Isn’t it time we helped each other try to divorce with as much love as we marry?
‘Divorce’. The word itself sounds like someone putting their hands on your chest and giving you a hard shove. It is framed as a fight from the moment it leaves one partner’s mouth and shuffles despondently into a lawyer’s inbox. On the Tube one day, dragging sleepy eyes along the ads above the busy-busy-scrolling heads of the people opposite me, I saw one for a firm of divorce lawyers. Like a bird flying into a window I smacked up against BOLD-TYPE words urging me to:
“CALL US BEFORE YOUR EX DOES.”
In the UK, this is in no small part down to cruel marriage laws. If a couple wants to divorce quickly and quietly, then someone has to be officially blamed. Otherwise they must live apart for two years, if they can afford it, in painful limbo (or five years if one partner does not consent), unable to move on, frozen in aspic with time and their trauma. So, which would you rather: ‘adultery’? ‘Desertion’? Or ‘unreasonable behaviour’? That’s the current choice and has been for decades. No room whatsoever for a couple to have just…. changed. To not be in love anymore. If neither side wants to shoulder the blame, it means lawyers locking horns. Money. Strangers pouring over intimate details of your relationship and — having never eaten at your table nor slept by your side — deciding on your behalf why it broke down. Although sweeping cuts to legal aid over the last few years have made even this inaccessible for many.
Research by Exeter University for the Nuffield Foundation found that the current law incites people to exaggerate claims of ‘behaviour’ or adultery to get a quicker divorce, making the process more bitter and making it harder to agree arrangements about children and finances.
And then shame pours gallons of lighter fuel into the mix. Ending a marriage is still saddled with a millennia-old image problem. Despite the rise of secularity in the West, the idea of divorce as a sin — and a catastrophic personal failure — still clings like the dregs of an uncomfortable dream. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was, but we can’t quite seem to shake it off.
On 7th January 2020, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill was submitted to UK parliament. It is currently awaiting a date to be debated in the House of Commons. It proposes the introduction of the ‘no-fault’ divorce and the removal of the ability of one partner to contest divorce. It would be the biggest overhaul of UK divorce law for fifty years. It can’t come soon enough.
I hope it lights the way for a total shift of mindset around divorce, and an entirely new vocabulary, so that couples who have been brave enough to decide to start their lives over independently of one another can feel allowed to go on and thrive.
I shouldered the blame. I signed a document declaring that I’m an adulterer. I did have an affair. In fact, I fell in love with someone else. Signing that document was like clamping a crude Medieval thumbscrew around tender, tender feelings and trying to crush a false confession out of me:
“Admit it, it was sordid, it was disgusting, it was sinful.”
Neither of us wanted it. Neither of us saw the value in it being a matter of public record that I had cheated. That was our business. But I signed because we wanted our freedom. Does it explain why our marriage ended? Of course not. The drift began as a thousand tiny hairline cracks that slowly prised us apart over a period of years. I met him when I was in my mid-twenties, at work. We had a lot in common. We did fun things, we wanted the same things. We each gave the other something that was needed, something that had been missing. We bought a house and settled down into a comfortable London life. I was in love with him for a long time. I could never pinpoint a moment when it began slipping out from under me; that’s as hard to capture as the colour of dusk. I just know now that I began changing. Leaning in a different direction, towards different ways of thinking, of living. But friends and family asked:
When are you going to get married, then?
Surely, it’s time for a ring.
When are you going to have kids?
They discussed it openly in front of us, a foregone conclusion. There was a script. A script that had been familiar to me since I was a little girl.
So, when — aged 30 — I narrowly avoided swallowing my engagement ring at the bottom of a champagne cocktail, I didn’t stop and think hard about whether marrying my long-term boyfriend was what I wanted. Or to question marrying someone who was content, was where he wanted to be, whereas I had become restless, felt unfulfilled. Or to confront the fact that our intimate needs were locked out of sync, and had been for some time. The wedding passed in a whirl of white and wine and laughter. More insistently those needs would whisper to me in the silence if I happened to wake in the hours before dawn. But I brushed them aside with: ‘Intimacy isn’t the only thing.’ Archetypal ‘good girl’ that I was, sitting down one otherwise ordinary day in front of the man I had spent eight years building a life with, buried family members with, assumed ‘forever’ with, and saying: “I’m not in love with you anymore,” was terrifying.
Too many other people invested in our relationship.
Too many people to let down.
Too much money spent on our wedding.
Too much expectation.
Too much fear of other people’s anger.
And then there was the awful shame of it. I hadn’t been abused. Nothing terrible had happened to me, to us. I had everything I could possibly want, by many people’s definitions. So how could I — how dare I — contemplate something so tainting? Intoxicants at the weekends served as anaesthetics.
But every anaesthetic eventually wears off. Two-and-a-half years after our wedding day, I stepped off a cliff and brought my marriage to an end. A lot of people don’t. They stay. Feeling trapped by fear of the emotional and financial pain involved, the shame and — if they are parents — the trauma it might inflict upon their children. What good does it do, to keep people unhappily bound together through fear and shame?
