not make Belinda Oaten a fool or a little woman. If she plays her cards right, she can still end her marriage if she wants to, but in way that is more appropriate and less frightening for the children, and less alienating for her husband. It takes quite a person to manage a feat such as this one, and whatever the outcome of her decision Belinda Oaten and all those who attempt to do the same, deserve society's support and respect for their guts and courage.

She, no doubt, has always put her children first. Now, she is going to see whether her husband can ever be mature enough to take a leaf out of her book.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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