Is It Possible To 'Consciously Uncouple' Across Borders?

13/04/2017 14:29 BST | Updated 13/04/2017 14:29 BST

While the term "conscious uncoupling" a la Paltrow and Martin has been much derided, the fact is that most people who visit divorce lawyers want the separation to be as amicable as possible. Nowadays, we're more likely to feel that splitting up will be better for our kids in the long term than staying in a bad marriage.

Indeed, many legal systems have shifted towards encouraging mediation and shared parenting, making divorce easier and less stressful overall.

The legalities aside, how does conscious uncoupling work in practice when you are an international family?

As Scarlett Johansson and her French husband Romain Dauriac prepare to fight out their divorce in the New York courts, one of the toughest challenges will be the arrangements for their three-year-old daughter, Rose. Besides the emotional complexities, though, international shared parenting presents huge practical challenges. How can you co-parent a toddler or young child when you live in different countries? No wonder it has taken Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt months to hammer out a custody agreement (and they're still arguing about it). And the problems don't necessarily disappear once your children are older, as Madonna and Guy Ritchie found last year, when they ended up in court on both sides of the Atlantic over their sixteen-year-old son Rocco.

But this isn't just a problem for globetrotting celebrities.

More than 4.9 million British people now live and work abroad. If you're one of them and your relationship breaks down, you face the same challenges as the likes of ScarJo and Brangelina. While mercifully you're unlikely to have to deal with being papped at the school gates every morning, you will also be without the fleets of nannies and private jets to make the practicalities a little easier.

Fundamentally, though, the issues are the same. What's best for the kids? Who will they live with, and how can they keep their relationship with the other parent?

This is all hard enough for parents who live in the same town to sort out, but when you're an expat family, the international dimension makes it even more complicated. If one of you wants to head home to lick your wounds after the trauma of a break-up or are kicked out of the country altogether (if your visa status has changed because you are no longer married), you face difficult choices if you can't agree a way forward about the kids.

Just upping and leaving the country with your children without an agreement will more than likely land you in court and you could well be ordered by the judge to take them back. Even if you eventually win the battle, it's an expensive and upsetting experience (particularly for the children themselves) that most of us would rather avoid.

Even if you and your ex agree on where the kids will live, an international split can make any conflict about upbringing harder. Do you want them to be educated in the UK, or at an international school? If you're an expat who's married a local, questions about the kids' religion, cultural practices and language may be even harder to resolve. If you can't compromise on these issues - very difficult when you both have strong beliefs about how your children should be brought up, as all of us do - the courts of different countries may take very different attitudes to resolving this kind of dispute.

Ultimately, international co-parenting is difficult because of the sheer logistics. If your kids are living an eight-hour flight away, you're not going to be able to pop round every day to help with the bath and bedtime routine, or even go over for a weekend to take them to the cinema. You might not be able to afford to fly them out as often as you would like, or you might struggle to get time off work. As your kids get older, they will also have more and more interests of their own that have to be fitted in around spending time with both parents.

If you're the one living with your kids, not having your ex on hand to help deal with emergencies - or just split the day to day parenting responsibilities with - can also make life that bit more difficult.

At the end of the day, despite the challenges, cost and hassle, most of us would agree with Angelina Jolie that the "focus is my children, our children - we are and forever will be a family". And, like separated parents everywhere, you'll find a way to make conscious uncoupling work - because even if you find yourself spending more time in airports than you'd like, it's what's best for the children that matters.

Dianne Millen is an international family law specialist at law firm Morton Fraser.