I need to disclose here that I am not yet a parent. But I am the child of parents who stayed together for the sake of the children. Or rather, my mother decided not to leave our father when my sister and I were small. Intimacy had died after my younger sister was born, no matter what my mother tried to do to re-ignite it. My father had shut down to her, as a partner. It sounds so cold. But fortunately, I know a lot about my father, and his intentions were never cruel. A child of the last days of the Raj, he was born to Edwardian parents in India during WW2 and sent to boarding school in England aged 10. For the next few years, he only saw his parents for a month out of every year. Emotions could do nothing for him — except draw the attention of the bullies at his all-boys school, which he hated. So, he buried them where they could no longer bother him — so deep that over the years he forgot how to experience them, the usually familiar trails they make in the body. He’d even lost the language. I’ve never heard my father say “I feel…” anything. Where my sister and I were concerned, though he couldn’t express it verbally, he passively radiated love like a rock that’s been in the sun all day long, so it never mattered. But partners have far more complex needs. And whatever had changed inside him, he didn’t have the tools to engage with it. Out of sheer self-preservation, he’d thrown them away long ago. And sadly, he is of a generation that will not consider ‘talking to someone.’
My mother shed her tears, reasoned that ‘intimacy isn’t the most important thing’ — sound familiar? — and that a life with my father, a military diplomat, would often be lived overseas, something to pour herself into, building new homes in faraway places every couple of years. She would stay, so we would have both parents under these many roofs.
I will never know how it would’ve felt had she made the opposite decision. Or how different her life might have been. She has always been a talented writer as well as a fearless traveller; endlessly curious and with a strong stomach. She often talks of how she’d have loved to be a foreign correspondent, if…. She shrugs, and I feel the weight of her sacrifice, stretching off into the years. She didn’t want me to divorce because she wanted me to have all the resources I could possibly need to support me in going after whatever career I wanted in life. But I decided I couldn’t make the same decision that she had. Intimacy is too important to me, so much so that I was prepared to start over again, though I had the benefit of a university education behind me, which she had never been allowed, and the potential to be well paid in my profession. Decisions to stay can have echoes as profound as decisions to leave.
In the end, my ex-husband and I made our divorce as kind as possible. His family had endured too many poisonous divorces and he couldn’t face succumbing to that. But more than that, we had been happy for many of the years we’d been together and we wanted to protect those memories. After a couple of months of separation, lost appetites and tearful meetings in neutral spaces, we both went into therapy with an exceptional psychotherapist who saw us individually. Me to move past acute anxiety as well as paralysing guilt and shame so that I could have coherent conversations about my future. Him to get a handle on lifelong depression and come to terms with our relationship breakdown. And both of us to separately reach the decision that we could not be happy together anymore. We then sat down and discussed a financial settlement we felt was fair. So, did we need to have two solicitors? How could we keep it out of court?
A quick Google search turns up a lot of law firm FAQ pages in which they explain why one solicitor can’t represent both parties. Clearly there are enough people asking the question for them to address it. But the answer was ‘no.’ Because even if, as a couple, you have agreed what you want, under law a divorcing couple is treated as two separate parties with separate interests. All a solicitor is allowed to do is to mediate between their client and the other partner.
However, I have since discovered, whilst researching this article — having stumbled across British company The Divorce Surgery, which offers a ‘one couple, one legal adviser’ divorce — that divorcing couples can get legal advice jointly; from barristers. They explained that this has been the case for 12 years, since the law changed to allow members of the public to instruct barristers directly, rather than having to go through solicitors. All a couple needs to find out is what, objectively, will be considered fair — in terms of how they divide up their estate and arrangements concerning their children — by the court system. A barrister can give this information to a couple. They just can’t then go on to represent one or the other. This information is very hard to come by. It is not widely publicised. In fact, currently, when a couple clicks ‘submit’ on their online divorce petition (some innovation, at least) on the government’s own website it sadly pings up a message advising them that they must now separately seek legal advice. The average UK divorce takes 14 months; the average length of time The Divorce Surgery’s founders spend on their cases is six–eight weeks.
Fortunately, one solicitor worked for my ex and me, though I was strongly advised to seek my own legal counsel. My ex would call me when each new document was headed my way from the firm. I would fill it in as needed and post it back. Four months of sending paperwork back and forth, £3k legal fees split down the middle and we were free to start new lives. We went out to dinner to mark the moment, and the time we’d shared together.
I know this is not common. And I’m not naïve to the fact that there are some divorces that will be acrimonious no matter what anyone does and those where the law will need to protect vulnerable partners. But for so many others, what if divorce could be re-framed as a collaboration, a working together towards two new beginnings?
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were almost universally ridiculed — certainly in the UK press — when they ‘consciously uncoupled.’ Why? They did something really clever: they de-fanged the monster, removed its venom. Yes, they’re rich and they had resources to throw at it. But they also had a joint will to divorce their experience from the word ‘divorce’ entirely — with all its connotations of fight and failure — and together crafted something humane, loving. Who cares what words they chose to re-brand it? It’s a good idea. It turns away from a system that no longer serves us. I hope more people will be able to *insert more popularly acceptable wording here* in the very near future.
We are human, we are fallible. We enter marriages writhing with joy and the best intentions. We change. And sometimes a person can change too much, and the relationship can’t shape-shift with them. Change is the only constant we have in life. There’s no fault in it. It just is. Imagine if that ad on the Tube had read:
“We know you and your ex loved each other. Let us help you protect those memories.”
Perhaps if the no-fault divorce passes into law this year that could soon become a reality.