Is Divorce on Trend?

As a divorce lawyer with a clothes shop, I couldn’t help but spot the article in the Sunday Times Style magazine recently, “The New Rules of Divorce”, reported by Fleur Britten.

It promised “revelatory” results from a survey of 1,060 men and women on the reasons for their break-up, and I wondered how their survey results would compare with my experience to date.

I am often asked what the main cause of marital breakdown is – people jump to suggest adultery. My response always shocks them: “money”. Different attitudes to money, financial abuse, hedonistic lifestyles, the pressure of having too little and constant struggle to make ends meet, the pressures of being the custodian of generational wealth, debt problems, secret funding of gambling or other addictions – they all boil down to money.

Perhaps just as common is the response that the parties have been pursuing separate, busy lifestyles for so long that they have simply grown apart and no longer have anything in common (this is similar to the most popular reason in Fleur Britten’s report).

Adultery or abuse (both emotional and psychological) are the reasons given in about a quarter of cases I see, whereas the survey reported those reasons in 34% and 22% of cases respectively.

So, does any of this matter? Why are people so keen to know the reason for marital breakdown?

The article considers the historical stigma of divorce and delightedly reports that 86% of those surveyed felt there was no shame in divorce. I am purely speculating, but perhaps the historical stigma is one reason why people would, in the past, be quick to put the blame on the other party for bringing the perceived “shame” upon them.

Another reason might be the fault of our divorce laws and the need to establish a reason to justify asking the court to grant your divorce.

This point is particularly topical given the recent Supreme Court decision in Owens v. Owens [2018] UKSC 41.

There is now considerable pressure on the government to update divorce laws in England in order to bring them more in line with the position in Scotland, where divorce can be applied for once the parties have been separated for one year, provided the other spouse is willing to consent, or after two years without the other’s consent. This has dramatically reduced the number of actions that are raised on “fault”-based grounds such as adultery or unreasonable behaviour. Rather than having to dredge up the past and include lots of antagonistic comments in the court papers, divorce actions in Scotland, if contested, tend to focus on issues involving the children or assets of a marriage rather than the reason for the breakdown of the marriage.

Why else might we be so concerned about the reasons for marital breakdown? Some are concerned it affects their rights to share in the matrimonial assets, and it is a question I am often asked. While behaviour can make a difference in some jurisdictions, it does not normally make any difference at all in Scotland. There are a few exceptions to this (well, after all, this wouldn’t be written by a lawyer if it didn’t contain a few caveats and exceptions) and these relate to behaviour which has had a direct impact on the finances of the parties such as secret gambling addictions or financial support of a paramour, for example.

So, while some appear to be intrigued by the reasons for the breakdown of a marriage, it has little significance in law (at least in Scotland) and the report mentioned above appears to suggest that it should have little significance in society given that any historical stigma attached to divorce appears to have all but disappeared in the UK.

What I found particularly interesting in this article were the responses to how people felt after divorce and whether there was a pattern emerging of differences in this regard between the sexes.

The article suggests that 53% of women surveyed reported being “much happier” post-divorce, while for men the figure was much lower at just 32%. I would be interested to know at which point in the process the individuals were surveyed as this, I believe, has a huge impact. The first 18 months to two years post-separation are harrowing, confusing, terrifying and extremely difficult for most people, regardless of gender and whether they wanted the separation or not. Where children, third parties or complex finances are involved, this can take much longer to recover from. However, I would agree that in cases where one party has had less to do with the finances and assets in the marriage and has focused a lot of their married life on the family and home, the transformation seen in these individuals, once they get through the initial stages of fear and anxiety of having to deal with a lot of unfamiliar things on their own, can be truly remarkable. People who, at the start of the process, report being terrified, stressed, ashamed and worried often come out the other end using much more positive adjectives such as “empowered”, “liberated”, “rejuvenated”, “free” and being able to share in that process is a real privilege.

Rather than seeing it as a difference between the sexes, I think the positive energy and feelings reported by most women in this survey have more to do with the liberation from the way they lived their lives during the marriage. As the average age of those surveyed was 55, it is possible that more women than men surveyed had sacrificed career or life aspirations to look after the children or family home. I wonder if the same report will produce different results in 10 or 15 years’ time.

The other good news is that, in addition to feeling positive and empowered, almost half of those surveyed had found new relationships within a year of divorce. Of those who were single, almost half were delighted to be so and had no desire to look for a new relationship.

For those still looking, the final hot tip from the survey is that the workplace and the school gates are the most common places to find new love!

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