Ah Christmas! A time of peace, goodwill and family breakdown - and I’m not just talking about the Coronation Street special. According to a poll of 2,000 spouses by the law firm Irwin Mitchell, one in five married couples considered separating after the holiday period. And here’s another festive fact – the first working Monday in January is when Santa delivers more divorce petitions than on any other day of the year. No need to rush and get the mistletoe.
As 2017 comes to an end, divorce, rather than love, is most definitely in the air. With Louise and Jamie Redknapp’s union of almost two decades allegedly heading for divorce, it seems that celebrities are no more immune to Yuletide marriage meltdown than the rest of us. Even the great political melodrama of our time, Brexit, is wrapped up in the language of divorce, with both sides squabbling over the financial settlement and who gets custody of Nigel Farage (not really, but wouldn’t that be nice). So while Christmas can be a time for romance and marriage proposals, there are also a myriad of reasons why it can be a time of crisis for couples. Irritating in-laws, too much alcohol, too much time together to realise how little you have to say to each other, or all of the above can make us reflect on whether we are with the right life partner. Throw in an office party indiscretion with Holly from accounts and you may as well sign your divorce papers in the cab home.
The term ‘quickie’ divorce is often used and where the two parties co-operate, it’s true that matters can be dealt with relatively swiftly and fewer divorces now end in acrimonious - and expensive - court cases. But for most couples, legal wrangling about how financial assets will be split ends up in the hands of solicitors, which costs more time and money. There has been growing pressure on the government to make changes to divorce laws, particularly in relation to no-fault divorces. Currently, in order to obtain a divorce in England and Wales, the person seeking the divorce has to establish that the marriage has irretrievably broken down by claiming one of five facts and three of those require a period of separation of at least two years. The only other options are to claim adultery or unreasonable behaviour. But a no-fault divorce would mean that a couple need not prove any instances of wrongdoing in order to file in a court of law. A number of private members’ bills on no-fault divorce have been presented to parliament but none have made significant progress, despite the most senior family judge in England and Wales, Sir James Munby’s criticisms of the government’s lack of action on the issue. He has called for the streamlining of online divorce procedures and for the separation of the process of obtaining a divorce from financial disputes.
So should we be making it easier for couples to get divorced? The main opposition to the faultless system comes from religious groups and traditionalists who fear that divorce will become more prevalent. But the no-fault system is proven to work in countries such as the US, the Netherlands and even largely Catholic Spain, where divorce rates have actually decreased. There are around two million single parents in the UK and around half – 46 per cent – had their children within marriage. 90% of single parents are women and 68% are in work. And yet, government rhetoric and tabloid press coverage denigrates single parent families. Since the 1980s, the moralistic undertow to state welfare policies has targeted single mothers in particular. Less than half of single parents receive child maintenance, despite charities expressing its importance to lifting single parent families out of poverty.
Let’s also consider the other side of the coin – should it really be so difficult to end a desperately unhappy or abusive marriage? Marriage breakdown is not exclusively negative and for some, it’s a matter of personal safety. Last week, Essex police and county council came under fire for promoting a social media campaign on domestic violence, which appeared to take the jaw-dropping position of encouraging survivors to stay with perpetrators. The force posted a tweet about “Sheila” which told the story of a woman who “knew that the abuse in her relationship was wrong” but the couple had been supported and “stayed together but safely”. Writing on their Facebook page, the force said that their campaign included stories about people who had left abusive relationships and those who “wanted to stay in a relationship where less harmful abuse was taking place” and had “found safety and happiness doing that”. But abuse is abuse and to suggest that it can co-exist with happiness or safety is as misguided as it is dangerous.
When it comes to divorce, if you’re a woman you’re already on the back foot. Savage cuts to legal aid have reduced access to free advice and contrary to the pernicious myth that men are bled dry by their ex-wives in divorce cases, evidence shows that they become significantly richer, particularly if they are fathers. Regardless of whether she has children, the average woman’s income falls by more than a fifth and remains low for many years. The landmark case White v White was significant in divorce law and ended blatant discrimination by ruling that women’s contributions to housework and childrearing would be given an equal rating to male breadwinning. Prior to this, women were more likely to be sent away with a fraction of the matrimonial assets. And yet, the attacks on women continue - a campaign by the Times newspaper to “modernise” divorce law is in full swing, referring to spousal maintenance as “meal tickets for life”.
The financial cost of relationship breakdown is as unavoidable as the emotional cost. But for many, when a relationship has moved beyond repair, the ability to gain closure in the form of a divorce is essential. The circumstances leading to a divorce can only ever be fully understood by the two people involved and letting go of blame and anger is part of the process. Legally ending a marriage is not a choice many people make without serious thought and considerable heartache - why make it more difficult and traumatic than it already is?