Thursday, 28 November 2013

The agony of divorce

If you think staying married can be tricky, try getting divorced. It often leads to the most horrendous and tangled proceedings you could imagine. Bitter squabbles over every aspect of the break-up, from children to property to money to how much each spouse contributed to the marriage.

A High Court judge said recently he was filled with "nothing but despair" over a wealthy couple who had already spent some £700,000 on divorce proceedings which had barely started, such were the labyrinthine arguments about aspects of the relationship. He decried the "unedifying" sight of a family "tearing itself apart."

It seems virtually impossible for a couple to divorce amicably and sensibly, with the bare minimum of fuss. The long-standing anger and resentment that led to the split in the first place seem to boil over in the courtroom and create one impasse after another. Each partner is afraid of giving too much away, losing out, appearing to be weak, and they keep upping the ante.

I know of several couples whose divorce was a horrific experience, with one or the other digging their heels in, refusing to compromise, and making life as difficult as possible for the soon-to-be ex-spouse. Very profitable for the lawyers but a nightmare for the warring couple.

There have been many attempts to replace ugly court cases with informal mediation arrangements, but quite often they lead to much the same stubborn wrangling.

My parents were sometimes bruised enough to talk about getting divorced. But they never did. In the end they stuck together as that's what most couples did in those days. "For the sake of the children" as they usually explained it. Maybe they should have divorced, but I'm glad they didn't. I can only imagine the tearful and rancorous scenes it would have involved and the misery for each parent as they tried to move on.

A shame there isn't some kind of foolproof psychological test couples can take before they marry, to determine if they're truly compatible or in the throes of some grand romantic illusion. It could save an awful lot of agony later on if things turn nasty.


  1. My parents should have divorced but I am sort of glad they just rubbed along with things
    Strangely enough it made the kids lives easier

  2. John: It made the kids' lives easier? How come? Sort of better the devil you know than the post-divorce devil you don't?

    By the way, are you and Chris civil partners?

  3. Most couples these days seem to have found a way round the problem - They just live together!

  4. Grannymar: But that's the problem, so often they find they can't live together and then when they decide to call it a day is when all the real trouble starts.

  5. I was so young when my parents split back in the early 50s that I don't even remember them being together. That was back when almost no one had divorces here. Funny, I've still had issues over it until even recently. In bad marriages, kids are damaged if they split, but can also be damaged if they stay together.

    In our marriage, so far as I know, we've never even come close -- married since 1972.

  6. I don't know anyone who has gone through divorce that liked it, Nick, although you very rarely read anything that really brings to life how horrid it must be. You look at that awful court case and then think how that couple must feel, living their entire lives bound up in nastiness. I suppose, though, that some marriages are like that.
    As for the test, I think that life throws stuff at you and much of the "make or break" stuff is bound up with how you support and help each other (or not) during the hard times.

  7. Mike: True that kids can be damaged either way. Certainly I was emotionally damaged by my parents staying together in a state of constant tension and sniping.

    Me and Jenny also. Highly unlikely we would ever want to split up!

  8. Jenny W: As you say, their entire lives bound up in nastiness. How on earth do they endure it?

    True about the importance of supporting and helping each other rather than simply being compatible.

  9. You've never divorced, have you Nick?

    The nightmare divorces that make the press may highlight the difficult issues people face trying to legally pry themselves apart. But an acrimonious divorce is merely a symptom of an acrimonious marriage.

    I divorced under less than pleasant circumstances. It wasn't my intention to do so when I got married, but you just have to take the cards you're given.

    I've spoken to Boy many times about it and he certainly holds no hankerings of his father and I reuniting.

  10. Rosemarie: Never, thank goodness. Jenny and I have been together for 32 years, and I was never previously married.

    I'm sure that's true that an acrimonious divorce suggests a long history of acrimony.

    Of course when people marry they're always confident it'll be long-lasting, and it can be bitterly disappointing when major faultlines develop.

  11. I've had very close friends on both ends (children of divorce and divorcee) and have been on the listening end of some awful, awful details.

    What amazes me is the bitterness that can last for decades. I feel sorry for the kids, who as adults, have to sometimes juggle four families at the holidays when they marry (if both spouses are from divorced families). I think I'd just refuse to do it.

  12. Bijoux: Once bitterness is given free rein, it can go on forever, as you say. Indeed, having to juggle four families must be pretty difficult. Especially if there are step-parents the kids don't take to.

  13. Andy and I have been married for over 49 years now. My guess is our marriage will last. :)

  14. Jean: Can you be sure about that? I mean, only 49 years, your marriage has barely begun....

  15. You mentioned mediation. It's a brilliant idea - and hopefully helpful in practice.
    Also hugely cheaper than a courtroom fight.
    It allows the airing or points of view - and then a search for compromise - without either side being forever held to initially extreme views.
    It's hard to do and to trust - but it's better than the alternative - especially if both sides genuinely want to find a way to retain some kind of relationship afterwards - which if they have children, they usually should.

  16. Paul: Must admit I didn't know much about how mediation is actually working in practice, but I've found an interesting article that says over two-thirds of people who decide to mediate go on to reach agreement.

    But it also says the number of couples opting for mediation has slumped because of government cuts in legal aid, while the number of couples applying to courts and representing themselves has rocketed. A disastrous move backwards in other words.

  17. My ex-husband and I divorced "amicably and sensibly, with the bare minimum of fuss." Truly. It was heart-breaking to come to that decision, but we didn't treat each other badly, didn't fight over the financial split, didn't hire two attorneys, did not use the children as pawns. As a consequence, we've been able to continue to run a business together, can call on each other when we need a favor, and talk about the kids. It CAN be done.

  18. Agent: I remember you saying that before. That's really impressive that your divorce was free of the usual acrimony. But then you've always struck me as a sensible, down-to-earth person who wouldn't get caught up in a load of mutual recrimination and hostility.

  19. It's all in the emotions which get mixed up so thoroughly in the equation.

    I went through a catastrophic divorce as I knew information about the now-ex spouse that I shouldn't have known that influenced my lawyer's nailing him with a vengeance.

    Every case is different. I've also been in the position of advisor to clients.

    No cookie cutter divorces. Ever.

    And my ex and I are on reasonably good terms today.

    Marriage and its construct by the patriarchy is by its nature adversarial.


  20. www: You're lucky to be on reasonably good terms after such a vicious divorce! Hadn't heard of the "cookie cutter" idea. I agree that basing settlements on a mathematical formula seems far too inflexible to take proper account of the real-life situation.

  21. My marriage lasted for over forty years and we ended it with my spouse deciding to die. I do not have personal experience of divorce. I however have been counseling a number of young people on making the marriage work or if that does not work despite all efforts, parting as amicably as possible and it often does work. I have also seen messy divorces due to big ego problems that need not have been so messy, but human beings are unpredictable. Each case is different and at the time of deciding to get married there is no fool proof method to suggest that the marriage will work,

  22. Ramana: Yes, you obviously had a very happy and long-lasting marriage. As you say, the messy divorces are often the product of over-sized egos and a refusal to budge over crucial issues.