Adopting a no-fault divorce system would be an easy political win, but successive Governments have refused to address the issue. A small Government pilot exploring the viability of online divorce petitions is currently underway, but modernization is painfully slow. Opponents of 'no fault' divorce argue that they are trying to protect children. However, the odds of divorce are much higher in mid-life when children tend to be older, so introducing a 'no fault' clause for couples who are both over the age of 50 would be a good place to start.
In 2013 alone, nearly 60,400 people over the age of 50 got divorced in England and Wales, and between 1991 and 2011 there has been a 73% increase in the number of divorces awarded to men over the age of 60; the average length of those marriages was 27 years. Divorce is a miserable experience at any time, but in mid-life it can be even more challenging. This is particularly true for women, who are often juggling biological chaos, ageing parents and teenage children, whilst simultaneously trying to resurrect a 'slightly-more-dormant-than-one-had-expected' career. Cumulatively, these challenges can either undermine a woman's self-confidence, or liberate her from all sorts of constraints, but either way, the transition is never an easy one.
Divorce is not something that women take lightly, particularly after a very long marriage. One US study found that 37% of middle-aged female divorcees had deliberated for five years or longer before finally deciding to split. And although we have inched closer to equality in other areas, divorce is still a terribly gendered process and women continue to be perceived as 'carers' whereas men are assumed to be the 'providers'. For younger women, with small children, this can be advantageous as they are more likely to be awarded custody. After all, women head 91.2% of single-parent families. However, custodial issues are rarely an issue for women who divorce in midlife and therefore, the husband's duty to provide for grown up children is something that he negotiates directly with them.
Because many women who divorce in midlife are often ill-informed about the nature of the legal process, they assume that their partner has on-going financial responsibility for them. In fact, a middle-aged woman who is employed and/or has assets may find that the reverse is the case. And although we read about celebrities having quickie divorces, women who divorce in midlife are advised not to agree to Decree Absolute until financial affairs have been agreed, which means the process can take much longer.
For all of these reasons, I want to conduct study which looks at how women with an empty nest make sense of midlife marital breakdown. And I also intend to explore whether using lawyers, or mediation, makes a difference to the experience, or the outcome. I'm currently recruiting participants to take part and if you think you might be a suitable candidate, do please fill in the questionnaire at the end of this piece. I'm looking for women who are aged 50-65 who have adult children and have already applied for, or received Decree Nisi, but who do not yet have Decree Absolute.
If you fill in the questionnaire and you fit the criteria, I will need to talk to you twice; once now and once in a year's time. And yes, I know what it feels like because I have been divorced myself and I am also fully aware that my study design looks very neat on paper, but will probably turn out to be very messy in practice. A bit like divorce.
To take part in the study click on this link and fill in the questionnaire.